The story was once told of Mr. Smith and Mr. Jones, neighbors who shared an orange tree. The orange tree actually belonged to Mr. Smith (it grew on his side of the property line), but Mr. Jones would frequently help himself to the oranges that hung over on his side of the fence. This irritated Mr. Smith to no end, and the two men had frequent arguments about who had rights to the oranges that overhung Mr. Jones’ yard.
The feud continued for years until both men had had enough. Mr. Smith filed suit in small claims court, and Mr. Jones counter-sued. The judge listened to both sides of their argument and swiftly proclaimed his judgment. If the men couldn’t agree about the ownership of the oranges, the tree was to be cut down. His judgment was promptly executed, and the two men soon found themselves without oranges altogether. In the place of the beautiful orange tree, they now had an ugly stump to remind them of the bitterness of their feud.
Years passed before the men spoke again. But, as the saying goes, time heals all wounds. One afternoon, Mr. Jones saw Mr. Smith watering his yard and approached him. Right then and there, they buried the hatchet and agreed to let go of their resentment. Over time, they even became good friends.
When it felt safe enough, Mr. Smith asked why they never were able to get along about that old orange tree. That opened the discussion, and the two men started talking – not about who had rights to the oranges, but about what they wanted them for in the first place. What they learned was that Mr. Smith loved his oranges for freshly-squeezed orange juice, while Mr. Jones loved them for making potpourri out of the rinds. Both men could have had what they wanted from the oranges if they had only been willing to let go of their positions and talk about their needs.
Initially, both Mr. Jones and Mr. Smith were only interested in winning the fight about the oranges. They were going for win-lose, which seemed to them as the only possibility – “if he gets the oranges, then I don’t.” But if they had been willing to look for a win-win solution, they would have started thinking creatively about how both their needs could have been met. This would have inevitably led them to the discussion of why they wanted the oranges, and a better solution would have emerged. As it happened, they both had to settle for lose-lose when the judge ordered the tree cut down.
Instead of focusing on who’s right and who’s wrong when you encounter conflict, try telling the other person that you want to work toward win-win and ask,
- “Why is it important to you to have this particular solution?”
- “What happens if you don’t get it?”
- “Are there any alternatives that would be a good substitute?”
When you start talking about your needs instead of your positions, you identify things the two of you have in common. It takes commitment and vulnerability, but it might save the orange tree you’ve been fighting over.