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(originally published by Booz & Company)


The Soft Stuff Is the Hard Stuff

Consider how this woman led her team to a 3rd Alternative:

  • First, she took time to listen empathetically. She wanted to understand her young employee’s issue and his feelings about it. On the face of it, she wanted to know why his salary bothered him. But more deeply, she wanted to grasp what he was all about and what he could bring to the company that would pay off for everyone, not just for him.
  • Then she sought him out. She brought him back again and again, explored his thinking and involved other thinkers. She valued his distinctive gifts and insights.
  • Finally, the group arrived at synergy: new services, new products, new ways of meeting the needs of an important client, and beyond that the needs of a new segment of clients.

All of this came about because the boss has the habit of reaching for the 3rd Alternative whenever the opportunity arises. An employee comes in with a complaint and she sees a chance to build her business. She sees conflict as fertile ground instead of battleground.

Most thinkers about conflict resolution treat a conflict as a transaction. It’s about dividing up the pie. You can either accommodate or confront your opponent. You can give away the pie or you can fight over it, and there are techniques and tricks to gain an advantage. But divide it as you will — in the end, it’s the same pie.

By contrast, the 3rd Alternative is to transform the situation. It’s about making a new pie that’s bigger and better — perhaps exponentially bigger and better. Where most conflict resolution is transactional, the 3rd Alternative is transformational.

If I find myself caught up in a conflict at work, I mustn’t fall automatically into the defensive mind-set. This is crucial, but it’s also highly counterintuitive. The natural, unthinking response to a challenge is to fight or flee. This is what animals do out of instinct; they have only the 2 Alternatives. But mature human beings can choose a 3rd Alternative.

Remember the first paradigm of synergy: “I See Myself.” I have the power to stand outside myself and think about my own thoughts and feelings. I can examine my own motives: “Why am I caught up in this? Am I being egocentric? Do I need attention or affirmation? Do I feel my status is being threatened? Or am I genuinely concerned about this issue?” If I am already sure of my own self-worth, if I already feel confident about my own contribution and capability, I don’t need to defend myself against you. I can express myself candidly to you.

But I also need to remember the second paradigm of synergy: “I See You.” That means I have profound respect for you. I value your ideas, your experience, your perspective, and your feelings.

Therefore, I practice the third paradigm of synergy: “I Seek You Out.” I am fascinated — not threatened — by the gap between us. Nothing defuses the negative energy of a conflict faster than to say, “You see things differently. I need to listen to you.” And mean it.

If you practice these paradigms, you’ll inevitably arrive at a 3rd Alternative that makes the conflict irrelevant: “Let’s look for something better than either of us has thought of.” Everybody wins, everybody is energized. Often you won’t even remember what the fight was about.

— Stephen R. Covey

Copyright © 2011 by FranklinCovey Co. Excerpted with permission from Free Press, a division of Simon & Schuster Inc.

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This Reviewer

  1. Douglas R. Conant is coauthor, with Mette Norgaard, of the New York Times bestseller TouchPoints: Creating Powerful Leadership Connections in the Smallest of Moments (Jossey-Bass, 2011). A sought-after speaker, he recently retired after a decade of service as the president, the CEO, and a director of Campbell Soup Company. Conant serves on the boards of nine nonprofit organizations, including the Committee Encouraging Corporate Philanthropy, Catalyst, the National Organization on Disability, the Families and Work Institute, and the Partnership for Public Service.

This Excerpt

  1. The 3rd Alternative: Solving Life’s Most Difficult Problems (Free Press, 2011), by Stephen R. Covey with Breck England.
  2. Stephen R. Covey is an internationally respected leadership authority, organizational consultant, and author, whose books, which include The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (Free Press, 1989), have sold more than 20 million copies. He is the cofounder and vice chairman of FranklinCovey, a global professional-services firm.


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