You Can’t Always Get What You Want…

...but if you try sometimes you can get what you need

Volume CV, No. 11November, 2005

Leslie Cardell, LCSW

Conflict is an unavoidable part of life. Just getting on the subway at rush hour can feel like a battle to the death. Finding equitable resolutions often seems very difficult, and the desire to save face or prove that one is in the right can get in the way. The morning newspaper is a reminder of how easy it can be to get caught in a polarized position, convinced that “winning” is the only positive outcome and an important goal in and of itself — despite any costs to the relationship as a whole.

While disagreements with others are inevitable, they don’t necessarily have to result in a “loser” and a “winner.” An ideal resolution to a conflict, is one in which each side feels their needs have been respected and responded to. When there is only one “winner,” lingering resentment can be an unfortunate result, making future conflicts more intractable.

Reaching a “win-win” solution is easier said than done of course. (Once again — see your daily newspaper.) Whether you’re trying to negotiate a better fee for a gig or a reasonable curfew for your teenager, there are some approaches that work better than others in finding a solution that is satisfying to all involved.

A good place to start is to think through what kind of strategy you use now in responding to conflict.

Do you close your eyes and hope the problem will go away if you avoid dealing with it long enough? This doesn’t work very often, and can frequently make things worse.

Do you throw the towel in early on so as to avoid any hard feelings? What about the hard feelings you’re left with when you feel you’ve been taken advantage of?

Do you battle it out to the bitter end, striving to win at all costs? The ultimate cost may be the relationship itself.

So how can you go about finding an equitable solution? As a beginning, it’s important to work on setting aside angry or competitive feelings, just as it is to resist the desire to give up. Rather than focusing on what is the best solution for “me,” concentrate on what would be best for “us.”

In order to do so you’ll need to set aside, for a time, your own wants and needs, and really try to understand what’s important to the other person. How do his or her desires differ from yours, where do they overlap? A solution can be found based on the needs you have in common.

Start by getting all the information you can about the other person’s point of view. Don’t try to figure out whose fault it is, but if something sounds inaccurate point it out. Work on being understanding and empathic, and acknowledge the other person’s perspective.

When describing your own perspective try to use “I” statements — tell the other person how you feel and under what circumstances. For example, to the teenager who has stayed out too late: “I feel worried when I don’t know where you are at night.” You want the other person to understand as much as possible about your experience (not how he or she has messed up).

Explore how you each see the cause of the conflict (again, without assigning blame). What would each of you see as a positive outcome (be as specific as possible)? Look for points of agreement or similar goals. You may discover that there is more than one possible solution.

Sometimes there are differences between what people say they need and what they really want. Your teenager may say she needs to stay out till 1 a.m., but what she really wants is more room to express her independence. What changes could give each of you more of what you really want?

You can apply this kind of process to many kinds of relationships and circumstances: parent-child conflicts, disputes with a colleague or business partner, disagreements with your spouse. Bear in mind of course that different strategies may apply when buying a used car for example. There may be some situations when you’ll conclude that the other person is either untrustworthy or unable to engage in this kind of negotiation. Other kinds of tactics are more useful then. When it’s possible to do so however, finding solutions that feel fair to both sides can be a foundation for richer, more rewarding relationships.

Some of the information in this article is from “Psychological Self-Help” by Clay Tucker-Ladd, found at

Leslie Cardell is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, and the coordinator of Musicians’ Assistance Program services. MAP office hours are Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 9:30 to 5. Call (212) 397-4802 for an appointment.