There is a rather well known tale of two sisters and one orange. Both sisters wanted the orange and were squabbling over who would get it. What could they do?

If you said “cut it in half”, you’ll be pleased to know that is exactly what they did. However, one sister used her half for juice and found it wasn’t enough to quench her thirst. The other sister grated the rind for a cake recipe and found she didn’t have enough to bake her cake.

Each sister had half an orange, when, in effect, they could each have had the whole orange.

What could the sisters have done to get what they both wanted?

The answer lies in one key word: needs or interests. They could have explored their needs and communicated them to each other before settling on a solution.

How often do you jump to a solution or a compromise during a work dispute without examining all the needs of each party?

It may be contrary to what you’ve always been told but compromise should always be the last resort! You see, when you compromise without exploring all options, there will always be one party, if not more, who will remain aggrieved. They will feel unheard and will usually consider that they have made the greater sacrifice.

So, what exactly are needs and how do we identify them? Never assume that people have identified their own needs. Nor that they can see the relevance of it to a problem. Spell out that we are looking for a solution that will allow everyone to have as many of their needs met as possible.

Shift from solutions to needs:

When we ask people what they need, they will reply by giving a solution thinking that is a need. For example, “I need a new filing cabinet” when the actual need is for more space to store paperwork. There could be a variety of solutions, including reducing paperwork.

Ask What for?

When people present you with their solutions, ask what they need it for. What will it do for them? For example a request to have a company Blackberry could indicate a need for confirmation of their status or a genuine need to work and keep up to date while on the road.

Identify their concerns

If you were in their position, would your needs/interests/proposals/solutions seem logical or acceptable? What are their reservations or fears in implementing a solution? You can also ask “what’s the worst that could happen if you didn’t get (the need expressed).....”


Use your active listening skills to draw them out, summarising and checking as you go along. A genuine interest and curiosity will help you here.

Don’t confuse your own needs with others

When looking at what the other person’s needs are, don’t confuse them with your own. For example “That person needs more discipline” is your need and not theirs. They may not feel the need for more discipline at all!

Encourage them to be more specific

For example, if an intangible need is identified, i.e. the need for recognition, status or respect, ask them “What would it take for you to feel .....(recognised, respected, etc.)?”

Identify as many needs as possible

Most of us will have more than one simple need behind a position. If a need is complex, we may divide it into smaller parts.

Find out where the differences dovetail

We have demonstrated that two people may want the same thing for very different reasons. It is usually this very difference which will enable us to find a practical solution. Dovetailing shows a respect for each other’s integrity.

Keep moving from positions to interests

Sometimes we get stuck in our positions. Skilful questioning along the lines of “what if...” scenarios often help. Probe whether other solutions might also work or if there are any circumstances where their own solution might not apply.

An invaluable question is “What would it take for this to work?”

Finally, remember that disagreements can be healthy. Without differences, people could become complacent and accepting of an unsatisfactory status quo. Intelligent debate produces energy, ideas, and progress.

If you want to learn more about resolving conflict, visit and download a free report. You can also contact Hoda by emailing

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