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Square Off

The blow-by-blow on how to promote peace in the workplace and negotiate through conflict.

Two men in suits wearing boxing gloves stand in a boxing ring staring at each other seriously

Benjamin Cook hadn’t been at his former job for long when he began to identify ways to improve the organization. Since he’d been hired in a supervisory role, Cook imagined he’d have no problem making procedural changes, but there was one snag: Cook supervised an older man who had been at the company for several years and was comfortable with the way things were. “I was dreading the resistance I was going to get from him,” Cook says. “I was the boss; I could have made those changes. But I knew it could be miserable.”

Now director of BYU’s Center for Conflict Resolution and associate teaching professor at the J. Reuben Clark Law School, Cook says it’s not uncommon to encounter negativity, rudeness, or outright slugfests at work. In 2011, Georgetown University professor Christine Porath found that 98 percent of people had been treated rudely in the workplace at least once, and half of them experienced incivility in the workplace at least once per week. Many of these encounters were small but potent, ranging from thoughtless acts and microaggressions to below-the-belt insults.1

Work-related stress puts employees’ physical and mental health on the ropes, research shows.2 Stress also impacts productivity: one study found that employees with ringside seats to toxic conflict perform half as well on work-related tasks.3 And Cisco, the tech giant known for its positive work environment, once found that workplace incivility cost them over $12 million per year.4 Taking off the gloves and duking it out hurts a company’s bottom line.

Incivility often accompanies conflict, but it doesn’t have to. “Conflict is not a bad thing; it’s just bad when we don’t resolve it effectively,” Cook says. “Having differences with others,” he adds, “can lead to progress and improvement, and you can manage it effectively. On the other hand, if it’s handled poorly, it can be destructive.”

See People as People

How can we learn to consistently handle conflict well? We must first engage in what may be a foundational shift in perspective: by focusing on the “other” in a conflict rather than on oneself.

As a young man, professor emeritus of philosophy C. Terry Warner discovered this truth while in conflict with himself. In a BYU devotional address, Warner recounted growing up with a stutter so severe he felt he had to turn to assertive, bold, and often impertinent behavior in order to gain respect. He eventually found that this manufactured personality got results but left him feeling insincere and unfulfilled. After several years, Warner realized he could drop his learned behaviors when he focused not on how others saw him but on how he saw and treated others.5

A woman wearing boxing gloves in front of a punching bag

“Perfect honesty and simplicity,” Warner said, “consists not in devoting attention to oneself, even when one’s aims are lofty, but in forgetting oneself and responding to others in love, according to their needs.”

Warner’s personal discoveries, in addition to his extensive academic research, led him in 1979 to establish the Arbinger Institute, a management-consulting firm specializing in conflict resolution and thought leadership. Now a global organization, Arbinger has released several best-selling books, including The Anatomy of Peace: Resolving the Heart of Conflict. The book details Arbinger’s conflict-resolution model, the multistep Influence Pyramid. The base of the Influence Pyramid hearkens back to Warner’s early discovery: successful people—and successful businesses—engage in healthy conflict most effectively by thinking of others rather than solely of themselves.

Cook, a licensed Arbinger facilitator, explains the Influence Pyramid’s first step as seeing people as people. “I need to make sure I’m seeing you as a person,” Cook explains. “If I see you as a person, you matter like I matter. And I take things that are important to you into account when I’m thinking about what’s important to me.”

Think back to a strained conversation you have had recently. While talking, were you considering the other person’s situation, or were you too busy thinking about your own? Being self-concerned is natural, but such behavior often exacerbates already tense situations.

For example, say hypothetical coworkers Marcquet and Emily have a disagreement. Marcquet needs the company website updated immediately, but Emily needs more time to create a high-quality web page. She’s determined not to let him compromise her standards. Marcquet, however, isn’t troubled about quality and wants to expedite the process. They each voice their needs without listening to the other, and the conversation ends with bitter remarks and the problem unresolved.

Seeing people as people, or what Arbinger calls “getting out of the box” and having an “outward mindset,” requires us to examine our interactions and how we see other people. Are they humans to us, with challenges and desires of their own? Or are they objects, merely obstacles or vehicles to what we want? In the earlier example, Emily views Marcquet as an obstacle to overcome in her pursuit of excellence, and Marcquet perceives Emily as a vehicle for solving his problem.

Build Relationships

A student recently visited Cook seeking advice about trouble with her boss. The student, who we will call Jessica, was experiencing mild mistreatments, such as overly harsh comments, at work. Cook asked Jessica to consider what might be going on in her boss’s life. Her boss’s personal life, he said, could be affecting how she behaves in the office.

A woman wearing boxing gloves sitting on a stool in a boxing ring

Jessica acknowledged she didn’t know her boss well, so Cook suggested Jessica meet with her boss to discuss Jessica’s career path and, more importantly, to get better acquainted. Jessica welcomed the idea. Though she didn’t know it, Jessica had climbed two steps of the Influence Pyramid: she sought to understand the person she was in conflict with and began building a relationship with her.

Those who maintain strong workplace relationships also maintain what Stephen M. R. Covey calls a “trust account.” BYU Marriott adjunct professor Barry Rellaford, an independent consultant and contributor to Covey’s book The Speed of Trust, says that building high-trust relationships is like making deposits in a bank account that will yield sizable dividends down the road. Ignoring deteriorating, low-trust relationships will deplete the trust account.

“In a high-trust relationship, we feel safe—safe to share our ideas, safe to disagree, and safe to explore,” Rellaford says. “Trust is a hard economic driver. If you ignore trust, it’s going to cost you. If you focus on it, you’re going to be able to get better results faster and more sustainably.”

Both Cook and Rellaford acknowledge that relationship building helps not only to address poorly managed conflict but also to prevent it. We can do a lot to avoid infighting before it’s even begun, and several parts of the Influence Pyramid help us do just that. Arbinger refers to them as steps for “helping things go right.” A large number of squabbles could be avoided if we beat ourselves to the punch and spend time preparing for conflict rather than cleaning up after it.

Listen and Learn

Kristen DeTienne, BYU Marriott’s Alice Bell Jones Professor of Organizational Behavior and Human Resources, teaches one of the MBA program’s most popular classes: Master of Business Administration 631, Power, Influence, and Negotiation. The course is so popular partly because it gets results. Exit data shows that students who have taken the class negotiate postgraduation salaries several thousand dollars higher per year than students who don’t take the class. Negotiation is more likely when both negotiators altruistically prioritize both what they want and what the other party wants, DeTienne says.

Two beat up men celebrating with the referee

DeTienne teaches students to negotiate toward a condition called Pareto efficiency, in which an outcome with the best result is possible for both parties.

Think back to our example with Emily and Marcquet. Her desired outcome would deny him what he wants, and vice versa. But by working together, they can reach their Pareto efficiency without giving up what’s important to each of them.

One solution could look like this: Marcquet prepares content that would normally be Emily’s responsibility so she has more time to design, and Emily agrees to reuse some of her previous work to save time and help Marcquet meet his deadline.

“I want my students to always look for these Pareto-efficient solutions,” DeTienne says. “We want to get as far out as we can to the Pareto-efficient frontier, where no more value can be created.”

While Pareto efficiency may sound a lot like a compromise, it is much more than that, according to DeTienne. She says we often visualize success as a pie with only so many slices, imagining that when one of us gets a slice, everyone else loses out. “We think we have a pie that’s only so big,” she explains. “But what we’re not thinking about is, instead of dividing it up, how can we make the pie even bigger?”

Compromise is like two people each settling for less pie; cooperation is like working together to bake another one. “It’s not like there’s a limit to how much we can support each other or how happy we can be,” says DeTienne.

Finding Pareto-efficient solutions requires taking another step up on the Influence Pyramid: listen and learn. Arbinger teaches that we can’t try to help other people achieve their goals without knowing first what their goals are, and DeTienne agrees. “Too often people say, ‘I have a problem with a coworker, so I’m going to go to the boss,’” she says. “That just makes the coworker angrier and keeps you from truly helping them.”

In fact, she notes, there’s scriptural support for this idea. “The Bible tells us that when we have a problem with someone, we should go to him directly,” says DeTienne. She references Matthew 18:15: “If thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone.”

Teach and Communicate

After receiving his BS in management from BYU Marriott in 2004, Jonathan Miles found a position with the Utah Symphony and Utah Opera, where he eventually became vice president of marketing and public relations. In every position he held with the organization, Miles was stymied by a provision in the company’s contract with its ticket-sales provider that prohibited the symphony and opera from selling any tickets online except on a third-party website.

“That probably made sense in 2000 or 2001, when we agreed to it,” Miles says. “But as more transactions and marketing moved online, not being able to sell tickets on our own site was inhibiting our ability to maximize revenue and collect data on how our marketing programs were performing.”

Miles began exploring options for renegotiating the contract and navigating the relationship of distrust that had developed between his company and the provider. He received pushback several times throughout the process while voicing his opinion. “We’d ask for something that I’d feel like was simple, and it would get shot down,” he recalls. “It just made an environment where people didn’t want to be flexible.”

After several years passed and Miles earned an EMBA at BYU Marriott, where he took DeTienne’s negotiations course, Miles rebuilt the relationship and reestablished mutual trust. “I was able to go to them with a proposal,” he remembers. “I said, ‘I know these things are important to you. We can make some changes to this contract, and if you keep everything important to you and give us the things that are important to us, then together we’ll be more successful.’”

Even after the provider had accepted Miles’s proposal, it still took another year and a half of back-and-forth negotiating to come to an all-around acceptable agreement. The result was a win for both parties. Each had the chance to climb the next step of the pyramid: teach and communicate.

Miles estimates the solution was six or seven years in the making. But taking time to find a solution shouldn’t stop the process. “You don’t have to finish talking right away,” says DeTienne. “One thing I’m a big fan of is breaks—if things aren’t going well, let people clear their heads. Reschedule. Maybe someone is having a bad day, or maybe they’re just hungry. It happens.”

It might be tempting to throw in the towel when we’re faced with opposition, but speaking up and sharing our opinions can help us feel included even if we don’t get the outcome we want. “As a leader, I actually encourage healthy conflict,” Miles says. “I feel like when people can express different points of view when making business decisions, they are more in support of whatever that final decision is. If they don’t agree with it, at least they know that they were heard.”


Whatever happened to Cook and his coworker? In his words, Cook “worked the pyramid.” He started by wondering how his coworker would feel about the proposed changes, which helped him think about possibilities he hadn’t considered. “I thought, if I saw this person as a person, how would that change how I thought about him?” Cook says. “If I were him, I would have a hard time with change.”

He decided to invite the man to lunch. The coworker was surprised and a bit suspicious. When Cook assured him he just wanted to become better acquainted, the man agreed. The two had a pleasant meal and talked about their families, interests, backgrounds—everything but work.

“I thought about the next step—listen and learn,” Cook says. “I knew he’d be more receptive to change if he was a part of the process.” Cook shared his proposal with the coworker and asked for his feedback, though not without apprehensions. “I was a little bit nervous to do this because I thought, ‘He’s going to hate it. He’s going to be redlining everything.’”

Cook’s hesitance was unnecessary. The coworker made some insightful suggestions and returned the proposal without any negative comments. “Not only did the feedback end up being genuinely helpful, but now he was also in the loop on this new initiative,” Cook says.

Avoiding disputes isn’t always possible, but we can prevent many of them when we follow the Influence Pyramid and work to have amicable discussions. “Come with a map, not a plan,” DeTienne advises. “Be open to collaborating on how to get from point A to point B. When one party walks in with a predetermined plan, discussions are less likely to be beneficial or effective.”

Not every conflict should be addressed by following the Influence Pyramid model. People subjected to sexual harassment, abusive relationships, or other illegal behavior should seek outside help and, in most cases, cut off contact with the abuser.

Most of the sparring we’ll take part in, though, will be less serious and with people who are fundamentally good. DeTienne observes, “Most people—and most research—assume that behavior can be explained by selfish motives. It’s true that, yes, people care about themselves, but they also care about others. When managing conflict, we have to consider both our approach and the other person’s approach and find the shared space in between.”


Article written by Clarissa McIntire
Photography by Bradley Slade


  1. See Christine Porath and Christine Pearson, “The Price of Incivility,” Harvard Business Review 91, no. 1–2 (January/February 2013): 114–121,
  2. See Natalie Slopen et al., “Job Strain, Job Insecurity, and Incident Cardiovascular Disease in the Women’s Health Study: Results from a 10-Year Prospective Study,” PLOS One 7, no. 7 (July 2012): e40512,; see also Sandy Lim, Lilia M. Cortina, and Viki J. Magley, “Personal and Workgroup Incivility: Impact on Work and Health Outcomes,” Journal of Applied Psychology 93, no. 1 (January 2008): 95–107,
  3. See Christine Porath and Amir Erez, “Overlooked but Not Untouched: How Rudeness Reduces Onlookers’ Performance on Routine and Creative Tasks,” ScienceDirect 109, no. 1 (May 2009): 29–44,
  4. See Porath and Pearson, “The Price of Incivility.”
  5. See C. Terry Warner, “Honest, Simple, Solid, True,” BYU devotional address, 16 January 1996,

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