All of us face conflicts with others at some point in our lives. Whether with loved ones, work colleagues, or our larger communities, those conflicts can take a toll on our relationships and well-being, especially if they become toxic or highly polarized.

Single person walking through the path between two huge crowds of people

Right now, in the United States, there are many political and social conflicts that seem deep-seated or intractable. But William Ury, cofounder of Harvard’s Program on Negotiation, sees possibility for peaceful resolution where others don’t. He’s written a new book, Possible: How We Survive (and Thrive) in an Age of Conflict, that offers a roadmap through conflict, providing specific tools that will help anyone (or all of us together) to tackle difficult fights.

The book is infused with stories of seemingly intractable conflicts that Ury and others have helped de-escalate, including violent protests in Venezuela, a half-century civil war in Colombia, and a 25-year war between Indonesia and a guerrilla faction seeking independence for the Aceh region, to name just a few. What these stories illustrate is the importance of not avoiding conflict, but engaging with it in respectful ways, while always keeping in mind the potential for positive solutions.

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“If we can embrace and transform our conflicts, we can learn to live and work together. If we can do that . . . there is no problem, large or small, that we cannot address,” Ury writes.

So, how to do this? The book provides several tips for how to engage across differences, including examples illustrating how different steps of the process can work in action. Plus, Ury explains what can go wrong and how to learn from mistakes or false starts. The main key is opening up rather than closing down, and seeing possibilities emerge when you do that.

Here are some of the key ways he suggests approaching conflicts.

“Go to the balcony”

When you feel the heat of conflict, Ury advises you to first pause and reflect on how you’re feeling and what you’re experiencing. It’s important to not get lost in knee-jerk reactions so that you can see what’s actually happening and respond thoughtfully. This can be particularly helpful when things get contentious, when a calming breath might be in order.

Next, you can zoom in on what matters to you and to others. In conflicts, we can get confused by the fighting itself and take a hardline position, forgetting our true goals and interests—“our desires, aspirations, concerns, fears, needs.” If we can get to the deeper interests underneath positions, it can open up possibilities for a way out of the conflict. For example, while political opposition parties may take a position for or against higher taxes, their interests may be more similar, such as access to health care or a more stable economy.

Once you’ve zoomed in, you also need to zoom out—to understand the larger context and the long-term interests of the parties involved. Often, there are other players in a conflict, who can provide insights, supportive ideas, and resources—or, alternatively, continue to fuel the conflict.

For example, as Ury learned when helping negotiate between mining union leaders and industry bosses, hearing from the miners themselves and recognizing their concerns and needs was critical to success. Without knowing the overriding goals of the miners, the negotiations might have stalled indefinitely.

“Build a golden bridge”

While we may feel more comfortable staying entrenched on our own side of a conflict and clinging to our positions, it’s important to listen and learn about one’s opponent’s feelings, thoughts, needs, and aspirations—and to humanize them. If we don’t truly hear them out, if we treat them as caricatures based on stereotypes and prejudge them, it will only make conflict worse and more polarized.

The book cover of Possible: How We Survive (and Thrive) in an Age of Conflict (Harper Business, 2024, 368 pages).

Instead of framing conflict resolution as an either-or proposition—where one side wins and the other loses—we can create both-and solutions that include meeting both sides’ interests and acting as bridges. For example, Ury writes about what it took for the Colombian government to craft a peace agreement with the FARC (the guerrilla group fighting them). By understanding that the FARC was fighting for land reform, political participation, and a guarantee of safety—all of which was ultimately in both parties’ interests—they could put together a settlement that eventually ended the war.

Bridging differences can be difficult, though, particularly when there is long-standing animosity. So, it’s importance to make the process as attractive as possible, says Ury,—in other words, easier rather than harder. Building bridges requires trust, which can be earned by taking small steps that ease tensions. For example, in the Venezuelan conflict, getting both sides to stop casting members of the opposition in unflattering terms helped move negotiations forward.

“Engage the third side”

Often, people in power assume that duking it out is the best way to resolve conflicts, with each side trying to overpower the other. But, Ury suggests, it’s more effective to consider the needs of the wider community—the people around you who are affected by the conflict and want a peaceful, just solution. Whether that means other members of your family, organization, country, or even the world at large, it’s important to think of what a win for all would look like.

So, how to do that? The first step is to be a host, says Ury—to welcome people into your circle of concern and let them know they matter. Hosting means not excluding anyone, but making people feel taken care of, part of the greater whole. That can involve literal hosting, such as organizing an inclusive dinner or meeting, or simply providing space for someone to air grievances and offering them your compassionate attention.

Another way to engage the greater community is to ask them for help, to get their perspective on your conflict and offer them a role in discussions. Especially when feelings are running high, a supportive person not actively engaged in the conflict can more easily ask clarifying questions and reflect back to the parties the underlying concerns and shared interests being expressed in their answers. Sometimes, this can break a logjam or get the parties involved to see solutions that have evaded them.

Ury urges people to work collectively on conflicts that affect all of us, such as political polarization, by taking on a swarm mentality—surrounding a conflict “with a critical mass of ideas and influence” until it’s solved. Using our collective strength can make a difference, influencing combative parties to fight in more constructive ways. “Whereas hosting takes care of the people and helping addresses the problem, swarming adds to the mix the critical missing element of power,” writes Ury.

Of course, Ury’s advice isn’t just for international conflicts or even civil strife. We all benefit when we understand better how to approach conflicts effectively. In fact, as Ury writes, sometimes conflicts within families or workplaces, with the people we care most about, are the most difficult to negotiate, as feelings run high and the stakes are so great for personal pain and loss.

But, he insists, the tools still apply—listening, finding the interests underneath people’s positions, being creative and inviting, and engaging the greater community. It may require a large dose of humility, realism, and patience, he says—particularly when it comes to deep-seated conflicts, like political polarization. Still, it’s important to try. And it’s comforting and inspiring to know that others have come before us and seen seemingly intractable conflicts turn into something better.

“When people bridge the chasms that separate them from their adversaries, when enemies reconcile in an unexpected fashion, I feel deep elation,” write Ury. “The greater the initial differences, the greater the sense of wholeness and satisfaction when a conflict is transformed.”

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