Why Conflict Is Like Arguing Over An Orange

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The other day, I recalled a story I heard as a student. On the surface, it’s a story about conflict—a very specific conflict situation, actually—but it says a lot about how we choose to communicate. And, how conflict is often another sign of poor communication.

The story is about two people arguing over an orange. There is only one orange, of course, and both want it for themselves. Having kicked off this argument, the two are now opposed to one another. Each has set themselves wholeheartedly on convincing the other why they deserve the orange. Maybe one person claims he planted and watered the tree, and his opponent believes it doesn’t matter because the tree is on his farm anyway.

“I was out there every day in 30-degree heat, pulling up weeds and carrying water!”

“You wouldn’t even have a tree anyway if it wasn’t for me—see this land deed, I own everything on this land!”

This could have escalated, but they decide to keep talking. After a while, one says something that changes the rules entirely: “Why are you making such a big fuss, it’s just a few seeds?” And yet, he hadn’t said this before, not even once. And as it turns out, his ‘opponent’ was only after “A refreshing glass of orange juice.”

Absorbed in ‘winning’ what they viewed as a ‘winner takes all’ conflict, neither had stopped to ask the other about their real objective. The whole win-win concept had been redefined entirely. One got their seeds, one got their juice, and everybody was satisfied with the outcome.

To be honest, they might have been even happier if they hadn’t wasted so much emotional energy on ‘fruitless’ conflict.

Keep Talking

For you and I, who aren’t emotionally invested in this proverbial orange, it’s obvious how blinkered the two people’s perspectives were.

When we focus too much on convincing and opposing one another, we actively put the blinkers on ourselves.

The story itself has a clear moral which I often find myself drawing on in my work.

Succinctly, it’s important to keep up the communication—both the talking and the listening. Look beyond what seems to be your own immediate goal, whether that be a certain resource or a decision, and try to find out what both of your objectives are.

Don’t just formulate your own wishes, but try to find out what the other person wants and cares about.

So, whatever you do, don’t stop communicating, because often the worst kind of poor communication is no communication at all. Keep talking and listening, and you’ll find out that different people have different views on what comprises a win-win outcome.

From Facts To Feelings

There’s another lesson here about how these two chose to communicate. Rather than try to understand each other, each was focused on defending their own views. They brought facts in (even physical evidence) to convince each other. This over-focus on ‘content’ led them to neglect each other’s feelings. We don’t know a lot about how these two fictional people interact each day. But in the workplace, this over-focus on content can have many longer-term impacts. Creativity, innovation, even smooth operations all rely on collaboration. And for this, we need to get from content to relationships—from facts to feelings.

Sphere if Influence Model illustration

A ‘Content’ style of communicating is very much like an exclamation mark, in one sense. For example: “See this land deed!” or “Here’s why I’m right!”

A ‘Relationship’ focus, in contrast, is more like a question mark. “Why would this orange make you happy?” or “How can we solve this together?”

In terms of emotional intelligence, it’s about showing empathy to connect. The aim is not to focus on your own goals—or how you might prove your case—but to understand their needs. Ask questions, and you can connect with those around you. What are your thoughts?

Nicolien Dellensen

Nicolien Dellensen, Senior Consultant and behavioral specialist and creator and owner of the ’Sphere of Influence 360º’ a comprehensive concept and (360) online tool about interactive dynamics.

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