The Third Way – 18 Camels


I met with a faculty member recently who shared a situation and how they responded. It was explained that when X happened, then the only choice was to do Y. The faculty member was upset, angry about the situation, so I listened. I then summarized what I’d heard to make sure I had the various pieces and to acknowledge the faculty member concerns. The faculty member visibly relaxed (they were heard) and then I said: “Let me make an observation and ask a question. When you shared the situation you framed it as X and then Y, as either or – what’s the third way?”

I have long stated that the idea that there are two sides to every story is wrong; instead, there are six or seven (even if only two people are involved)!  We all carry multiple perspectives within and these show up when we are in conflict. As I think about our multiple sides to every story, I recalled the work of William Ury, one of the authors of Getting to Yes, who has more recently talked about the Third Side of conflict resolution. Ury has an excellent Ted Talk – “The Walk from No to Yes” on the subject where he shares the story of 18 camels.

Here’s the story:

“One of my favorite negotiation stories is about a man who leaves his herd of 17 camels to his three sons as their inheritance. To the first son, he leaves half the camels; to the middle son, he leaves a third of the camels; and to the youngest son, he leaves a ninth of the camels.

The three sons get into an intense negotiation over who should get how many, because 17 doesn’t divide by two, or by three, or by nine. Tempers become strained, so in desperation they consult a wise, old woman.

She listens to their problem and says, “Well, I don’t know if I can help you, but if you want, at least you can have my camel.” Now they have 18 camels, so the first son takes half of them, or nine camels; the middle son takes his third, or six camels; and the youngest son takes his ninth, or two camels. Nine plus six plus two adds up to a total of 17 camels. There is one camel left over, so the brothers give it back to the woman.”

As Ury explains and as I asked the faculty member visitor – what’s the third way to consider the situation? Too often we think in either/or, we polarize situations, and don’t consider some other path.

Thus, next time you are stuck or better yet, before you get stuck, visit the ombuds – let me help you find the third way.

Negotiating in the Workplace – Part I

Call them differences, issues, conflicts, or concerns. Whatever the name, these come up almost every day in the workplace. And, its not necessarily a negative. We often want and need diverse ideas, differing opinions, or even direct disagreements to help fuel creativity and drive an organization forward.  This is certainly true at NC State where robust critical thinking is needed to move the academic mission of the university.

I’ve written in the past about one approach to addressing workplace issues – the idea of separating differences on an idea from differences with a person –  to be “hard” on problems and “soft” on people – to be “nice.” Negotiating is part and parcel of this idea and also stands alone as a tool for addressing workplace issues.

So, how are your negotiating skills?  Most people are not “trained” as negotiators, and thus, part of my role as the NC State Faculty Ombuds’ is to serve as “negotiation coach.”  This means that I help faculty members think strategically about the issues they bring to the office and help them plan any negotiation that might be part of the situation.  Typically, I work with people to find “all win” solutions as my experience suggests that for you to get what you want, then others involved also need to get what they want!

I think most conflicts that arise in the workplace can also be placed in the context of a negotiation and, with this in mind, I came across a recent press release from mediator and authorJeffrey Krivis sharing “Ten Tips for Negotiating Workplace Conflicts.”  Krivis is a well thought of mediator in the Bay area and author of Improvisational Negotiation.  Krivis thinks of negotiating as art and science mixed together and suggests that the key ideas are to think about human behavior, pay close attention, and frame the negotiation as an effort to solve the problem.

Here are the Krivis Tips along with some comments and add-ons from my own experience:

  1. ” Let people tell their story” – people want to be heard and after feeling heard, a person can significantly change their perspective. Further, when you listen you can also learn new information. From my own experience, one other benefit is that when you listen, you model the behavior you want from others – they will be more likely to listen to you. If they listen, you might get what you want.
  2. “If someone refuses to budge, take the spotlight off her. Isolation tends to create movement.” – if you are in a situation involving multiple people and if one person declines to engage in negotiation, then work with those that will.  As you make progress, this essentially isolates the one not participating to the point where they may begin to feel left out – isolated. This effectively neutralizes the “perceived power” and creates the opportunity to complete the negotiation with all participants involved.
  3. “When someone seems ‘locked up,’ dig for the emotion behind the stone face.” – Krivis describes a negotiation where one principle gave “robotic answers” and little progress was being made. So, Krivis sought to explore what was behind the outward “robot” and learned significant information that helped resolve the matter. Krivis asked, “What is it you really want to achieve here?”  This opened the door to connect the person with what mattered most and led to a resolution. My experience suggests that whatever emotions you encounter in a negotiation, you should pause to reflect, and seek to learn what’s behind the outward presentation.
  4. “When people are picking flyspecks out of paper, come in with a reality check.” – The idea here is to not be so focused on the “minutiae” that you miss the big picture. Consider setting aside the detail for a moment and think in terms of a larger frame. Does the detail carry the day? Or, is it really a minor aspect? It’s the forest for the trees idea or win the battle, but lose the war. Ask yourself – what’s more important and take steps accordingly.
  5. “Identify the true impediment” – Krivis explains that there is generally a “true motivating factor” that either encourages or prevents a person from resolving a situation and that you should seek it out. In the situation Krivis describes, the main factor had to do with a health issue not directly related to the situation under negotiation; however, once it was surfaced and addressed, the matter was resolved. This matches my own experience in terms of connecting with people that are in your negotiation. Find out who they are and what is important to them as you share what is important to you.

Look for Part II in the next few weeks and we’ll complete the Krivis Top Ten!