The One Question That Turns Adversaries Into Allies
About Dr. Tasha Eurich
Dr. Tasha Eurich is an organizational psychologist, researcher, and New York Times best-selling author of INSIGHT and Bankable Leadership. She writes and speaks about psychology and business, and her life’s work is to help leaders and professionals become the best of who they are and what they do.
Buying a home is a stressful endeavor. At any point, a million things can go wrong. A seller might reject your offer. The bank might deny your loan. An inspection might reveal that the property is sinking into the ground. (By the way, that happened to me once—needless to say, the deal fell through.)
For the last six months, my husband and I have been riding the highs and lows of the home-buying process. Mercifully, we’re closing on our new loft in just a few days. But because it’s been ten years since our last home purchase, we’d forgotten the sheer misery it can create.
Take, for example, our mortgage application. For several weeks, the bank requested every obscure financial document imaginable. One evening, as we were combing through a dusty folder of ancient tax returns, I briefly lost it.
“Why are we even doing this? What’s the point? They clearly don’t want to give us this money!”
After a calm and thoughtful pause, my husband replied, “Actually, they have the exact same goal as we do.” I looked at him, dumbfounded. He continued, “They do want to give us the loan. That’s how they make money. They just don’t want to give it to us if we can’t make the payments. Isn’t that what we want too?”
I had never thought about it that way, and as much as it pained me to admit, he was right.
Our world is becoming more polarized by the day. And it’s not just politics—at work and in our communities, we often jump to the conclusion that anyone who doesn’t agree with us, or is causing us stress, is an adversary. (Think about it—how quickly do you decide that the driver who just cut you off is deliberately trying to ruin your morning?) This constant competition can limit our learning, hurt our creativity, and increase our aggression.
But isn’t this just the way the world works? Is there really anything we can do about it? A famous psychology study may provide a few answers.
In 1957, husband and wife team Muzafer and Carolyn Sherif conducted an experiment at a boy’s summer camp in Oklahoma’s Robber’s Cave State Park. They divided 22 twelve-year-old boys into two cabins: the Rattlers and the Eagles.
After bonding with their cabin-mates, the Rattlers and Eagles engaged in a series of zero-sum competitions, like touch football, with highly coveted prizes at stake. Unsurprisingly, each competition brought more hostility; cabins were ransacked, property was stolen, garbage was thrown. At one point, the boys were so combative that the researchers had to physically separate them.
Then the Sherifs introduced a new dynamic: water shortages. Almost instantaneously, tensions melted away and the boys began to cooperate to solve the problem. By the end of the experiment, the one-time rivals had become so close that they asked to ride home on the same bus.
Even when the deepest divisions exist, we can turn adversaries into allies by finding common ground and common goals.
The trope of “finding a win-win” is so overused that it’s easy to lose sight of how powerful it is. There is almost always something that can unite us, even if it isn’t obvious at first. When I’m working with executives on conflict resolution, for example, I usually ask “what is one goal that you both share?”
If you ask yourself this question the next time you’re feeling upset with someone, it might give you a new perspective. Remember that driver who cut you off? Just like you, he’s probably trying to get home to his family as quickly as possible. Instead of getting angry, why not flash him a smile and let him in?
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