Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


3 Words to Change The Direction of a Conflict

Language choices for smart conflict management

You’re standing on the lot of a car dealership when your spouse’s eyes light on a silver convertible. Last weekend after a tense discussion, he reluctantly agreed to trade in the Jeep for something family safe. Now, as if being pulled in by a tracker beam, your spouse moves toward an MX-5. You follow him, saying:

“You’ve done this before and you’re doing it again, only thinking of yourself. My position, as was made clear last weekend, is to buy the Nissan.”

If this situation represents an ongoing conflict, this statement probably won't be taken too well. It won't lead to smart conflict management or take the discussion in a positive direction. Language choices matter, and nowhere is that more true than during a conflict. In this example, the speaker’s language shows a focus on the past, a separation between herself and her spouse, and a rigid position.

As a 15-year instructor of a conflict management course, I have found three words that have the capacity to move conflict in a positive direction. These words are future, together, and interests.


All too often we try to fix the past, but in a conflict, language that focuses on the past can take us in a downward spiral, and away from solutions.

“In the past when you chose the car, we ended up with a lemon.”
“In the past we when we bought a car, we didn’t even have enough money.”

Talking about what we want for the future is far more productive.

“In the future, I’d like us to make joint decisions.”
“In the future, I’d like a car we can pay off quickly.”

Future talk clarifies and empowers. Try using language that reveals what you want for the future instead of what should have been in the past.


The more you can help those around you believe that the conflict will be jointly resolved, the less they’ll be fearful and want to push back. The word together goes a long way in communicating this team mentality.

“Let’s see if together we can identify the main issue.”
“Together I’m sure we can come up with something fair.”

Sometimes all it takes is a change in one word to invite the perception that we’re a team, rather than at odds.


The last word to change the direction of a conflict comes from Getting To Yes, the classic negotiation book by Harvard Scholars, Fisher and Ury. All too often, people are stuck on positions, which feels non-negotiable and static.

“My position is we get the Nissan.”
“Well, my position is we get the MX-5.”

Talking about interests, on the other hand, gets at the underlying reason for the position.

“My interest in the Nissan is it’s safety rating. If there’s another option that would meet that interest, I’m open.”
“What’s your main concern here? What interest are you hoping to meet with the MX-5?”

When you know each person’s interests, there is room to negotiate and potentially find a solution that incorporates both people’s needs.

Putting it all together

These three words—future, together, and interests—have the potential to move conflict in a positive direction. Language is powerful and even small changes can yield big rewards.

Heidi Reeder, Ph.D. is the author of the forthcoming book, Commit to Win (Hudson Street Press).

Let's connect on: Twitter, Facebook, and

More from Heidi Reeder Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today
More from Heidi Reeder Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today