Getting Past Loggerheads

Ever found yourself in a standoff? You’re at loggerheads.  Neither you nor your colleague will budge.  There seems to be no way forward.

Think of the issue as a straight line and the standoff puts you at one end and your colleague at the other. It seems like the only way forward is compromise, that is, to meet somewhere in between. But there’s an alternative, says Mel Toomey, founder of the Generative Leadership Group. It’s to create a field of possibility.  And that’s where a leader comes in.

First some background.  In their classic book, Getting to Yes, Fisher and Ury say positional bargaining fails to meet the basic criteria of producing a wise agreement efficiently and amicably.  As more attention is paid to positions, less attention is devoted to meeting the underlying concerns of either side.

There are two styles of positional bargaining, soft and hard, say Fisher and Ury.  And most people use only these two.   The soft position emphasizes the importance of building and maintaining a relationship.  The hard position relies on threats and concessions.  If your response to sustained, hard positional bargaining is soft positional bargaining, you will probably lose your shirt, the authors say.

The authors developed a third approach which they call principled negotiation or negotiation on the merits.  Its four elements are separate the people from the problem; focus on interests, not positions; generate a variety of possibilities before deciding what to do; and insist that the result be based on some objective standard.

Now focus more directly on inventing options. The inhibitors, say Fisher and Ury, are premature judgment, searching for a single answer, the assumption of a fixed pie and thinking that solving their problem is their problem.

To effectively brainstorm, idea generation must be separate from passing judgment on whether an idea is good or bad.  To judge prematurely is to kill ideas before they have a chance to be analyzed.  Searching for a single answer puts one in an either/or mode and many situations call for yes/and answers.  Fixed pies aren’t really fixed.  There are all sorts of ways to make them larger.  And thinking only about self-interest and not the other side’s interest at the same time is short-sighted, sometimes emotional and leads to development of partisan positions.

It is in inventing options where leaders can add significant value.  They can create the field and make it large enough for several possibilities to emerge. They can facilitate the brainstorming and discussions so ideas aren’t prematurely killed or either/or thinking prevails.  And they can as Heifetz and Linsky say in their book, The Practice of Adaptive Leadership, know they must be both on the dance floor in the fray and, at the same time, be up in the balcony looking down at the action with a detached view.

How can leaders create that all-important field?  How can they make space large enough for options to emerge?  Go back to the straight line, the stand-off line, and the points at either end where each side is stuck described above.

A leader will step in and turn the line into a triangle by taking a position that allows the generation of possibilities, says Toomey.


While the two people at loggerheads are at points at either end, the leader will be at the triangle’s third point, moving it according to the situation in different directions, sometimes closer to one side, sometimes closer to the other, creating space for possibilities informed by the views of the two at loggerheads. The farther out he moves it, the larger the field and the more possibilities will arise.  The leader must figure out how far out he can go and still be heard by the two at loggerheads.

Once created, the leader is the steward of the space. She facilitates.  He makes sure brainstorming rules are followed.  She looks at the different possibilities and helps see where the yes/and solutions are.

Try this if you’re a leader at loggerheads with someone else. Trade your role as position defender for the role creator and stewardship role.  Enlist the help of someone else to take your place. That way you can be both on the dance floor and up in the balcony – and providing the most value in the issue.