Over many years of my leadership consulting practices, I’ve had to facilitate agreements among unreasonable people. Often these battles have occurred between chest pounding executives who are frustrated or frightened. I’ve also refereed Boards of Directors of merging companies and unions and management.

On a few occasions, I’ve been ambushed by spouses of clients who want me to help repair their ragged relationship…Yep, I’ve been in some pretty wild situations. Early in my career, I taught and relied on the tools of ‘seek first to understand and then be understood’ and ‘win-win’ to forge agreement out of the ashes of conflict. What I’ve found is that these tools are excellent to solve problems, Level One problems. Those are disagreements over tactics.

These conflicts arise when people have shared values and goals, but simply want to go about things in a different way. 

For instance, if both my wife and I wanted to take a relaxing vacation and I wanted to go to the tropics and she wanted to go the mountains, we could probably find a ‘win-win’ resolution by taking the time to sincerely understand what it is about those places that give each of us a sense of relaxation. Then we might come up with a simple solution like alternating vacations between the beach and the mountains.

We’d probably feel pretty good about the solution if we both agree that relaxation was the primary goal and that we actually planned our time and activities to achieve that goal. What makes this work is our supreme value for a harmonious relationship based on respect, fairness and mutual advocacy. Now if our conflict was a little more intense such that I want a relaxing vacation and she wants an exciting one… it would take a little more creativity. What’s not obvious about resolving Level One conflicts is that to maintain goodwill you need to not cave-in.

It’s important to have a reasonable tolerance for disagreement because this will stimulate creativity.

If you value harmony so much that it’s very stressful to even have temporary disagreements you will find yourself never taking the vacation you want or launching the marketing program the way you designed it… or any other priority that you’re willing to sacrifice to avoid conflict. The will to resolve Level One conflicts at high levels of mutual satisfaction stimulate creative innovation and resilient relationships. All good stuff… yet we often find ourselves in Level Two conflicts, which are more difficult to solve.

Sometimes far more difficult. Level Two conflicts are disagreements over goals. (Remember, Level One was conflict over tactics) sometimes I call these ‘small pie conflicts.’ By small pie I mean that there is simply not enough for everyone to get what they want in the amount they want. Sure it would be great if you could increase the size of the pie in every situation but that’s just not realistic. Once I was helping several physician groups negotiate their financial relationship with a large hospital system.

There was a limited amount of money to divide and it was clear that that small pie of money would not be growing very much anytime soon. If the doctors made more, the hospitals would make less and vice versa. Soon this escalated into a bare-knuckles battle with lots of accusations and emotion. The only way I could get these agitated adversaries to calm down was to ascend the ‘mountain the values’ until we could find common ground.

What they could agree on was that the hospital system and the physicians were sincerely dedicated to providing the best patient care possible. I was also able to get them to a common reality about their mutual finances.

When goals are in conflict it is critical to agree on the facts, so Level Two conflicts are resolved when people agree on both facts and values otherwise there is no path to agreement.

Now we come to ugly Level Three conflicts. These are conflicts over values. Most often they simply cannot be resolved. One example of Level Three conflict was the Cold War. The values of dictatorial Communism versus Western democratic values had no meaningful common ground. To preserve the peace we simply zoned off the world, rattled our sabers and frightened each other into avoiding war. It appears we have a similar problem with Al Qaeda. The unquestioned values that we have for individual freedom, self-expression and personal conscience are not shared.

Both sides actually believe they have the moral high ground so conflict is inevitable.

Throw in other high ignition problems like widespread poverty, political rivalry, tribalism and oil and you have a boiling stew of conflict. Level Three conflicts are not only geopolitical. They exist in the workplace and at home.

The most common Level Three conflict arises in working with people who are pathologically self-interested… just plain selfish.

Now all of us are selfish from time to time especially when we’re scared or stressed. I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about people who refuse to empathize. These are people who treat everyone as either a threat or an ally to get what they themselves want. Their main tactics are bullying and manipulating. They bully by making threats, hoarding resources, stealing ideas and blaming others when anything goes wrong. Their arms get tired from throwing people under the bus.

What’s unfortunate is that bullies can thrive in hierarchical organizations that tolerate it.

Mid-level bullies are often miss-characterized as no-nonsense managers by senior executives. So they frequently persist and even thrive. Manipulators are passive-aggressive. They also blame others, deny responsibility and play the victim. An Olympic level manipulator seems to be able to figure out how to never be wrong or responsible…it’s everyone else’s fault. Bullies and manipulators are everywhere.

Social psychologists estimate that about 35% of adults never mature beyond this level of living. Every workplace has them and so does virtually every family. So what do you do with Level Three conflicts? There is only one thing to do. Create rules and boundaries for your interactions.

As the saying goes ‘you can’t make a good deal with a bad person’… at least not for long. When you’re in conflict with others because of the fundamental disagreement over values the conflict will never end. So you need to protect yourself from selfish nut-jobs. Unless the crazy person has a life altering experience which actually changes their values a healthy trusting relationship is simply impossible.

I didn’t always believe this. For 40 years I was a magnificent idealist. But the lessons of life taught me that the lethal combination of someone who is competitive and insecure will make them bullies. My attempts to have sustained relationships were totally disruptive to my own psychological health. What I found was that bullies look for people they can intimidate, and manipulators are simply parasites looking for hosts who will cave-in to the whiny demands.

What’s going on here is Level Three conflict. These conflicts will ruin your life if you allow them to.

There is nothing you can do to repair them and it’s not your job to.

Your job is to make a difference. Your job is to be healthy, loving and to do something that matters. The next time you’re in conflict take a moment to analyze whether it’s Level One, a conflict over tactics; Level Two a conflict over goals…or a code red Level Three.

Understanding the world this way changed my life.

I hope it does the same for you. Note to women:  Most women’s brains are wired for social harmony and empathy. This makes them “soft” targets for bullies and manipulators. The most common response is to become passive aggressive, which helps you maintain power without being confrontational.

The problem is being passive aggressive makes you psychologically sick and makes you feel weak. The best strategy is calm assertiveness. Know what you want. Ask for what you want. Create what you want. I know, it’s not as easy as it sounds… yet there’s simply no other choice.