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3 Powerful Conflict-Resolution Strategies From an Anti-terrorism Leader

Originally published in Inc magazine.

No matter how intense the conflict is in your life and business, chances are it’s relatively small in comparison to what Aldo Civico has been through. He began his career fighting the mafia in Italy (his own country), then facilitated ceasefire talks between the guerrillas and the government of Columbia, which led him to work in several countries from Mexico to Haiti to the Middle East and Syria.

Mr. Civico has been in the middle of some serious antiterrorist action over his career and now teaches at Rutgers University and Columbia University. I had the opportunity to speak with Mr. Civico and asked him to share the most critical lessons he’s learned that would be applicable to entrepreneurs and these are the top three insights he shared.

1) Deploy the Power of Listening. The biggest mistake most people make when facing conflict is that they are so focused on what they want to say that they fail to hear the needs of the person they are in conflict with. In Mr. Civico’s own words, “When you listen you connect with the other person. Listening elicits the model of the world by which the other operates. It facilitates understanding the needs, fears, desires of the other. It also helps you to get a different perspective about your own perception. It gets you out of your head and it opens up a space of possibilities. It’s the easiest concession we can make in a negotiation. Many people ask me how it’s possible for me to sit down with individuals who have perpetrated violence at massive scale. The response is simple: I sit down and I listen to their stories. When I listen I’m like a treasure hunter, searching for that part of humanity to connect with and to understand the positive intention that is behind behaviors that can be also destructive. So, listening is an essential quality of leaders.”

2) Take a Deep Breath and Don’t React. Inevitably, there will come a point in the negotiation when you want to explode. That’s the moment when you need to take a deep breath and avoid letting your emotions take over. “Instead, as William Ury says, go to the balcony,” explains Mr. Civico. “Mastering your emotions is what helps you to own a situation. Step back and get the bigger picture. When you are in a reactive mode, you give up your power, you become an hostage of the other person or of the situation. Rather than reacting to a situation you have to respond. Take a walk, go running, or just look at the tip of your shoes and that will get your mind of the intense negative emotions. Negotiation is about influence, but we need to influence ourselves first.”

This insight is so much easier to say and so much harder to do. When you are in the heat of the moment, your natural tendency is to allow your emotions to get the better of you. This is when you need to slow down and breathe the most. By taking the time to think though an intelligent response, you avoid making the most common mistake of reacting to the moment, an off-color comment, or the situation in general.

3) Ask Powerful Questions. Powerful questions can never be answered with a “yes” or “no” response but rather open up the art of the possible. Powerful questions demonstrate that you have accomplished #1 and #2 above. Specifically, you can only ask powerful questions if you have listened and taken the time NOT to react.

“Asking powerful questions,” explains Mr. Civico, “allows you to explore possibilities, to unlock potential, to unstick a situation. The map is not the territory and by asking powerful questions we have the possibility to explore the map of the others, and also to get closer to the territory.”

I asked Mr. Civico for some advise on asking powerful questions, to which he responded, “I do my best to avoid asking why questions because it puts people on the defense and to want to justify themselves. I prefer to ask how and what because it invites to share a narrative, and to tell facts. If someone doesn’t perform as agreed or expected, asking why can sound accusatory. If I ask, “What made you drop the ball?,” I’m not attacking or being judgmental, but rather am interested in really understanding what’s going on. It opens the space for a conversation.”

And ultimately, that’s how you defuse conflict–be it in business or in life. You need to create the space for a conversation and come to a mutual understanding. By listening, not reacting and asking powerful questions, you demonstrate that you’re focused and dedicated to the outcome of the conflict resolution. This requires emotional intelligence to be sure, but there’s no question if you go into a conflict with these three insights, you’re less likely to make the most common mistakes that exacerbate, rather than resolve conflicts.

If you want to go even deeper with the principles, tools and strategies that Aldo Civico has used to work in violent conflicts and dealing with terrorists, you can upgrade your capacity to influence as leaders of innovation by going deeper with the content available via his website (especially his eBook “How to Deal with Difficult People”). He’s also invited you to email him directly.


Aldo Civico

Aldo Civico is a mediator and anthropologist and the founder of the International Institute for Peace at Rutgers University. Previously, he was the director of the Center for International Conflict Resolution at Columbia University. Sen. George Mitchell has called Aldo, “one of the most innovative leaders in the field of… MORE >


Bill Carmody

Bill Carmody is the founder and CEO of Trepoint and a 22-year digital marketing veteran. His purpose in life is to be an inspirational leader who enjoys solving problems and creating breakthroughs for those brave enough to build a better future MORE >

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