What is the third option? When faced with a problem or a conflict, we tend to polarise our potential solutions and go down a path of binary thinking. We grab onto the first option that makes sense to us and dig in our heels. We refuse to drift from this point and are willing to defend it at any and all costs. Others are typically doing the exact same thing; we both become either the unstoppable force or the immovable object. We then enter a battle of wills and escalate it verbally or physically until someone becomes the “winner” or all ties are severed.
President George W. Bush did this in March of 2003 when he gave Saddam Hussein and his sons 48 hours to leave Iraq. Now, there were two options on the table for Saddam: leave or stay. And two options for President Bush: attack or back down. History tells us what happened and it led to a war in the streets of Iraq. However, if either side was willing to consider a third option, the story could have turned out much differently.
We are constantly faced with conflicts and two options always arise: can or cannot; do or don’t; fight or flight; etc. This narrows our options and will certainly turn into a fight. When my wife and I bought our home, we were faced with such a scenario. As we were moving our bedroom furniture in place, the room layout became a point of contention. She described an idea that was not possible; however, she was certain it was. She was the ‘can’ and I was the ‘cannot.’ Finally, a friend suggested angling the furniture a particular way. We became so focused on our positions; we could not explore this third option.
When we are looking for a solution, each party is looking for the best option for him or herself. We need to take a step back and look for the solution that will best solve the problem for the moment and for the long term. The third option is present in most situations; however, we gain tunnel vision and refuse to look. Although I abhor the widely abused expression of “think outside the box,” there is merit to the idea. When we take a step back from the problem, we are often able to see another solution. A great example of this is the Cuban Missile Crisis.
President Kennedy was informed about nuclear missile silos being constructed in Cuba and he was initially advised on two options: surgical air strikes or a full invasion. The president took a step back and was able to see the third option of a naval blockade. Had he not seen this choice, the world could have easily become engaged in nuclear war. Although, this did hurt the economy of Cuba, it was a much better option for them than an invasion would have been or even the collateral damage created by the air strikes.
Finding the third option is not as challenging as it may seem. We just have to be willing to seek feedback from others. We can ask a third party to mediate the situation and get all of our issues onto the table then collaborate from there. Having someone who has nothing to gain from the conflict, who is able to look at the problem objectively, and can bring both parties together and deescalate the emotions is invaluable. At work, this could be someone in another office or a boss. At home, it could be a friend, sibling, pastor or marriage counsellor.
Take a step back and ask the other person if they are willing to discuss all of the options. In my experiences, they usually agree if I am willing to ask and we come to a true win-win solution for both sides.