Imagine it’s 5 pm and you’re working on an ASAP deadline.  THAT client calls you up demanding major changes in billing—because hey, it would be easier for him.  As usual, you don’t have the time to negotiate—your frustration and stress level rises.

You manage to delay the conversation until tomorrow, but while commuting home you ruminate about the inconvenience and rehearse clever retorts you wish you could actually say.

You know what you don’t want here—time wasting procedures, work you can’t bill, and gradually increasing demands.

So, what DO you want?

You want the client TO NOT ask for procedural changes, and TO pay his bill without whining or nitpicking.

Those are your goals.

But—are they your ONLY goals?

According to goal theorists, there are FOUR different types of goals you have in any conflict—and so far we’ve only identified ONE type, the topic goal.

Topic Goal

William Wilmot and Joyce Hocker describe your topic goal as the obvious, (usually) easily identifiable thing you want to happen to resolve a conflict.  It’s the issue that’s created your frustration or stress in the situation—the trigger that started things—it’s what you want that you perceive as different or at odds from what someone else wants.

But you actually have THREE OTHER types of goals.  And especially if you are experiencing heightened emotions, it can be difficult to sift through what other things you also want in your situation.  If something like the above scenario did happen to you, it would be helpful (before talking to your client) to identify for yourself ALL the kinds of things you want.

Besides the topic goal, in any conflict you also have a relational goal, an identity goal, and a process goal.

Relational Goal

Conflicts can only happen between people who are in some way interdependent, so in addition to whatever you’d like to see happen in a situation, there are also things you’d like to be true about the relationship.  In our example, you may have some of the following relational goals: 

  • to be a trusted advisor
  • to have efficient cooperation
  • for the client to feel comfortable asking you about anything that effects their legal situation
  • clear communication from them around the project goals
  • honesty and candor especially in litigation circumstances
  • for the client to be happy with you and the relationship (enthusiastic even)
  • to be treated respectfully by the client—as if your time also matters. 

Usually, relational goals remain tacit and unspoken.  It is very important to clearly state them for yourself if you want to be happy with how you choose to respond to your client and with the eventual outcome. If you address your topic goals but not your relationship goals, you will still feel dissatisfied with the outcome. And in some instances, people have conflict around the topic goal but the REAL ISSUE for at least one party has something to do with the relationship.

Identity Goal

The third type of goal you have is called an identity goal, and this refers to who you believe you are, and how you want to be seen by the other person in any conflict.  Identity goals are foundational but often hidden, so it is likely you’ve never examined your identity goals in a given situation. But be assured, they are there. Some identity goals you may have with your above client are:

  • You pride yourself on your efficiency and organization.  The changes the client seeks will not only be practically disruptive, they will affect who you are in your work processes.  You think to yourself, “that’s just not how I work.”
  • This is not the first time this client has pushed for things that are inconvenient for you.  You are starting to feel taken advantage of and you don’t want to be someone others can walk all over.
  • You see yourself as a professional who delivers solid work product, and you can’t put your finger on it but there is something about this situation that feels like you are sacrificing your professionalism

Identity goals also include “saving-face” goals—if a party feels disrespected, excluded, or disapproved of, the goal of avoiding embarrassment or humiliation may override the topic and relational goals as the main driver of action.

Process Goal

Finally, the fourth type of goal you have is a process goal:  there is some way you’d like to see the conflict addressed, and if the process does not meet your needs you will likely be unhappy with the way things are resolved.  Often we have not thought through how we would like the conflict resolution to occur, so we are unprepared to move the process in a certain direction.  Process goals involve things like: how much time is spent on the process, how decisions are made, how the conversation is structured, when and how we will reach a solution, etc.


It’s probably occurred to you that some of these goals might not only be in conflict with the other person’s goals, but might be in conflict with each other.  If I haven’t identified my goals in each area, I may not even know how I want to prioritize my goals or what my underlying motivation is.  Goals overlap with each other, differ in priority, masquerade as other goals, and even change as I go along.  The question “What do I want here?” is not the simple question it first appears.

So the next time you’re faced with a conflict and make a plan to respond, stop for a minute, think through these four types of goals, and clarify for yourself “What do I really want?”


Wilmot, William and Hocker, Joyce. Interpersonal Conflict. McGraw-Hill, New York.  2011.

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