Shift Tense to Resolve Conflict


"For good ideas and true innovation, you need human interaction, conflict, argument, debate." — Margaret Heffernan

How can you improve conflict resolution?  Do you find yourself stuck in conflicts or arguments that go nowhere fast? 

You know the ones, where the longer you argue, the more you spiral down. 

If you don’t know the secret of conflict resolution, you can literally spend a lifetime butting heads and locking horns

If you know the secret of conflict resolution, then you can recognize situations and quickly get unstuck.

The Secret of Conflict Resolution

What’s the secret of conflict resolution?  … Shifting tense.  

Shifting tense could be the ultimate conflict resolution strategy.  Rather than focus on the past or the present, shift to the future. 

The future is choice and opportunity.

When you shift focus to the future, you create the opportunity to co-create the future, and resolve conflict in the process.

In Thank You for Arguing: What Aristotle, Lincoln, and Homer Simpson Can Teach Us About the Art of Persuasion, Jay Heinrichs writes about resolving conflict more effectively by shifting tense.

The Future is About Choice

How can you use tense more effectively as a conflict resolution strategy?

You need to first understand what the past, the present, and the future are all about.   The past tense, the present tense, and the future tense are each about different things:

  • Past = Blame
  • Present = Values
  • Future = Choice

The past is about assigning blame.  The present is about values.  The future is about choice:

When you understand what each tense is really about, you can resolve conflict more effectively, or at least recognize when and where you are stuck.

Example of Blame, Values, and Future in Action

Heinrichs uses an example to make the point.  Imagine a scenario where a couple is in their living room, reading books and listening to music. 

In response to her request, “Can you turn that down a little?” , he can respond with blame, values or choice.

Here are three possible responses:

  1. Blame: You’re the one who set the volume last.
  2. Values: So that’s what this is about.  You hate my music.
  3. Choice:  Sure, I’d be happy to.  But is the music too loud, or do you want me to play something else?

See how something as simple as shifting to the future gets out of the blame game of the past, the value debate in the present, and creates an opportunity to enjoy a better future? (in more ways than one.)

Aristotle Used the Past, Present, and Future to Master Rhetoric

According to Heinrichs, Aristotle thought tenses were so important that he assigned a whole branch of rhetoric to each one:

  • Forensic (past-tense) rhetoric threatens punishment.
  • Demonstrative (present-tense) rhetoric tends to finish with people bonding or separating.
  • Deliberative (future-tense) argument promises a payoff.

The past tense is good for whodunits and for courts of law. 

The present tense is good for describing people who meet a community’s ideals or fail to live up to them. 

The future is good for making joint decisions.  The future skips right and wrong, good and bad, in favor of expedience.

Switch Tense to the Future

Heinrichs suggest switching tense if you find yourself stuck. I think this is as simple as asking a solution-focused question.  For example, “What’s the solution?” … or “How can we solve this?”

Via Thank You for Arguing:

“If you find an argument spinning out of control, try switching the tense.  To pin blame on the cheese thief, use the past tense.  To get someone to believe that abortion is a terrible sin, use the present tense.  The future, though, is the best tense for getting peace and quiet in the living room.”

Focus on the Future

Rather than get stuck on right or wrong, or good or bad, you can shift to the future.  To put this in practice, at work rather than ask somebody “why are you late?,” I ask them “how can you show up on time?”   This moves the argument from blame to opportunity.

Via Thank You for Arguing:

“We expect our arguments to accomplish something.  You want a debate to settle an issue, with everyone walking away in agreement – with you.  This is hard to achieve if no one can get beyond who is right or wrong, good or bad.  Why do so many arguments end up in accusation and name-calling? The answer may seem silly, but it’s crucial: most arguments take place in the wrong tense.  Choose the right tense.  If you want your audience to make a choice, focus on the future.  Tenses are so important that Aristotle assigned a whole branch of rhetoric to each one.”

Control the Issue

Do you want the issue to be about blame, values or choice.  Don’t get stuck in blame game or fighting over values.  The most productive arguments focus on choice.

Via Thank You for Arguing:

“Do you want to fix blame?  Define who meets or abuses your common values?  Or get your audience to make a choice?  The most productive arguments use choice as their central issue.  Don’t let a debate swerve heedlessly into values or guilt.  Keep it focused on choices that solve a problem to your audience’s (and your) advantage.”

Control the Clock

Use tense as your friend.  To move the ball forward, shift gears to the future. 

Via Thank You for Arguing:

“Keep your argument in the right tense.  In a debate over choices, make sure it turns to the future.

The point here is that if you are aware of the tense that you’re in, you can shift it deliberately to be more effective.”

Key Take Aways

Here are my key take aways:

  • Many arguments that fail take place in the wrong tense.
  • Past is blame, present is values, future is choice.
  • Focus on the future for more productive arguments.

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Photo by Daniel E. Bruce


  1. Never an easy thing to do, right? I must say that someone gave me a book to read “Boundaries – Face to Face Confrontations” which after the first read I thought was absolute trash, but after the second read I found that I really did get a lot of benifit using the very simple techniques in the book. Have you read it?

  2. Great post and review, J.D., as usual.
    Ever notice that when people talk about the past and future tense, they tend to be more tense than when they talk in the present tense? (Sorry, enamored today with the word ‘tense’) I think it’s always a good idea to start in the tense people present with and then transition into the tense that creates either an awareness of values or an awareness of choices. Jumping to present or future with someone paying attention to the past could be so jarring as to leave a person behind. I also think it’s possible to talk about values in the past (what values were you trying to fulfill, what about that was important to you) and about choices in the past (what were your options, what results were you aiming for) The only tense that is ultimately nonsense is blame. What a stupid thing blame is. If not for blame, we’d all be living our values and making better choices. Though I suppose one could talk about blame in the future tense. “Who do we pin this on if it doesn’t work out?” Hmm. Irony works better talking than writing.
    Anyway, thanks for the work you do in bringing the best of the best to the rest of us who are not even remotely as efficient with their time as you are! Your post has successfully got my brain going, which is good, since i have a day of writing in front of me.
    best wishes,

  3. Excellent article–very insighful. As a conflict resolution facilator and anger management coach, the challenge I note for individuals often goes beyond the cognitive shift. Indeed, opportunity exists in the future. Grasping the opportunity will come when one can become aware of the physiological reaction in the present and psychological reaction to the past.

  4. @Louisa

    I haven’t read the book, but now I’m curious. It’s funny how sometimes a second pass through can be a completely fresh perspective. Can you share a few of the techniques you like that work?

    @Dr. K

    I got your irony 😉 Great point on bridging. Once you pointed it out, I really see how bridging is so important. I think it helps with rapport and ultimately turn “seek first to understand, then to be understood” into action and results. I like your use of tense to quickly get to the root of issues and move them forward. Good luck on your writing and I always enjoy your insights.


    Thank you. I like how you connect the thinking, feeling, doing and I agree, integration is the key. It’s hard to think one way, while you’re feeling another. The mind-body connection is a good thing.

  5. First, I truly appreciate your blog, your insight, and your book reviews. Since I don’t have the bandwidth to read as fast as you do, I gain so from reading your overviews. Your blog is an incredible resource.

    Second, I love the concept of moving from blame to opportunity. I see so many areas in my life where I can apply this theory to reality. Thanks!

  6. This is a very useful article!! I enjoy the take on Past, Present and Future and the association with the tenses. I like its focus on a way forward and out of the conflict!

  7. I had a similar thought as Dr. K, but s/he put it much better than I could have. Bridging between tenses is definitely a must, especially if the argument is already beginning to spin.

    I really liked this article and found it to be useful. I am definitely buying a copy of that book because I’d like to see more examples of argumentation and persuasion.

  8. Interesting. I guess you’re also less emotional when you focus on the future, because then your focus is an actions rather than on feelings.

  9. @Stacey

    Thank you. I think of it as standing on the shoulders of giants. It seems like everytime I crack open a book, there’s a new lesson. I’m often surprised by how many lessons I missed in some books the first time around. Perspective is everything.

    I think you’ll have a lot of fun with the approach. I use it on the job daily. Now that I know what to look for, I’m surprised how many conflicts revolve around blame and values. Shifting to choice really helps get things unstuck and keep the energy and momentum flowing.


    The past, present, future really opened my eyes. One of my mentors told me that there’s a lot of power in framing and naming a situation. He’s right. In any conflict, you can be more deliberate whether you want to spend your time on blame, values or choice.


    You’ll have a fantastic journey with the book. The author uses an incredible mix of humor, stories, experience, insight, and lessons from the Greeks. He includes examples from Eminem to Yoda. The book is seriously a game changer. It’s like a new lens on life.


    Good point on actions over feelings. When it’s blame or values, it doesn’t feel safe. When it’s not safe it’s easy to slide into fight or flight mode. The future is a safer harbor and a chance to team up.

  10. Some interesting thoughts on conflict resolution… I’ve heard a lot lately about defusing the situation by letting the other person have their way (when the outcome is inconsequential), or by avoidance, but not a lot regarding ‘tense’. There are some situations I can think of where it could be of real value, however… Cheers.

  11. @Ross

    Thanks for stopping by. Letting the other person have their way sounds similar to picking your battles carefully. It takes two to tango so avoidance must put a damper on conflict.

    One of the latest pieces of advice I got from a mentor was to ask questions over making statements. He said statements get you into arguments, while the right questions can get you out.

  12. You certainly have provided an excellent blueprint for managing conflict more effectively.

    It is quite unique and different than anything I have ever heard regarding conflict resolution.
    Great Post!!!

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