"The Net Model" to Successfully Navigate Interpersonal Conflict

Jonah Larkin

Conflict is useful because it often exposes the hidden underbelly of a situation.

But it’s also hard, and if you want to work through it in good faith, there are essential skills that will help you.

What I’ve observed over my years of working with people is that most (but not all) conflict is based on simple misunderstandings.

Getting to the bottom of these misunderstandings, to the deep needs of each party is the key.

Without that, you’ll be stuck at the surface level arguing about things that can never be resolved.

This is where a simple (but not easy) skill can work wonders.

In my work at Stanford Graduate School of Business facilitating T-groups one of the most useful frameworks we work with is called “The Net Model.”

The net model is especially useful and segues perfectly with the SBI model to create clear and proactive communication.

Let’s look at an example of when things go wrong and how, by using the net model you can more productively address any misunderstandings.

Many years ago a colleague of mine and I had decided to collaborate on a project.

We had designed a fairly detailed slide deck with all sorts of information and we had decided that he would present one portion of it, and I’d present the second half.

He went ahead and gave his portion of the presentation.

Now I’m a fairly experienced public speaker and I felt comfortable and confident as I began my portion of the presentation.

Occasionally, a member of the audience would ask a question.  

As I would begin to answer, my colleague (let’s call him Martin), would immediately begin talking over me.

This continued several times to the point that I was equal parts furious and perplexed.

The story I was telling myself was that he had to be a complete social ignoramus or he had zero respect for me as an intelligent human being.

I was pissed.

But instead of confronting him with how I thought and felt about the situation, I told myself there was no way I wanted to be associated with someone who behaved like that and I ended the collaboration.

Now Martin is not stupid person.

He’s in fact, quite intelligent, creative and successful in business.

By ending the relationship, instead of having a conversation about the events that took place, I missed an opportunity not just for further collaboration, but also to clear the air.

After that hypothetical conversation, I still may have made the choice to end that part of the relationship, but it would have ended on a far cleaner note.

So how best might I have handled the situation and addressed the “elephant in the room?”

As one of fundamental building blocks of successful interpersonal communication the net framework is especially useful.

Here’s how it works.

Imagine for a moment that you and I are playing a game of tennis.

Each of us stays on our side of the net and hits the ball accordingly.

Imagine the ball is the exchange of words.

If you and I are at lagerheads about an issue it’s important that each of us stays on our side of the net when speaking.

Imagine that you can talk about what happens on the court on your side of the net, but not on my side of the net.

I, in turn, can talk about what’s true on my side of the net, but not what’s true on your side.  

Take a look at the graphic below and we’ll do a deep dive into each aspect of the model.

By Leslie Chen, PhD

Your Reality

Your reality is about your experience of the situation.

It’s your intent and motivation and also your deeper needs, feelings and emotions.

How well you understand these deeper needs and feelings is dependent on your level of self awareness (another topic for another day).

A mistake that all of us have made from time to time is that our reality represents THE reality.

Obviously, this is not the case.

Shared Reality

These are the FACTS that can be agreed upon.

In this case facts are things that are plain for anyone to see like words used, tone and volume of voice and expressions or hand gestures.

When describing shared reality it’s important to check for any assumptive language that might attribute negative or even positive intent to a situation.

My Reality

My reality is my experience, reactions, feelings, past experiences and assumptions.

My reality is not yours, and yours is not mine.

But it’s important to understand that both my reality and your reality are each important.

Again, I need to understand that my reality is not THE reality.

Principles of the Net Model

  1. Speak Inarguably
  2. Don’t make attributions
  3. Be transparent with your assumptions, thoughts and feelings
  4. Check for intent and Inquire as to the other person’s reality.


Speaking inarguably means that you say what is true for you.

Remember that what is true for you may or may not be true for the other person.

You’ll need to clarify what’s true for you by speaking explicitly in this way.

Generally, there are three areas that you can speak to.

There are facts.

There are thoughts, which are usually opinions, judgements and beliefs.

There are feelings, sensations and emotions.

“We were in a meeting together,” is a fact.

“You were disrespecting me,” is an opinion.

“When you spoke to me in a loud tone at the meeting I felt shameful and angry,” is an inarguable emotion.

Most people make big errors because they conflate their opinions and judgements as facts.

Those with skill practice differentiating facts, thoughts and feelings.


An attribution is essentially an assumption about another person.

If I say “You don’t care what I think, because you’re always interrupting me” that is an attribution of how I think you are behaving.

However, I can’t possibly know the nuances of your intent or your reality without checking in with you.

Instead you want to speak first about our shared reality which is about facts.

If a fly was on the wall watching an interaction take place, the facts are what the fly would observe.

  • During the meeting, you asked several questions about the slide deck.
  • You walked up to me in the break room, looked at me for a few moments then walked out.
  • You found an error in my spreadsheet and told our boss about it before you told me.

The above statements are basic facts that people will likely agree on because there are no thoughts, judgements or emotions there.  That part will come later.

Sometimes, conflict can be resolved when there is a simple misunderstanding about the facts.  

If there is a disagreement about the facts, rectify that first.

A word of warning.  

If you’re getting into disagreements about facts it is very likely that those disagreements are not in fact factual!

If I describe a situation and say something like, “you walked into the break room, looked over at me with a nasty expression on your face, then left,” the other party will almost certainly disagree that the look was “nasty.”  

That’s because the word “nasty” is an attribution, not a fact.

Would a fly be able to see a nasty face?  

Probably not.


Thoughts about a situation are composed of beliefs, opinions and judgments.

Everyone has thoughts, judgements and opinions and that’s a good thing!

But when I value my judgments and opinions as more valid or important than yours, I’ll get myself into trouble.

If I’m feeling angry that you interrupted me several times in the meeting and it’s bringing up some intensity for me, I might say the following, using the SBI(I) model and thus staying on my side of the net.

  • “In our meeting today (situation), when you interrupted me (behavior), I felt angry and I told myself the story that you don’t care about my work or what I think (impact).  And I’m wondering what was going on for you at those moments when you interrupted me (checking for intent)?”

A big error that I find people make is that many don’t distinguish between feelings and judgments.  

I’ll hear a person say something like “I feel LIKE you don’t care what I think.”

Because people aren’t trained to communicate in the way I’m proposing they will insert the words “feel like,” and think they’re expressing a feeling.


A feeling is, I feel (glad, sad, mad etc.)

Anytime someone adds the word “like” after I feel, it simply means they’re expressing a judgment, not a feeling.

Feelings are emotions and sensations.


Checking for intent is the final and most important part of the model.

If you use the model correctly but neglect to inquire you’ll often receive a judgment from the other person in return.

Let’s use the example from above.

If you only say “When you interrupted me, the impact was that I felt angry and told myself the story that you don’t care what I think,” you risk the other person saying something like “Well you shouldn’t be mad because I do care what you think.”

Your counterpart in this case is making an attribution back towards you about how you should feel, and nobody wants to be told how they ought to be experiencing something.

When that happens it takes some skill to dig both of you out of that hole, so it’s best avoided in the first place.

So saying something like “And I’d like to ask what was happening for you,” puts the attention squarely back on their intent and their feelings.  

In effect, you’re asking what is happening on their side of the net.

Most people have good intent during interactions.

If someone has bad or nefarious intentions then this model will still work, but it will instead serve to inform you of their intentions even if they’re not honest about them.

In that case you might see the person continue with the exact same behavior and then deny that they are doing it.

Dealing with bad faith actors requires a whole new post which I’ll write about at another time.

But regardless, incorporating the Net Model into your communications repertoire will yield incredible benefits over the long term.