The 3rd Alternative Review

Every now and then you read a book that helps to transform your thinking and establish new paradigms. This book by Steven Covey is one of those books. In this post, I will attempt to summarise the processes in the 3rd Alternative and suggest some ideas for how it might be applied in education and peacebuilding.

The 3rd Alternative

For me, the 3rd Alternative brings together lots of different concepts. It is always satisfying to see a book that ties together things that you have learnt in other books and courses. A 3rd alternative is a new alternative. It is about stepping away from the “my way is the right way” paradigm and into a paradigm that sees conflict as an opportunity to develop something completely new.

Figure 1 highlights four paradigms that are crucial to 3rd alternative thinking. I will attempt to explain what is meant by these:

Screen Shot 2017-04-24 at 13.56.08
Figure 1 (Source:
  1. I see myself – in order to reach a 3rd alternative, one must be self aware. This will involve learning about yourself, exposing yourself to different perspectives, experiences and books. In essence, this is about personal growth.
  2. I see you – one must understand others well. This involves learning about other people and what they stand for. This requires skilled empathic listening (something which can be developed through cognitive coaching). Covey talks about Talking Stick conversations. This is where one person holds the talking stick (this can be literal or metaphorical) and is the only one allowed to talk. The other person cannot offer their perspective until the person holding the talking stick feels understood. This will require you to listen empathically and paraphrase. These are important skills that take time to learn.
  3. I seek you out – this involves seeing conflict and different perspectives as an opportunity. You must find people who differ in their opinion to you and seek to understand them.
  4. I synergise with you – now that you are more comfortable with who you are, who the ‘other’ is and you have sought out people with different perspectives, you are ready to synergise with them. This is where you will take the perspectives of both sides to an argument and use them to make a 3rd alternative that is innovative, creative and new.

These processes are not easy and take time and commitment. Synergy is very hard to achieve and Stephen Covey’s outlines four steps to achieving it (shown in figure 2). These steps are: ask; define; create; arrive.

Screen Shot 2017-04-24 at 14.04.53.png
Figure 2 – (Source:

Ask – you must first ask 3rd Alternative questions which read something like this: Are you willing to go for a solution that is better than either of us have come up with yet? If the answer to this question is no, then you have more work to do in understanding the other side.They don’t trust you yet and so you must work harder at listening empathically. Maybe also, the problem lies with you and so self-reflection is crucial. If the answer is yes, then great, you are ready to move on to defining the criteria for success.

Define – at this step, you must define the criteria for success. What criteria will a solution to your problem hit? What does success look like? If you don’t have criteria, then you may not move forward in a coherent fashion.

Create – once you have a definition of success, you need to start creating solutions. This involves using what Covey describes as the “Magic Theatre”. This is a place where all possibilities are on the table. No idea is deemed ridiculous or stupid. Everything is relevant and could potentially lead to a 3rd Alternative. Covey recommends these rules:

  1. Play at it, it’s a game, it’s not for real – this basically means try and make it fun. Forget the formal business or education setting where you might be afraid to come up with ‘crazy’ ideas for fear of looking stupid. It’s ok to come up with anything in this setting, that’s the point. Crazy thinking is encouraged.
  2. Avoid closure – no decision are being made in the Magic Theatre. This is about getting ideas on the table, not deciding which ones to go forward with.
  3. Avoid judging others’ ideas – this is a safe space. Don’t judge, just create.
  4. Make models – in the Magic Theatre, we want to try and make what we are thinking come to life. This involves writing, drawing, building and more. Turning things into a model makes it easier for others to see your thinking.
  5. Turn ideas on their heads – Covey suggests a technique called counter typing. This involves taking established ideas and thinking about the opposite. Online distance learning is a classic countertype. Someone, at some point, thought about reversing the model of students coming to the university. How about taking the university to the students? This counter type thinking (likely to have been ridiculed by many in its infancy) has led to countless people receiving an education that they might otherwise not have had access to.
  6. Work fast – this is one that I resonate with, but might take with caution. Working fast is great. Just get ideas out there. However, I need to see this in practice. What does it look like? How do I create models fast? From this, I take it that the Magic Theatre is not about refining ideas. It’s about getting as much on paper during the session so that the team can then refine this later.
  7. Breed lots of ideas – this is a given. To reach a 3rd Alternative, you want lots of ideas on the table. The more you have, the more you can merge, select from or just leave for later.

Arrive – now that we have lots of ideas, we can choose to refine one (or more) ideas and turn it into a 3rd Alternative. We might merge ideas together. There is so much that we can do and we are open to new possibilities.

The above is my crude interpretation of Covey’s message. You might see something completely different or disagree entirely with some things that I have written. That’s ok and I invite you to offer your thoughts in the comment section. I wish to seek you out, as it were.

Applications of the 3rd Alternative

The 3rd Alternative left me brimming with ideas. I won’t go into detail on them here, but I think these ideas are worth sharing in order to begin a dialogue.

  1. Using the 3rd Alternative in Chemistry – The world has a lot of problems that chemistry could help solve. I would like to turn my chemistry classroom into a Magic Theatre where students can come up with ideas that use chemistry to help solve these problems. This might help make chemistry seem more relevant to the students, and more practically, it could lead to a project that actually addresses the issue.
  2. Teaching the 3rd Alternative as a model for conflict transformation – at UWCSEA, I help run a programme called Initiative for Peace where we train our students to run a peace conference for youth in conflict-affected areas. The 3rd Alternative contains lots of skills needed for peacebuilding and also provides a great framework for transforming conflicts. How amazing would it be if our students can teach this to other students and help them transform their own conflicts and solve their own problems?
  3. Starting a website that collates examples of 3rd Alternatives and assesses them against Covey’s model might be of use. What do these 3rd Alternatives look like in reality? How were they achieved? What lessons could be learnt? This could be a powerful resource for schools, businesses and governments alike.
  4. Using the 3rd Alternative premise to write a list of problems that the world is facing. We could then hold Magic Theatre sessions to help come up with ideas that help solve these problems.

These are just some ideas and there are much more out there.

How might you use the 3rd Alternative in your life?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.