Conflict Resolution

by Aled Davies

How conflicts escalate

Conflicts that emerge from differing perceptions, conflicting interests or from needs not being met don’t necessarily evolve into full-blown war or litigation. But as they gather momentum, the behaviours and actions of those involved begin to negatively impact or damage the other party or parties, and this is when situations escalate out of control. At this point, it can be extremely difficult to pull the parties back from their entrenched positions and invite them to explore more collaborative means of resolution.

The direct use of force is such a poor solution to any problem, it is generally employed only by small children and large nations.

David Friedman

The stages of a conflict

As you observe a conflict develop, you will notice it moving through some fairly distinct stages as it gathers momentum, rather like a snowball rolling down a hill.

If you are an outsider looking for a peaceful solution, understanding which stage the conflict has reached can help you to intervene appropriately, using your skills to empathise with the parties’ fears and concerns and steer them on a new course.

Stage 1 – the trigger

This relates to the specific issue that sparks the conflict, which could be something that is said or done that causes harm – emotional, physical or otherwise – to the other person. This might not be what the conflict is necessarily about, but it’s enough to move events onto the next stage. For example:

Kim says ‘Tom, your reports are always full of mistakes; you’re just bloody lazy!’

Stage 2 – assumptions and label

Our immediate reaction is to label the other person as we make assumptions about them and their intention. So, for example, on hearing Kim’s statement, Tom would quickly assume that Kim’s intention was to be vindictive and that he said what he said to put him in his place and humiliate him in front of his peers. Tom will label Kim as a bully.

Stage 3 – attack and blame

In the face of conflict, human beings are naturally predisposed to behave in one of two ways. They will either attack or withdraw. You’ll no doubt be familiar with the expression fight or flight: this is our inbuilt autonomic response to threat or danger. So Tom has a couple of options, one of them being to attack or launch a counter offensive and say something like

‘Well if you were doing your job properly and gave me the right information on a timely basis, I wouldn’t have put the reports together the way I did.’

So what Tom is really saying here is that its Kim’s fault the reports are full of mistakes, oh and by the way Kim, you are incompetent.

This approach is definitely a combative fight response. Tom might, however, have a flight response and not feel able to voice his anger openly. In which case, he might not say these things out aloud, but would most certainly be thinking them.

Stage 4 – build alliances

After maybe a few rounds of counter attacking and verbal exchanges, the conflict moves to the next stage. Anyone preparing for battle needs an army, so it’s not uncommon for people to seek out alliances, whether in the office, the team or even at home. They will seek out people who will sympathise and collude with their position and agree how outrageously the other person has behaved and that they shouldn’t be allowed to get away with it. This behaviour serves two purposes: first, we gain the moral support of others so that we can count on their support later and, secondly, it serves to reinforce and strengthen our position and confirm that we were right to react in the way that we did.

Tom: ‘Can you believe the way he spoke to me in there? That Kim made a fool of me again in front of the others; he’s always doing it – he’s got no idea how to manage the team. That’s it; I’ve had enough. He’s not getting away with it anymore – what do you think?’

Stage 5 – entrenched

As the conflict gathers momentum, people invest resources and emotions in maintaining it on its downward trajectory. As sophisticated humans, we invest heavily in being right and naturally don’t like being proved wrong, so this can be the point of no return for many conflicts.

If you are one of those involved, you’ve invested too much now to give in. You begin to hear yourself say ‘Well, it’s a matter of principle now; there’s no way I’m backing down.’ You also want to feel justified that your behaviour and feelings up to this point have not been in vain, so you become more set in your ways and entrenched in your position. Your views become polarised and it becomes difficult even to contemplate sitting around the table to resolve your differences through dialogue. It’s also around this stage that a number of other things happen.

  • Trust spirals downwards, so you become mistrustful and suspicious of others, anyone or anything that attempts to help you resolve your differences.
  • Communication is affected, so any communication between you and the other party becomes less direct and you exchange emails or letters; you also copy every man and his dog into the correspondence, so that your allies will be aware of what’s happening – anything to avoid a face-to-face.

You are determined to have your day in court, and so you wilfully set a course for an almighty collision.

Stage 6 – the collision

You’ve invested so much into this that you’d be crazy to back down now and so you move headlong into a confrontation, maybe litigation or tribunal. Here, there is only one guarantee and that is that there will be a winner and a loser; and maybe some casualties along the way.