Conflict is so predictable, and I believe that is what scares us most about it. We have seen conflict quickly develop into an ugly mess. We see this in the media, and we have probably experienced it in our personal lives as well.
The good news is that conflict doesn’t always have to escalate negatively. When we understand how it typically progresses, we can take positive steps to reverse the escalation so that the conflict can be resolved in a healthy way. I am indebted to the writing of John Paul Lederach, who has significantly shaped the way I understand conflict escalation and conflict transformation. I draw on some of his ideas throughout the post.
How conflict escalates
The origin of most conflict is usually not so bad, but as conflict escalates it becomes more difficult to resolve productively. Each stage of escalation increases the intensity and complexity of the conflict, which draws us away from the original issue at the heart of the conflict. As we progress through the stages of conflict escalation we create more and more relational damage.
At Level One, conflict begins when we identify a problem that needs to be resolved, we experience a misunderstanding, or we perceive an injustice. Assuming that the relationship has been okay up to this point, we usually believe we can resolve the issue through conversation or simple actions. However, if we can’t resolve the issue in a simple or satisfactory way, we normally move to Level Two.
At Level Two, we begin to believe that the conflict has something to do with the character of the other person or side. The belief that the other person or side behaves as they do because of some character flaw creates a significant road block to successfully resolving conflict. Since character is very difficult to change, we come to believe that other person or side is the problem.
As we come to judge the other person involved in the conflict through this negative lens, we start to notice other things we don’t like about them. We see more and more of their actions in relation to their flawed character. Here is the hard truth about this level: they are also beginning to believe our character is the problem. If we are unable to take a step back from our thinking errors at Level Two, we will inevitably move to Level Three.
At Level Three, we make moves to protect ourselves by building alliances. We talk about the situation with people that we think will support or help us, like our friends, our boss, our HR representative, or the person who sits nearest to us. Unfortunately, as we build our alliances, so does the other side. As more people are drawn in, our conflict becomes more complicated. As alliances form, our groups develop identities around their view of the conflict, and we prepare to fight. When this happens, we move to level Four.
At Level Four, we look for ways to win or shut down the other side. This leads to confrontation. Hostilities become open as we plan and execute our attacks. Once we reach this stage, we are so entrenched in our experience of the conflict and our views of the other person/side that we are only one step away from Level Five.
At Level Five, we find a way to change our relational structure, usually through some act of force or flight. In a marriage, the change may be a separation or divorce. In an interpersonal workplace situation, someone gets moved to another department, quits, or gets fired. On a larger level, a department gets split in two, companies divide, religious organizations split, and where there was one nation, now there are two (or several).
While I believe that some relationships and structures need to be changed or ended, I do not believe it always has to be through this negative process of conflict escalation. In many cases, conflict can be resolved through proactive conflict transformation that leads us to changes which feel right, just, and ultimately healthy.
Three Strategies to Prevent Negative Conflict Escalation at Work
One: Begin with Conflict Resolution Skills Training. We know that training in conflict resolution skills is one of the most effective ways to prevent the negative spiral through the five stages of conflict escalation. Training will teach strategies for direct discussion and conflict resolution, and will alert people to the potential for thinking errors. Staff will more frequently resolve conflict at Level One and when they feel tempted by Level Two thinking errors, training will assist them in intentionally triggering different thinking processes to help them engage differently.
Two: Utilize Conflict Resolution Coaching. When people feel stuck and need another person’s help (Level Three), utilize conflict resolution coaching rather than alliance building. Conflict resolution coaching skills can be taught widely to leadership and staff.
Three: Engage Conflict Resolution Specialists. If staff are still not able to resolve their conflict on their own, invest in engaging conflict resolution specialists to assist when the conversation is difficult (Level Four). Through direct, facilitated discussion, people can make decisions together about how to resolve their conflict, and whether they need to change their relationships while leaving their dignity intact. Investing this way will yield positive outcomes for your organization and the people you exist to serve.
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