Conflict Resolution: What Escalates and De-Escalates Conflict

Conflict Scares Most of Us

Most of us shy away from disagreements or conflicts because we think conflict automatically makes things worse. We think we’ll lose in some way. But often it’s actually better to move into disagreement and air all the different viewpoints on a subject than to try to stay away from them.

It’s like being sick. Often we ignore the symptoms, but it usually ends up better if we find out what’s going on.

Here’s What Most of Us Do When Conflicts Threaten:

  • Avoid them
  • Push out/reject people that act in disturbing ways
  • Pretend to agree or give in
  • Blank out
  • Shut down
  • Cut people off
  • Discount the other person or group

In order to begin to move into conflict and progress toward conflict resolution, it’s useful to know what tends to escalate and de-escalate conflicts.

What escalates conflicts

  • Bringing into the conversation a third person who isn’t present: “Mary said she also has trouble with you being late to meetings.”  “Sam said he’s upset with you.” People do this because, unconsciously, they feel they aren’t strong enough to take the stance they’re taking by themselves and they need support.
  • Not being aware of one’s mixed signals: Saying “I’m not angry with you” in a loud voice. Saying you’re happy to see me while turning away. Saying you’re happy while frowning. The person or people you’re with unconsciously pick up these mixed signals and react to them automatically, also without being aware of what they’re reacting to.
  • Denying accusations: Often, when someone accuses us of something, we automatically assume we’re wrong or bad for being that way or saying that thing. We accuse ourselves at the same time! But accusations often highlight something about us that we need to bring in more—with awareness. (Ex: someone accuses me of wanting to be in on everything.) It helps to notice the little or large part of the accusation that’s true and to own it or stand up for being this way. “Hmm. I do want to be in on things. I specifically like to be in on places where there are problems, because I love to problem-solve. I like to help people find solutions, so that they will understand each other better and work better together.”
  • Stereotyping: “I figured since you are a man/woman/black/gay, you would be open to my feelings.” “I thought all people from the east coast talked fast.” Making assumptions about somebody because of their group identity tends to create tension (understatement of the year).
  • Not reacting when you’re hurt: if someone is attacking you and you stay expressionless or stoic, they won’t become aware of your reaction and will keep attacking. Or they may be looking at your expressionless face and unconsciously feel you don’t care, and attack more. Showing that you’re hurt tends to stop the person. Not always, but often.
  • Not having a feedback loop: when you continue to attack or criticize even after the other person has apologized or has stopped defending themselves escalates arguments.
  • Being indirectly hurtful or revengeful: snickering when someone is hurt, being sarcastic, ironic, pretending to be aloof, gossiping and triangulating. Sarcasm, for example, is an indirect jab that shows you actually have a criticism. Figuring out what your criticism is and being direct about it is way more useful than sarcasm when you’re in an argument.
  • Patronizing or condescending, as if you’re above the conflict: “I can see that I’m triggering your issues.” “You’re projecting onto me.” “You’ve had this kind of problem before, haven’t you?”

What De-Escalates Conflicts

  • Noticing your own mixed signals: Bring them into the conversation with awareness. For example, noticing that your voice is loud and becoming aware: “Am I angry, am I feeling urgent, am I afraid?” Noticing your voice is very soft: “Am I feeling unsure or shy, am I needing to be alone?” Noticing being turned away from the other person when ostensibly wanting to relate: “Do I need a moment to think about something we’re talking about? Do I want to leave?” Noticing that my arms are crossed: “Am I feeling strong and solid about what I’m saying and need to bring in this feeling? Am I protecting myself from the other person?”
  • Having the courage to bring in your feelings: especially fear, neediness, jealousy, anger, hurt.
  • Noticing your desire for revenge after you’ve been hurt and being congruent about it: “What you said hurt me and I’m noticing that now I want to say something hurtful back to you.” Rather than just “acting out,” talk about how the other person’s statements were hurtful and you don’t want them to say things like that again, or that you would like them to really get what they’ve done.
  • Noticing when you’re not feeling like interacting in the moment, and leaving rather than trying to force yourself to stay in the dialogue.
  • Not bringing an absent person into the conversation: Rather, notice that you don’t feel strong enough to speak to the other person alone. Either say that you need a third person there to help with the conversation or wait until you feel stronger to have the conversation.
  • Taking the other person’s side as well as your own, or helping them make their points. Noticing when you’re already starting to take the other person’s side automatically, and do it consciously for a little while before going back to your own side
  • If you find yourself stuck, consider your personal trauma history: Is this conflict greater than with this particular person? Are issues from your past coming up where you were hurt or helpless in some way
  • Noticing your hesitation to escalate: noticing where you’d really like to stand for your side, but you’re thinking it’s not ok to do so. Then really taking your side and standing for it strongly
  • Noticing in the moment your hesitation to de-escalate: maybe you’re feeling sad about arguing, maybe you just noticed you really care for or like the other person, maybe you realize that, right now, you want peace and harmony. But you believe you should keep arguing and standing for your side. Instead, when you notice these things, mention them, too.


For a simple and effective model on how to resolve conflicts, see my blog, A Powerful Conflict Resolution Model. There’s also more information on my Organizational Consulting work.

Wishing you a free and joyous life,



A Powerful Conflict Resolution Model

When we’re in a conflict, we tend to think that the best way to resolve it is to stick with our point of view as strongly as possible. We’ve been taught that one of us is going to win and the other is going to lose, and we don’t want to be the loser. There’s often a weird feeling that there’s doom attached to losing, and so we fight desperately to keep to our position. Strangely, the reality is that this strategy doesn’t often work, especially if you’re trying to be part of a long-term relationship—be it romantic, business, parent-child, friend-to-friend, whatever.

What if there were a way that had a higher percentage of actually resolving problems and conflicts? There is! I learned it a long time ago. It comes from Process Work, developed by Arnold Mindell, Ph.D.—a kind of therapy I specialized in for a long time.

The “Three-Legged Stool” of Conflict Resolution

Think of a conflict as having three basic positions: my position, your position and the “objective observer” position. It looks like this:

Conflict Resolution Zoe Zimmermann

Which Position Are You In Now?

The first job is to become aware of which position you’re starting in. Are you actually advocating for your own position, “My Position” in the figure above, or are you—without being aware of it—advocating for the other person’s position, “Your Position” in the figure. How can you tell? Well, let’s say the conflict is between a parent and teen. The parent wants the teen to be home by ten. The teen wants to stay out as late as she wants. As the parent, you’re saying, “If you come home later than ten, you won’t be able to get up in the morning to go to school.” In that case, you’re already in “My Position.”  But if you’re saying, “I know you want to have fun with your friends,” you’re in “Your Position,” that is, for the moment, you’re taking the teen’s point of view.

Standing for the Position You’re In

Whatever position you find yourself in, take it over as fully as you can. In the example above, “My Position” for the parent might be: “To me, school is most important. I want you to take responsibility for getting there on time every day, and I’m afraid that that’s not your priority. I worry that you’ll have a hard time in life if you don’t focus on school now.”

If you find yourself in your child’s position, “Your Position” above, you can stand for that position: “I know you want to have fun with your friends. I remember hanging out and talking for hours and I never wanted to leave. It seemed so rich being with them, and I learned so much from their experiences, from sharing mine, and a lot more.”

Helping the Other Person Stand for Their Side

If you find yourself in “My Position,” and you’ve stood for it, then it’s important to help the other person stand for their position, expressing it as fully as possible. You can start by asking the other person to tell you what they’re thinking or feeling. If they get stuck or are afraid they’ll get shot down, you can start them off.

So maybe the teen in the above scenarios “My Position” would be: I AM focusing on school. Don’t you realize that I’ve been getting mostly A’s in my classes? I only want to stay out later for specific events. How about if I let you know ahead of time when I want to stay out later, and for what?” Either you or the teen can express this position.

Anticipating the Other’s Concerns

The teen can help her or his position by taking the parent’s position and anticipating what the parent’s worries are: “I know you’re worried that school is not a priority for me and that all I’m thinking about is having fun with my friends. I do like to hang out with my friends. But I always make sure I do my homework before it’s due, and I’ve been acing all my tests. I know it’s important to you that I plan for college and for my future. I’ve been thinking about which colleges I want to apply to. College is really important to me, too.”

Switching Positions Helps with Conflict Resolution

With this three position conflict resolution model, you each switch back and forth between “My Position” and “Your Position,” continuing to express each position as fully as possible. The parent literally steps in and speaks as if he/she is the teen and the teen steps in and speaks as if he/she is the parent. You keep alternating between your own position and the other person’s position.

More and more information tends to come out, until the situation is resolved in a really deep way. It’s important, when taking a position, especially “Your Position,” to really stand in the position and speak ONLY from that position. It can be tempting to be sarcastically in “Your Position” or to be pretending to be in it while really coming more from “My Position.” If you’re speaking from the other person’s position, really feel into it and, for the moment, speak as if you actually are the other person, or come from a place where you really relate to their position. You can do this by remembering when you might have been in their position at some point in your life, or imagining being in it.

Objective Observer

The “Objective Observer” position can be really useful, too. One example is when you’re stuck and don’t know how to move further toward conflict resolution. You can step outside yourselves and, in your imagination, “see” yourselves. Notice what you see and step in and be it. Maybe you notice that the “you” in front of you is feeling hurt and small. Rather than trying to counteract that and be strong, go back into yourself and really show how small and hurt you are, maybe by letting yourself cry or by folding up into a small ball, etc. Actually showing what’s going on can help, because, much of the time, we don’t see or hear each other’s messages if they’re too subtle. When we make ourselves more visible, the other person can react to what’s actually going on instead of what they imagine is going on. This often moves us toward resolution.

Check out my page on Relationships.


Wishing you a free and joyous life,


Vicarious Trauma in Organizations Often Goes Viral

Stress and Trauma Can be Contagious in Organizations

In any group, such as organizations and businesses, stress and trauma can act like a virus–spreading very quickly. It is called “vicarious trauma” and can be caused by several kinds of situations.

Just one occurs in organizations whose customers or clients live under a lot of stress or trauma. Employees automatically absorb their clients’ trauma and begin reacting as if they, too, were experiencing first-hand trauma.

 Example at a Large Health Center

I consulted with a large public health center for a time. By definition, their clients are people who are experiencing serious emotional pain, some of them for their whole lives. The people who worked directly with clients heard their stories. They couldn’t help but imagine the scenes and feel what it would be like to go through their clients’ experiences. Inevitably, the trauma permeated into them, and their nervous systems inevitably reacted the same way they would react if the employees, themselves, were literally going through the emotional pain and traumatic stress.

Viral Traumatic Stress

Here is where it becomes even more contagious. First, employees with direct contact to traumatized clients “catch” traumatic stress. They react to their co-workers out of this nervous system state and soon, like a virus, this vicarious painful experience and even behavior spreads throughout the organization, even to top management, which never meets clients directly.

In organizations such as the health center, employees either become overly reactive and it’s like there are constant conflict-fires erupting, or people start becoming overwhelmed, tired, spaced out and numbed out emotionally. If nothing is done to become aware of vicarious trauma and to alleviate it, the organization almost inevitably becomes increasingly dysfunctional.

EFT Helps with Vicarious Trauma

EFT Tapping is amazingly effective in alleviating emotional pain and its symptoms and, of course, vicarious trauma. If an organization has experienced a specific painful or scary event, I can work with whole groups or individuals. Most people respond quite quickly and their emotional pain is alleviated, bringing them back to their normal, productive selves.

Organizational Consulting

Longer-term issues can also be resolved:

  • Fears resulting from lay-offs of colleagues
  • Stress from merging two companies or departments
  • Conflicts among employees or departments
  • Management/employee issues


These issues can be resolved through a combination of executive coaching, management coaching, role clarification, coaching for management-employee relations, and group and individual EFT.

For more information on organizational consulting, check out my website pages on Organizational Consulting. There’s also more information on stress and trauma on my Stress and Trauma page.

Wishing you a free and joyful life,