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,

Zoe