Conflict is a part of most every interpersonal relationship. Managing conflict, then, is important if the relationship is to be long-lasting and rewarding. Learning how to manage conflict involves being able to identify the steps in any escalating confrontation, and being able to stop the escalation and do emotional repair by reinforcing the positive aspects of the relationship.
Conflict has been defined as “an expressed struggle between at least two interdependent parties who perceive incompatible goals, scarce resources, and interference from the other party in achieving their goals”1. Important concepts in this definition include “expressed struggle,” which means the two sides must communicate in words or actions about the existence of a problem for there to be conflict. Another important idea is that conflict often involves perceptions. The two sides may only perceive that their goals, or resources, are incompatible with each other’s.
This produces a growing frustration where parties, trying to have a consensus on some values, force the other to accept these values, ideas or propositions, only to obtain the other side’s resistance. A conflict escalates when both sides confront each other in a mounting interaction where more disdain, aggression and rejection appears at each threshold crossed. Escalation happens when growing attempts to reciprocal control, using emotional abuse and violence are reciprocated by the other.
INTERPERSONAL CONFLICT ESCALATION LEVELS
This chart shows the escalating steps, from a simple problem to the dissolution of the relationship. In each level, when parties reach the point of no return, they escalate to the next level, beyond which the whole conflict changes because is set up in a different set of feelings and behavior
|Level 1:A PROBLEM TO BE SOLVED||To resolve the issue that causes the problem||Clear, specific and related to the here and now of problem (focused on the difference to be solved)||Positive feelings, with a bit of frustration for the communicational problem to be solved.||Selection of rational techniques to solve the problem: cooperation, negotiation.Self-controlled and positive towards Other.
POINT OF NO RETURN:
Inflexibility of own ideas
|Level 2:A DIFFERENCE||To protect and defend own point of view||General, wider;(the issue and the person get mixed together, in
evaluating, judging and criticizing Other’s present behavior).
Past specific examples of upsetting behavior mentioned, to illustrate the “badness” of Other
Offer “love advice” to Other, in a controlling way.
Own values are identified, reaffirmed, and included in hidden agendas.
|Cautious feeling, fear of being hurt;Some hidden hostility
Defensive strategic planning: tries to control feelings in self, such as fear, anger, loneliness.
Let down and hurt by confrontation,
by difference of opinions.
Build up of separation
Affecting indifference and lack of commitment.
|Allows some compromising albeit unsatisfied.Restrict and block information to Other.
Love is conditional to expected behavior from Other,
POINT OF NO RETURN:
Reduced willingness to listen.
|Level 3:CONFRONTATION||To prevail, to winTo use own power to influence or create changes in present situation.
To define the limits between self and Other for self-preservation
“You should,” “you ought to,”
Black and white thinking;
Preaching and sermonizing the Other;
harmful “put-down” remarks;
Blaming the Other, for everything
|Irritability, Anger;Personal attacks on Other’s feelings;
Perceived attacks by other on our feelings;
Search for allies’
among reciprocal friends and
Need to have own position validated by others.
Trust on the Other lost.
|Moves to control Other: deny information,Deny self-responsibility.
Hurl insults to other:
derogative comments, and
abusive verbal and non verbal behavior.
POINT OF NO RETURN:
Domestic violence threats
|Level 4;FIGHT OR/AND FLIGHT||To removeOther from
To punish Other;
To isolate Other from network of relatives and friends.
|Ideologically oriented:Based on eternal principles of “good” and “evil”
Polar opposition in everything:
Compromise is rejected.
|Confrontation reveals hidden past hurts:Self-portrait as a victim;
and Other as aggressor;
Other perceived as total evil, bent on destroying self.
|Punishing of the Other and his/her perceived abuses;If staying, domestic abuse;
If leaving, abandonment
POINT OF NO RETURN:
|Level 5:DEADLY COMBAT||There is no other alternative left, than to destroy Other, the main identified enemy of our lives.||Words describe conflict as reflecting and being an instance of the eternal fight of good against evil.||No alternatives left but enemy’s destruction.Enemy seen as inhuman, unworthy of compassion.||Unrestrained attacks against the Other, his friends, relatives and ideas.POINT OF NO RETURN: total alienation from Other.|
Resolving Interpersonal Conflicts
Here are some ways to resolve conflict:
A.- If the conflict has reached only Level 1 and 2, probably there is still some good faith and parties can do some reflective listening on their own, to assure that they are paying attention to their partner’s claims.
1. Describe the conflict and the nonproductive behavior you are observing
Differences in needs, goals, values or competition for scarce resources are all potential triggers for conflict, in a view. In a different perspective, they are opportunities for sharing interests and negotiating with Others. If you find yourself in any step of this conflict escalation process, take the initiative to bring the disagreement to the surface as soon as you see it, and invite the other side to talk about reciprocal but differing points of view. Frame the conversation as an opportunity to get to know the other better, not as a competition for “who is right.”
2. Take the very important first step:
By bringing the common conflict out into the open, describing it in nonjudgmental terms, and framing it as a mutual problem, you acknowledge it as “ours.” Until then it will be very difficult to progress to a cooperative resolution. Now, you have stopped the automatic escalation and the damages, sometimes irretrievable, that it brings to the relationship.
2. Give to each one of you the opportunity to tell his/her story
To resolve interpersonal differences both sides must develop the skill of active listening, by inviting each other to describe their own side, including the emotional aspects of each story.
In active listening, the most difficult part is to give the Other undivided attention and not advising, reproaching or sermonizing, but sheer attention. At certain times, the person listening would check if he or she has understood what has been said in the right way. There is no need to jump to give solutions, either, but to assure that each position has been completely aired.
B.- If the conflict has escalated to Level 3, there are issues of mistrust and fear due to violence threats. Parties usually don’t feel like negotiating face to face, but would welcome the intervention of a third party, a trusted elder or friend, or a mediator, who would maintain a position of neutrality. Emotions are high, suspicion and mistrust are rampant, and feelings are very hurt, so a mediator can provide a frame of security and confidentiality. This mediator should continue with the missing steps in the process:
3. Have each person summarize what the other person said
Now invite each person to repeat back what the other person said. By having each one paraphrase the other’s main points, you are encouraging them to listen to and acknowledge each other’s views. Sometimes this leads to revelations, because both sides had assumed that they knew the hidden reasons for the Other’s behavior, which was incorrect. Much information is restrained and missing, and attributions occupy the place of valid info.
Then ask each person to confirm, clarify or correct the summary that was repeated back. This produces a reciprocal validation that replaces parts of the relationship destroyed in Level 3 of the escalation.
4. Ask each person, in turn, to identify points of agreement and disagreement
With conflicting views now calmly and clearly expressed and listened to with respect, the two parties may be surprised as to how much they actually agree. Mediator’s intervention while framing both sides as deserving of attention and respect is vitally important to legitimize interests and feelings.
Now, mediator invites each of them to first identify the points of agreement in their two respective positions. Then they will do the same for the areas of disagreement.
Mediator should draw a big chart with these points, so both sides can see the list of areas where they agree and the list of issues where they don’t agree, which will become the agenda for the problem-solving part of the meeting.
An interpersonal conflict is most likely to be productively resolved if both parties can see that they stand to gain something from its cooperative resolution. After building a base of mutual respect, the mediator’s job is to highlight what is in their mutual best interests or where they need each other to accomplish more than either of them could do on their own.
5. Invite both sides to suggest ways to proceed
Conflict resolution poses the most gain and the least pain when the parties are able to take a cooperative rather than an adversarial approach to working out differences. For this to happen, both of your parties need to own the problem and recognize that they have a stake in solving it.
Ask them to brainstorm solutions directed to the points of disagreement they’ve just reviewed. The mediator’s task is to have the parties reach agreement on the steps that are needed to resolve the situation. Such agreement is usually most effective when it involves some small quid pro quo between the two people. Let them offer any kind of solutions, and then select workable suggestions, and discard the ones that are not effective.
Ideally, they would offer small initial action steps they could do personally very soon.
If the process has been developed in a caring way, with lots of time for venting and thinking, parties have gained a lot. They have stopped the escalation, and regained any positive aspects of their relationship buried under the reciprocal aggression of the fight. Achieving this objective alone is a big step ahead for both parties, but if necessary the mediator could offer another meeting to further brainstorm solutions. The objective to stop escalation and recover a modicum of trust opens the possibility of a realistic agreement in the near future, based on the reciprocal new knowledge obtained through confrontation and mediation.
C.- If the parties have reached Level 5, is very possible that some agreement could be validated by a court, or a lawyer or a mediator, to deal with property or other decisions on tangible things, but the relationship among partners is irretrievable damaged.