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A Process View of Conflict: Can Conflict be Constructive?

  • Posted by: asadmin

In addition to the mediation, facilitation and training work our firm does, I am an adjunct professor at University of Maryland University College and at Catholic University of America’s graduate program in Human Resource Management. Teaching and consequently learning the theory of conflict enriches my practice. So I thought I’d share some nuggets of theory with my readers followed by some practical tips.


A process view of conflict means that conflict is not just a discrete interaction; rather, it is a series of stages with distinct characteristics. A process is dynamic, ongoing and continuous and changes over time. Similarly, communication is a process even though it comes so natural to us that we don’t think about it that way. But any interchange with another human being is a process. When we fail to look at another person’s point of view and assume our frame of reference is the only correct one we are not taking a process view of conflict.

Patterns and Cycles in Constructive Conflict Processes

According to Ruth Abigail and Dudley Cahn in Managing Conflict Through Communication (MA Pearson Education, 2011) successfully resolved conflict moves through the following five distinct steps or phases:

Prelude to conflict: the variables that make conflict possible, i.e. the parties, the environment, the relationship and the presence of others.

Triggering event: the stimulus, i.e., hurtful remarks, the aggregation of behavior over time or the breach of an agreement or house rule.

Initiation phase: the response when the conflict becomes overt which happens when at least one person makes known to the other that a conflict exists. This would be reacting to the stimulus or pointing out the breach of a house rule or understanding.

Differentiation phase: the stage where the conflict ripens and becomes obvious, such as through open disagreement and various tactics and strategies to escalate and de-escalate the conflict.

Resolution phase: the stage where the participants agree to some outcome. If the agreement satisfies all concerned it is considered a win-win. The resolution could be win lose or lose lose when people enter into destructive conflict cycles.

More on this topic and the “Chilling Effect” in our next newsletter.

Ellen F. Kandell is a certified professional mediator and attorney with over 30 years of public and private sector experience. She provides mediation, group facilitation and training to diverse, national clients. Get in touch with her via email, LinkedIn, Twitter, or give her a call at 301-588-5390.

Author: asadmin

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