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Destructive Conflict: Patterns and Cycles

  • Posted by: asadmin

In our last newsletter we wrote about patterns and cycles in constructive conflict processes. As promised, this month we will examine destructive conflict and how to recognize it. As always we conclude with practical theory application tips that you can use in the workplace or at home.

Best wishes for a safe, happy and peaceful July 4th.


According to Ruth Abigail and Dudley Cahn in Managing Conflict Through Communication (MA Pearson Education, 2011) a process view of conflict sees the conflict as a dynamic and changeable and moving through various stages. Dysfunctional conflict is generally not successfully resolved. While successfully resolved conflict moves through the five distinct steps or phases, in destructive conflict people get stuck in one phase. Sometimes conflicts become scripted behavior and people get trapped into responding in their habitual way to a particular set of circumstances or individuals.

Two primary destructive conflict cycles

Confrontation Avoidance Cycle. This cycle occurs with people whose first impulse is to avoid initiating conflict. They think of conflict as bad, get nervous about the conflict experience, and avoid it as long as possible. When the conflict gets out of control that individual handles it poorly. In this cycle there is a prelude and a triggering event but the conflict doesn’t proceed to initiation. An example of a prelude is a past history of poorly managed conflict. A triggering event may occur when one person forgets an appointment or says something hurtful.

“Probably the most widespread misassumption about conflict, and the one that has the greatest chance of creating a confrontation avoidance cycle is the notion that conflict is abnormal.” However, some degree of conflict is natural and an expected part of healthy relationships because it produces change and growth.

Chilling Effect: This is a special case of avoidance and occurs when one person in a relationship withholds grievances from the other usually due to fear of the other person’s reaction.

Competitive Escalation and Violence Cycles

In this cycle conflict gets bogged down in the differentiation phase. Participants are so concerned with winning that they aren’t able to respond in a problem solving manner. The cycle is fueled by previously unresolved conflict and the blame game continues. Behaviors that contribute to escalation of conflict include: yelling, making verbal threats, mocking, encouraging rivalry, invading space and insults.

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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