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Conflict Climate: Context Matters

  • Posted by: Ellen Kandell

When it comes to confronting conflict, there is a wide array of valuable tools and tactics available for mediators, conflict managers, and individuals to learn and employ in the face of growing tensions or the threat of escalation. However, to see a conflict only in the moment it arises is to see it out of context. The norms and structures within an organization play an influential role in how conflicts originate and play out.  Well before you find yourself searching for a way to intervene on a destructive conflict, you can take account of the conflict climate in your organization, and change the nature of conflict before it even begins to take place. We wrote about this topic in our November 2011 Newsletter as well.

Conflict Climate: More than the Environment

It’s summer, and the heat is creeping in, but when we talk about conflict climate we don’t mean the settings on your air conditioner or the rise in global temperatures. While the environmental characteristics of a setting can influence the tenor of human interaction, conflict climate refers to the social and psychological landscape in which a conflict takes place. No matter the climate, conflicts of varying intensity are likely to punctuate any workplace, community, or relationship, but variables such as trust, power, conflict strategy, and behavioral patterns can have a tremendous impact on their constructive or destructive potential.

Climates harmful to conflict dynamics are characterized by power abuse or imbalance, deficits of trust, unhealthy competition, and defensive behavior. When a conflict climate becomes negative, it often affects the way participants and managers approach disputes, favoring avoidance tactics or increased competition.  Let’s take a look at a few elements of conflict climate, and how you can foster one that is positive and constructive.


Power is the ability to influence or control events or people, and it’s distributed through many mechanisms. Institutions often explicitly dictate structures of power distribution, such as a workplace hierarchy or seniority in a family. Certain power differences are legitimate and widely expected in order to serve the functionality of a community.  However, when power imbalances are disproportionate or when power abuses occur, it is detrimental to the conflict climate.

Some power abuses are explicit, such as overt threats or intimidation through words, conduct, or physical presence. This kind of domination creates a climate of fear, and a tinderbox for igniting destructive conflicts.

Other destructive power imbalances seem more subtle. No matter what formal hierarchies are in place, interpersonal communication is ultimately a collaborative experience. When people engage with one another, on a basic level they all possess power and conversely become vulnerable. If an institutional power imbalance is internalized, the mutuality of interpersonal communication is lost. If a” boss” speaks to an “employee,” he or she may have formal authority, but is not innately a more powerful or valuable human being entitled to disregard the other’s value or humanity. When power imbalances are internalized, the communicative experience is likely to be emotionally challenging for the participant with less institutional power. This will also have a negative effect on the conflict climate, and may encourage defensive behaviors. To avoid this, it is possible to exercise institutional authority, but foster an ethos of egalitarian communication.

Communication: defensive or supportive?

In his work on communication climates, Dr. Jack Gibb outlined two main categories of communication strategies that affect the resulting climate. Defensive strategies tend to foster a more negative communication climate, while supportive strategies tend to foster a more constructive communication climate.

Defensive communication strategies tend to include the following: evaluation (blame and assigning fault), control, strategy (protecting one’s own interests and withholding information to do so), neutrality (the “whatever” attitude, expressly divesting from the communicative experience), assertions of superiority, or fixed certainty (dogmatism, unwilling to allow for another point of view).

Supportive communication strategies tend, instead, to include these behaviors: description (focus on “what and how,” rather than assigning blame), problem orientation (directed towards the issues, not at one another), spontaneity (openness), empathy, equality, provisionalism (expressing tentativeness or flexibility rather than finality or force).

You can see that Gibb’s idea of the communication climate is closely related to our discussion of power dynamics.

Trust & Competition

We live in a society where competition is heavily emphasized, and to a degree competition can be a healthy element in workplaces or communities. However, when the threat of co-workers or team members advancing their self-interests at the expense of others around them becomes intense and constant, trust becomes harder to achieve and collaboration less likely to occur. Without an underlying foundation of trust and collaboration, the conflict climate is likely to be tense and volatile, with disputes and differences easily ballooning into conflicts that impede goals and communication.

Take a look at the power structures and communication norms in your organizations, workplaces, and relationships: is it set up to foster constructive conflict exchanges? Or destructive escalation?   Examine what you can do to create a more open and constructive conflict environment.

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: Ellen Kandell

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