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How Stress Affects Conflict Resolution

  • Posted by: Ellen Kandell

Stress levels among adults in the United States have risen overall since 2015. According to TIME Magazine, 24 percent of adults reported feeling “extreme stress” in a survey conducted by the American Psychological Association. Money, work, family responsibilities, the economy, and health concerns are the top five most common stressors. With so many adults experiencing such high levels of stress, what does that mean for conflict and mediation? I’ve written previously about instigators of holiday stress as well as misplaced, displaced, and overblown conflicts resulting from stress. Let’s look further at how stress impacts conflict and its resolution.

The Different Types of Stress

There are actually multiple different types of stress, and each type has its unique challenges and impacts on our behavior. Hyperstress is too much stress, such as too many competing deadlines or tasks, while hypostress is too little, such as when you’re not being challenged or stimulated enough at work or school. Boredom and malaise are often the results of hypostress. What we might think of as “normal” stress, then, is our brain responding to demands, and only falls under the categories of hyperstress or hypostress when there are too many or too few demands placed on us. When a person is hyper- or hypostressed, they may become aggressive or angry, irritable, unable to focus, or depressed. None of these reactions or behaviors is conducive to resolving a conflict and is only likely to inflame it.

There are also eustress and distress. Eustress is “good stress”, or the kind of stress that is motivating and could have a positive outcome, such as training to win a competition. The stress you are experiencing when under eustress is not overwhelming. It acts like a motivator, pushing the athlete to stay focused on the goal. Distress, on the other hand, is “bad stress”, and encompasses any stress that is overwhelming and has a negative impact on the body or mind.

Stress, Conflict, and Mediation

Stress may cause feelings of anxiety, hopelessness, and boredom, as well as physical reactions such as nausea, fatigue, or sleeplessness. For most people conflict often causes stress, especially if you are a conflict avoider. When one conflict initiates another, people often get caught in a destructive conflict which spirals around like a spinning wheel. Destructive conflict takes place when one person falls into a habitual pattern of behavior in response to conflict. There is usually a triggering event that causes this pattern to take place. This may consist of avoiding conflict entirely and withholding grievances due to fear of the other person’s reaction. Alternatively, one or both parties may be so wrapped up in trying to win that there’s no opportunity for constructive problem solving.

Stress itself doesn’t necessarily create interpersonal conflict. Remember that stress is something we face every day, and is a normal response to demands sent to our brains. Because of the behaviors and reactions that result from hyperstress and hypostress, both of these forms are most likely to lead to conflict.

Lashing out, irritability, and dismissive behaviors are all common results of stress. It is these results that may lead to interpersonal conflict. Think about the last time your friend, coworker, or spouse were overstressed and you tried to talk to them about a joint task project or concern of yours. They may have shut you out or said they didn’t have enough time. The stress itself doesn’t cause conflict, but the resultant behavior might produce interpersonal conflict.

People who are experiencing stress are less able to participate in conflict resolution because they will have difficulty engaging in higher-level thinking while stressed. Stress releases chemicals in the brain that impair the prefrontal cortex, which is where higher-level thought takes place. When a coworker or friend is stressed or hyperstressed, it becomes much more difficult to calm down and think rationally and creatively.

How Can a Mediator Help?

A mediator’s job is to manage difficult conversations and help people safely solve the problems they are facing. The mere presence of a neutral mediator who has no stake in the outcome changes the dynamic between the disputing parties. The use of ground rules helps create a safe environment. The mediator will help reduce the temperature in the room, acknowledge emotions, and open up communication so that people can begin to hear each other. While in mediation, a stressed person will be led through techniques by the mediator that will allow them to step back from the situation and any emotions that may be causing stress or anxiety and look objectively at the source of the problem. This is called insight mediation and is a strategy meant to emphasize reflection. Once the communication process is improved there is likely to be increased understanding of the other side’s view points. Then the neutral mediator can assist the parties with problem solving.


Ellen F. Kandell is a certified professional mediator and attorney with over 30 years of public and private sector experience.  Ellen is certified by the International Mediation Institute. She became chair of MCDR’s certification committee this year.  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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