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Destructive Conflict Patterns

  • Posted by: Ellen Kandell

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. In destructive conflict, people get stuck in one phase, while successfully resolved conflict moves through the five distinct steps or phases. 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. Those engaged in this cycle believe that the conflict is not worth the effort, which often leads to decreased communication and commitment.

Competitive Escalation and Violence Cycle

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.

There are three models of competitive escalation: aggressor-defender, conflict spiral, and structural change. In aggressor-defender, one person acts as the instigator, or aggressor, and the other person engages in defensive behavior. This creates a power imbalance in which the defender frequently feels unable to gain an upper hand or put a stop to the conflict because they are continually on the defense. In the conflict spiral, the participants are engaged in a very intense, repetitive cycle of action and reaction. In structural change, indirect confrontation is utilized, which may take the form of passive-aggressive communication, and one or both of the participants take the conflict to other people.

What to Do When Faced With Destructive

Should you find yourself a participant in a destructive conflict cycle, one strategy is to take a step back and actively listen to the other person. This strategy forces you to pay attention to the grievances of the other person and determine whether you can come to a resolution or if you perhaps need a mediator to step in. Another strategy is to maintain calm in order to defuse the situation and stop the current cycle.  Maintaining calm means slowing down the pace, centering yourself and focusing on your breath.

If you are the one initiating the destructive conflict cycle, some strategies for managing this behavior are controlling verbal aggression, improving non-verbal communication skills, and becoming aware of the causes of your destructive conflict in order to prevent the behavior in the future. You may also want to find out the cause of the conflict pattern and determine if unresolved conflicts, negative emotions, or prior arguments are contributing to the behavior.

When faced with destructive conflict patterns, a mediator will employ strategies to help the destructive communicator to become aware of their conflict pattern and address it. A mediator can help the participants resolve the conflict in a constructive way and find a meaningful resolution for the situation.


Ellen F. Kandell is a certified professional mediator and attorney with over 30 years of public and private sector experience.  In 2017, she was nominated by her peers to the National Academy of Distinguished Neutrals. Ellen is certified by the International Mediation Institute.  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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