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Masking the Issue: Displaced Conflict

  • Posted by: Ellen Kandell
displaced conflict; argument

Have you ever become very angry at someone who is helping you and then realized that the source of the conflict was something else entirely? This is an example of displaced conflict. The anger had nothing to do with the transaction or the customer service agent, and everything to do with another situation, perhaps one that is causing you stress or anxiety, which resulted in your lashing out at the wrong party.

Stress and Conflict

Hyperstress happens when too many tasks and responsibilities pile up and we are unable to adapt or cope with these changes. In hyperstress, the source is identifiable, such as too many competing deadlines at work and home. Hyperstress causes physical and chemical reactions in the body. If the stress is not alleviated, exhaustion sets in.

Someone who is in a state of hyperstress may cause a conflict to occur that is really not about the core issue. For example, they may be upset and worried about a sick friend or parent. When they’re in hyperstress, they unknowingly take this anxiety out on the clerk in the convenience store who is slow at the cash register. In addition to stress, repressed thoughts or feelings, guilt, frustration, and anger can lead to similar conflicts.

There are three types of such conflicts:

Overblown conflict: One where a relatively unimportant issue gets exaggerated or blown out of proportion.

Misplaced conflict: One that is directed toward the wrong issues. In this instance, people address things that are safe to argue about rather than the core issues.

Displaced conflict: One that is directed toward the wrong person. Displaced conflicts are generally resolved with an apology. Have you ever become very angry and then afterward realized how foolish you acted? An example of a displaced conflict is when you become excessively angry at a customer service agent who was helping you track down an electronic payment in your bank account and you have a tirade and carry on like a fool with the agent who is merely doing her job.

You have probably experienced these kinds of conflicts but didn’t know how to identify them. Understanding what these other conflicts are about gives you power to control your behavior when you’re under stress. So what can you do?

During the conflict: If you realize during the conflict that you are taking out frustration on the wrong person, or inflating the wrong issue, take a mental step back and identify what’s going on. You may need to remove yourself from the situation for a while and return to the problem issue or person later. In many cases, an apology is helpful in resolving a conflict with the wrong person. Once you have identified the situation or person who is truly the cause of your stress, then you can speak to that person. If you are not the one who began the misplaced conflict but are the person on the receiving end, try to remain calm and defuse the conflict. It is difficult to not become defensive when it feels like someone is attacking you, but the situation will defuse much more quickly if you can remain calm.

After the conflict: If you realize after the argument has already occurred that you engaged in misplaced, overblown, or displaced conflict, then take a few moments to backtrack and think through what occurred. Why did you take it out on the wrong person? Is there a way for you to engage in a productive discourse with the right person? In the case of overblown or misplaced conflict, what is the real issue that you are not talking about? And finally, if possible, it would be wise to go back to the person on the receiving end and apologize, if that person is available.

If you’ve experienced misplaced, overblown, or displaced conflicts, leave a comment below.


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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