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How Stress Impacts the Conflict Resolution Process

  • Posted by: Ellen Kandell
Since 2015, stress levels among U.S. adults have climbed steadily. In a survey conducted by the American Psychological Association, TIME Magazine reports that 24 percent of adults feel “extreme stress.” This stress stems from issues regarding money, work, family responsibilities, the economy, and health.

With so much stress in our country, especially now with the war in Ukraine, this post will explore forms of stress, its impact on conflict, and how mediators can help.

Stress takes different forms

We experience different types of stress, each one presenting its own unique challenges and impacts on our behavior. Hyperstress means having too much stress, such as having multiple demands on your time. Conversely, hypostress is too little stress, such as having a lack of challenge at work. The happy medium is what we often refer to as “normal” stress, in which our brain is responding to demands in a healthy way. If someone is hyper- or hypostressed, they may display signs of anger, irritability, aggressiveness, depression, or an inability to focus. All of these reactions can be detrimental to resolving a conflict.

Additional types of stress include eustress and distress. Eustress is “good stress” – it can be motivating and help you to win a competition, for example. It isn’t overwhelming, and it pushes you to reach a goal. However, distress is “bad stress,” which includes any stress that overwhelms and negatively impacts the mind or body.

Stress impacts conflict and mediation

For most people, conflict can cause stress, especially if you are a conflict avoider. Destructive conflict occurs when someone falls into a habitual pattern of behavior in response to conflict and is usually triggered by an event. This may consist of avoiding conflict entirely and withholding grievances due to fear of the other person’s reaction. On the other hand, one or both parties may be so wrapped up in trying to win that there’s no opportunity for constructive problem solving.

Stress doesn’t necessarily create interpersonal conflict. It is something we face every day, and is a normal response to demands sent to our brains. But in response to the behaviors and reactions that result from hyperstress and hypostress, stress in any form can certainly lead to conflict.

Stress can result in irritability as well as lashing out and dismissive behaviors, which can lead to interpersonal conflict. Consider the last time your friend, coworker, or spouse were overstressed and you tried to talk to them about a work project or concern. They may have shut you out or said they didn’t have enough time. The stress itself doesn’t cause conflict – it is the resultant behavior that might create interpersonal conflict.

When you experience stress, you are less able to participate in conflict resolution because it is more difficult to engage in higher-level thinking while stressed. There is a physical explanation for this difficulty. Stress releases chemicals in the brain that impair the prefrontal cortex, which is where higher-level thought takes place. If a friend or coworker is stressed, it becomes much more difficult to calm down and think rationally and creatively.

A mediator can help

Mediators manage difficult conversations and help people safely solve the problems they are facing. A mediator will help reduce the temperature in the room, acknowledge emotions, and open up communication so that people can begin to hear each other. Mediators lead stressed people through techniques that will allow them to step back from the situation and look objectively at the source of the problem. This is referred to as insight mediation, and it is a strategy meant to emphasize reflection. After the communication process is improved, there is likely to be increased understanding of the other side’s point of view. Then the 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. She is one of eight Maryland mediators featured on a statewide demonstration video of good mediation practice. Ellen is certified by the International Mediation Institute.  She provides mediationgroup facilitation and training to diverse clients in Washington, DC and the US. Get in touch with her via email, and follow her on LinkedIn, and Twitter.
Author: Ellen Kandell

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