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How to Recognize and Resolve Destructive Conflict Patterns

  • Posted by: Ellen Kandell

In Managing Conflict Through Communication, Ruth Abigail and Dudley Cahn take a process view of conflict that sees the conflict as dynamic and changeable and moving through various stages. In the destructive conflict model, people get stuck in one phase while successfully resolved conflict moves through the five distinct steps or phases. There are two primary destructive conflict cycles: 

The Confrontation Avoidance Cycle occurs with people whose first impulse is to avoid initiating conflict. They think of conflict as bad and avoid it as long as possible, handling it poorly when the conflict gets out of control. 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.

The Chilling Effect is a special case of avoidance that occurs when one person in a relationship withholds grievances from the other usually due to fear of the other person’s reaction. People who are engaged in this cycle believe that the conflict is not worth the effort, which often leads to decreased communication and commitment.

In the Competitive Escalation and Violence Cycle, conflict gets bogged down in the differentiation phase. People are so concerned with winning that they aren’t able to respond in a problem-solving manner. Previously unresolved conflict fuels this cycle, and a lot of blaming occurs. Behaviors that contribute to escalation of conflict include: yelling, making verbal threats, mocking, encouraging rivalry, invading space, and insults.

There are three types of competitive escalation: aggressor-defender, conflict spiral, and structural change. In the aggressor-defender model, one person acts as the aggressor, and the other person engages in defensive behavior. In the conflict spiral, the participants are engaged in an intense, repetitive cycle of action and reaction. Structural change uses indirect confrontation, 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 Conflict

If you find yourself involved in a destructive conflict cycle, one strategy is to take a step back and actively listen to the other person. This will force you to pay attention to the grievances of the other person and determine whether you can come to a resolution or if you need a mediator to step in. Another strategy is to remain 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.

What if you are the one initiating the destructive conflict cycle? Strategies include 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. Additionally, you can find out the cause of the conflict pattern and determine if unresolved conflicts, negative emotions, or prior arguments are contributing to the behavior.

If you are faced with destructive conflict patterns, a mediator can employ strategies to help the destructive communicator to become aware of their conflict pattern and address it. A professional 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. 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 mediation, group 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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