Almost every interpersonal conflict follows the same pattern of escalation. Once you are familiar with that pattern, it's easier to understand how you might be escalating the conflict and the steps you can take to defuse it.
I am a licensed clinical social worker, trauma clinician, and business consultant. I've been studying and helping people resolve interpersonal and organizational conflicts for more than 25 years. When you're in the midst of conflict, it can feel like an emotionally layered mountain of confusion. But every conflict follows a similar pattern, regardless of the topic or people involved. When you know that pattern, you can disrupt it and move the conversation in a new direction.
In a typical exchange, a conversation goes back and forth as those involved alternate between speaking and listening. It is similar to a tennis match and takes just as many forms. The match could be a friendly volley, in which points don't matter because both parties are interested in connecting, collaborating, and learning from each other. Or it might be a fast, aggressive, competitive game in which winning is the point.
As is true when we play tennis, the only person we can control when we engage in a conversation is ourselves. We determine our intentions and choose how we communicate and respond to the other person. The other person's intentions, how they receive us, and what they do with the information we share is out of our control.
For the most part, if the other person is speaking respectfully to us and is willing to be open and listen to what we have to say, then we are usually capable of listening to their point of view, even if it is opposed to our way of thinking. Most of us feel comfortable engaging in an interaction that involves exchanging ideas and everyone feels heard, even if we disagree.
We must be able to talk about important topics and express our differences of opinion. It's crucial to interacting, relationships, innovation, and learning. It's also how we expand our thinking and grow as people. And while differing opinions can be the reason an interaction cascades into an intense conflict, it is not the primary one.
The factors that contribute most to the disintegration of a healthy exchange are related more to how each person conducts themself than the point each person tries to make.
Each person engaged in the conversation chooses how to respond to the other. Conversations escalate into conflict when those involved respond reactively. For example:
The cyclical pattern is clear: each person reacts to the other's reaction instead of pausing, getting curious, and seeking to understand their point of view.
When neither party chooses to understand the other's perspective or when both react instead of communicating what they are experiencing, the conflict cycle intensifies. Trust and mutual respect break down quickly, immediately, when we are not interested in each other's experiences or perspectives, and then the conflict continues to ramp up. Resolution becomes impossible.
Although you cannot control how the other person responds to you, you can choose how you initiate, continue, and conclude an interaction. Here are the choices you can make to defuse a conflict in any setting:
To defuse the conflict, you must acknowledge the other person's experience and treat them with compassion. Never minimize or disregard it, even if you don't fully understand it. Otherwise, the conflict cycle might continue endlessly.
We can always choose to invest in being right, making our point, or winning the argument. We can choose to become the loudest person in the room so everyone hears what we want and need to say. But winning doesn't matter if you never resolve the conflict. And the conflict will never be resolved if you are focused on winning, because the other person will not hear your message, no matter how important it is to you or how loud or aggressive you become.
Defusing conflict is only possible when you adopt a relational mindset and shift your focus from yourself and your desire to be right to the relationship and your collective desire to resolve the conflict.
To adopt a relational mindset, you must embrace two core beliefs:
You will have an entirely different conversation and a much better outcome when you take your ego and personal agenda out of your interactions and bring in self-awareness and healthy, practical, and effective communication tools such as those taught in The Communication Protocol, my online program for the workplace.
We must be able to extend a hand across the aisle and talk to one another about any subject in any setting. That isn't always easy. But when you are equipped with effective communication tools and understand how to resolve conflicts, it becomes a lot easier to shift your mindset, respond relationally, and get the conversation back on track when it goes off the rails.
©Copyright 2022 Debra Roberts, LCSW All rights reserved. No portion of this material may be reproduced without permission from the publisher.
A version of this article was initially published on Inc.com as: To Keep a Conversation From Becoming a Conflict, Understand and Interrupt the Pattern of Escalation