How conflict escalates

I mentioned in my last post Finding Common Ground that people “argue conclusions,” and more readily relate to sensory experiences. In this post, I want to explore the mechanisms involved. If we are to find common ground, it is important that we understand mechanisms whereby conflict escalates — there is an adage: “Give a man a fish and he will feed for a day; teach a man to fish, and he will feed for a lifetime.”

That very adage is sensory. I can almost guarantee that in reading it, you had memories that engaged with the adage. Similarly in this post I want to teach how conclusions provoke conflict. Then I hope you may be able to take the skill into your own conflicts.

My operational definition of conflict is “difference in a closed space” — that closed space is a relationship of two (or more) people. One of Joe Schaefer’s fundamental premises was “the conflict is not the relationship,” the conflict is only part of the present relationship.

First, a diagram of importance, an emotional triangle. Imagine a triangle consisting of two people (me and you) and an issue (a conflict). Most people will say: “Let’s resolve this conflict so we can feel good about each other.” They put the conflict in the middle of the relationship. Instead, Joe said: “Let’s feel good about each other as we resolve our conflict.” Note the difference. The emotional triangle makes it clear that the conflict is not the relationship; it is part of the present difficulties of these two people, only a part of the relationship.

There are some fundamental principles of emotional triangles that are important here. First, each person of the triangle can directly influence the other person plus their own connection to the conflict. But they cannot directly connect to the other limb, the so-called 3rd Limb of each person (relative to the person).

Second, healthy exchange in communication is direct. It may not always be pleasant (for example, the healthy expression of anger) but the long-term outcome is potential health. Unhealthy exchange crosses into the third limb; it generally is not cooperative (although the individual impacted may choose to cooperate, e.g., an employee being told what to do by an angry boss).

A major example here is the distinction between feedback and criticism. In feedback, I give you information about myself that you cannot obtain in any other way — I tell you my experience. There is no requirement that you be different; it is simply a description of what I am experiencing, and generally I tell it in the hopes that our relationship will improve. In criticism however, I want you to be different — you should be different (according to me). The operational word here is should!

So what do conclusions do? Think of your response to any significant issue in your life, and what you concluded is the appropriate course of action to resolve the as-yet-unresolved issue. How did you language this conclusion? Again, I can almost guarantee that your conclusion contained some euphemism of should (have to, must, et cetera). Now, state your conclusion aloud, and feel your intensity. To what extent are you focused on the other being different (and perhaps yourself also)?

Thus, on most occasions when conclusions are stated in conflict, they become an implied criticism of the other. And who enjoys being criticized? What enjoys being told what they should be doing?

Hence, escalation!

The methodology of describing experience without stating conclusions minimizes this, as described in the previous post. We respond best to lived experience or metaphor that encapsulates experience. We generally do not fight with the narrative descriptions of others — we might disagree with the conclusion, but we usually trust that the other is telling the truth of their experience. And we share their reality.

Also, perhaps when we tell our own stories, we might be able to step into our own limited experience and the humility of uncertainty.

Can we go on feeling good about each other as we resolve our differences? Yes, we can!

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