Thursday, December 23, 2010

Breaking through the Conflict Cycle

I was sitting in Kathy’s office, explaining what I’d done for one of her clients while she was away. For a split second, Kathy looked angry. But when I asked what was wrong, she denied it. I persisted. I knew that look and I trusted my feelings. Kathy again replied, “Nothing’s wrong.” Then, trying to understand her point of view, I wondered aloud—was Kathy afraid I was stealing her clients? Her face changed again. I knew I had found the truth. It took a while for Kathy to admit her fears but as she opened up, I heard her concerns and she heard my explanations. Our relationship grew closer that day.

Conflicts build over time from small events. During a meeting with Amy, we can interpret her tone of voice or facial expression negatively and leave with a vague feeling of discomfort. Over time, we slowly begin to mistrust Amy. Soon we see more evidence of her rudeness. We begin to treat her differently. Soon there is tension in all our interactions. Finally, there is an outburst and the conflict is recognized. Because it has been building over time, it will be much harder to overcome.

Cycle of Conflict
A sense of something wrong-->a small event-->an attitude begins to form-->
More events confirm our attitude-->tension and discomfort-->conflict explodes.

If we can intervene in the cycle earlier, we can prevent attitudes from forming and hardening. We can prevent a growing (if unconscious) cycle of nonverbal behaviors that increase defensiveness and inhibit trust. We can prevent words and actions that we’ll later regret.

Do I recognize the small signs of another’s anger or fear?

Unfortunately, it takes perseverance and skill to intervene at the smaller levels of conflict. Because our society frowns on anger, we’re often tempted (like Kathy) to deny it. Through trial and error we will learn when to trust our own intuitions and when to believe a denial. We will also learn to always check our assumptions about nonverbals.

Team reflection: Do we have explosions of conflict that seem to “come out of the blue?” If so, how can we intervene sooner into the conflict cycle?

Journal prompt: This week in addition to basic journaling, reflect on any conflicts in your life. Can you think back in time and discover when the conflict started? Can you intervene sooner in milder conflicts that may be forming now?
© 2010 Laura Lewis-Barr all rights reserved

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