Three things that trigger conflict escalation – and how to avoid them

Three things that trigger conflict escalation – and how to avoid them
June 16, 2016 Fifth House Group

How often have you found yourself muttering, “Well, that escalated quickly”? Despite the humorous memes it’s seldom funny when you’re on the receiving end of an unexpected outburst. But we can keep disagreements from spiraling out of control if we understand how conflicts typically escalate, and thereby avoid doing the things that cause them to become conflicts in the first place.

In this context, a conflict escalation means an increase in the level of emotions – fear, anxiety, frustration, anger, distrust, etc. – for those involved. Left unchecked, overheated emotions can have deleterious short- and long-term consequences for any creative team or organization. (The costs of conflict are widespread, significant, and largely hidden, which is a topic for a future post.) The illustration below shows how emotions can blow up quickly– and unintentionally – even in a simple disagreement or misunderstanding:

Conflict escalation diagram

At the first level, a productive conflict devolves into personalized conflict when the focus of debate shifts from the original topic, problem or issue at hand to the individuals involved. It’s “personalized” because it’s no longer about the original problem, it’s now about the people. This stage is characterized by frequent use of the pronoun “You” followed by some form of blame, accusation, exaggeration, or insult (ex. “It’s your fault,” “You screwed up,” “You’re always doing that!” etc.). There may also be an assumed (and probably incorrect) attribution of motives (ex. “You don’t care about what I want,” or, “You’re trying to make me look bad.”). When thus accused, the natural inclination is to defend against such attacks, and our fight-or-flight mechanisms kick in. Up goes the adrenaline and intensity.

Destructive conflict is triggered when one or more parties starts dredging up the past or issues that are unrelated, or only tangentially related, to the topic at hand. Suddenly the person on the receiving end finds him/herself fending off attacks on several fronts, and you can imagine how this too provokes heightened emotions.

Hostile conflict occurs when outside parties are dragged into the fray. Common forms of this include “triangulating” (evoking sympathy or validation from a third party); “forum-shopping” (seeking a friendly arbiter, like a child playing parents off each other); and rumour-mongering (“S/He must be sleeping with the boss!”). Hostile conflict can also be triggered by copying others on email, back channel conversations, and going straight to the boss without first trying to resolve the conflict with those directly involved.

At the highest level of intensity, polarized conflict is activated when one or more parties refuses to work or communicate with the other or their associates. In these cases, battle lines are firmly drawn. Clearly this is the costliest form of conflict at a personal, team or organizational level because interaction can grind to a halt. In the creative industries, this can spell disaster.

In summary, there are three main reasons conflicts escalate:

1.    Using the word “You” followed by blame, insult, accusation, exaggeration, attribution of motives, etc.

2.    Proliferating the issues by bringing up past problems or arguments, unrelated issues, etc.

3.    Involving others through gossip, back-channel conversations, copying others on email, etc.

There are other potential triggers including interruptions, which are irritating enough when a conversation is light and congenial. Some are subtler but equally powerful, like closed body language (defensive postures such as arms crossed in front of the body), or using the word “but” because it negates anything that has come before it. For example, “I know you think we should do it that way, but I think we should do it this way.” In its place, use the word “and” because it’s inclusive; it allows both perspectives. Note the difference: “I heard you say you think we should do it that way, and I think we should do it this way.” The effect of these triggers is magnified greatly when used in conjunction with the big three.

Avoiding the conflict escalation triggers

Knowing this, there are three specific we can do to help avoid triggering an escalation:

1. Speak using “I” statements. This can be challenging for many of us, because families or cultures may encourage modesty and teach us that talking about ourselves is impolite. Or it may be that we’re simply uncomfortable expressing and asserting our own needs.

The power of “I” statements is twofold: in addition to avoiding use of the trigger word “you,” “I” statements allow people to say what they need to say without compromising the dignity or safety of the other. They allow individuals to be both assertive in expressing their needs and respectful at the same time. Furthermore, you can never be wrong if you speak about your own experience, whereas it’s easy to assume incorrectly when imputing others’ motives or actions.

Here is one model of an “I” statement:

“I am/feel ______ [describe feeling] about/when ______ [describe issue] and I would appreciate if ______ [invitation to discuss].”

For example:

•    “I’m nervous about how fast the decision was made, and I’d appreciate if we could set up a side meeting to discuss it before implementing it.”

•    “I am embarrassed about being reprimanded in the meeting in front of the group, and I’d appreciate if we could sit down and talk about what happened and how to avoid it in future.”

•    “I feel frustrated by interruptions, and I would really appreciate if we could take a few minutes to figure out how we can discuss and debate respectfully.”

A related strategy for avoiding inadvertent conflict escalation is active listening, which involves paraphrasing or restating the other person’s words to reassure them that they’ve actually been heard, and understood accurately. If there is a misapprehension, it allows for correction. This alone can bring the temperature of a conflict down a few degrees.

2. Limit the conversation to a single issue. Focus on the problem or subject that originally sparked the conflict. Remain alert to any temptation to dredge up past grievances or throw other complaints into the mix, especially if or when you feel yourself being triggered.

3. Work it out between you first. It is perfectly acceptable, in many cases advisable, to express your emotions and your needs to the other party(ies) in a conflict, as long as you assert yourself respectfully. Resist the urge to vent to a third party or CC the whole office, otherwise you risk inflaming the situation. Most people have the capacity to negotiate a satisfactory outcome to a conflict without having it spiral out of control, but they don’t always feel they have the skills. Or they fear the strong emotions that come with conflict. Now that you know how to avoid using escalation triggers or how you can be triggered, you have some basic tools to enable a calmer, mutual problem-solving and decision-making process.

That said, there are legitimate instances where a third party may need to be involved. You can find a free Conflict Assessment Worksheet available for download here; it will help you determine whether you should seek outside help navigating a conflict, and what type of assistance may be appropriate.

The strategies discussed here are not guaranteed to work in all situations, and they require practice to be effective. It can be tough and lonely taking the high road, but someone has to take the lead and set a positive example; too few people have the necessary skills for successful conflict resolution, especially in the heat of the moment. It’s not easy when someone is pushing your buttons. But the short-term challenge is worth the longer-term peace of mind that comes from preventing a conflict from spiraling out of control.  – kda


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