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Imagine you are having a happy morning. You wake up, take a bath and go out to purchase some groceries. The supermarket is playing some soft jazz music. You are waiting on the billing counter for your turn. The customer in front of you seems a bit agitated. Watching his hurry-scurry on such a beautiful day, you pass a smile to the cashier. The customer caught that and demanded to know why you are smiling. The next thing you know, his voice is louder than Kenny G‘s saxophone, talking about how rude people are these days.

Violence need not always mean physical violence. Such yelling and aggressive behaviour are disastrous as well. In such moments, you have a choice, to do something or do nothing. What more can you do? Do you yell back, “None of your business!” or do you ignore him and not let him ruin your day?

The purpose of this article is to illustrate the concept of de-escalation with storytelling techniques. In the example illustrated above, you have two paths in front of you.

Option one – you show that man his place and tell him to mind his business.
Option two – you take a step back and apply some de-escalation techniques so you don’t have to waste your precious day fuming about this guy.

Of course, all of this is easier said than done. Often, at the very moment, the conflict is happening, our fight or flight response kicks in. Many of us freeze and make knee-jerk reactions based on past conditioning – which may or may not be productive.

The clock is ticking. By now, the line is getting longer, another customer yells out “Guys, please stop holding up the line!” By default, you end up ignoring his outburst as you get ushered forward. You feel like you were robbed of the opportunity to speak up and set him straight. But what are we missing exactly? What are the actions you ‘missed out’ on? In an article[5] published in the Martial Arts Magazine in 2008 written by Mr. Drew Guest, he suggests a different approach towards de-escalation or reducing the intensity of aggression. He emphasizes what not to do by using the keyword T.A.C.O.S. Let’s take a look at this concept in a little more detail.

  1. Threaten
  2. Argue
  3. Challenge
  4. Order
  5. Shame

So, going back to the grocery store scenario, how should you not talk to that angry customer?

So, why should you hold back? Also, doesn’t holding back make you look weak? To work out the answer to this question, imagine the tables being turned and you are the chaos maker in this situation. Do you think being threatened, argued to, challenged, ordered around or shamed would help you calm down? Would the person responding in this manner look like they are strong and in control of the situation? No, right? Sometimes, doing nothing can help you de-escalate a conflict. By choosing to ignore the anger and impatience projected towards you, it is possible to set and maintain strong, healthy boundaries – and remain in control of your emotions – even if the other person is losing their proverbial cr*p.

Sometimes, the situation can already be out-of-hand with no real way to diffuse the tension immediately. If the other person is looking for trouble and won’t back down, you might benefit from understanding the different types of rising conflict so you can navigate the dynamics of the situation.

Rise of conflicts

A conflict arises when individuals with differences in values, opinions and interests are unable to reach an agreement on a particular issue. No two individuals think alike – we are all products of our childhood, conditioning, genetics and social background. Conflicts are natural, ubiquitous and can even be opportunities for better understanding and cooperation.

Let’s go back to the grocery store scenario. After having a rough day dealing with an unknown stranger in the supermarket, you go home. With some hesitation, you park your car in your shared parking space – the woman parked next to you has not bothered to straighten out his car but you manage to park yours in your space. You have already had a rough morning, having to squeeze the car in because of your neighbour’s parking negligence doesn’t help. As you lock up and drag your groceries to the elevator, your parking spot neighbour comes running to you with three kids in tow, asking why you couldn’t have picked another spot to park – and that now she is going to have to maneuver her car in order to get it out safely and she is going to be late for her kids’ soccer practice! Imagine the audacity of this woman!

Another conflict – or maybe an opportunity for communication?

Again, you have two choices. Choice one, you set her straight with a lecture about how she didn’t park properly and wonder out loud how she even got a driving licence. Choice two, you take a deep breath and in a calm voice, you let her know that you have tried your best to park as far away from her car and within your own parking spot as possible. You even muster up some generosity to tell her you can only imagine how hard it can be driving kids around all day.

In scenario one, how do you think this woman might react? How would you react if someone questioned your ability to drive? In scenario two, how would you react in that woman’s place, if someone tried to sympathize with you knowing deep down that you were at fault for parking your car wrong?

An unchecked conflict can result in heated arguments, physical abuse and loss of mental peace. Unchecked conflict also changes relationships for the worse. Friends can become foes and neighbours become toxic. While all situations may not always be under your control, you have full control over how you react to the things that happen around you. Your reaction can be better titrated if you are able to identify different kinds of conflict. In particular, there are three common types of conflicts: task conflicts, relationship conflicts and value conflicts.

Katie Shonk speaks about these types of conflicts in detail in an article for Harvard[6]. We have taken inspiration from that article and presented our take on each of these types of conflict in detail below.

Task-related conflict

Task-related conflict is usually related to concrete issues such as resource allocation, work tasks, different expectations and interpretation of facts. It may seem like resolving such conflict is a simple matter of sitting down and discussing the issue, but often when you sit down to explore such conflicts, you may discover deeper issues underlying the problem that you may not be able to detect at first glance. Task conflicts can be resolved through mediation, active listening and exploring deeper concerns using a collaborative problem-solving approach. This collaborative approach also strengthens both parties’ ability to honour the agreement or outcome that has been decided together.

Going back to the parking lot scenario, your neighbour is arguing with you over where you parked your car, but in the back of her mind, she is tired and running late because of her kids. A simple acknowledgement of the difficulty she is facing can open up the floor for an amicable resolution – allowing you to politely request that she can straighten up her car in the future.

Relationship-related conflict

Relationship conflict stems from personality issues, communication styles and differences in personal taste. When different kinds of people are thrown together in a work, social or familial setting, it can take some learning and unlearning for them to try and get along. Relationship conflict is very common both in the world of work and at home. Relationship conflicts have the potential to escalate rapidly – but can also be easy to manage if both parties make an effort to discover and acknowledge areas of common ground. Ironically, acknowledging things we have in common can help you accept each other’s differences. Once you have a common ground established, it becomes much easier to discuss and resolve the source of strain and start to see each other’s point of view. Empathy is a great tool for resolving relationship-based conflict.

So, in your parking lot scenario, when you acknowledge how difficult it must be for that mother to manage multiple kids at once, you also open the door to find common ground and discuss how difficult it is for you to manage groceries and have a little laugh about how you are both in such a hurry. From there, you might be able to bring up the issue of the wonky parking – making it easier for the mother to accept that she did in fact park in an obstructive manner. If you are comfortable, bring up the source of the tension. Focus on improving the relationship and not just parking your car. Who knows, a small conversation may put an end to the constant friction over parking space.

Value-related conflict

Value-related conflicts arise from deeply ingrained values and belief systems as well as mannerisms and etiquette. While much value-related conflict arises from issues of identity, politics, beliefs and policies, this particular type of conflict need not always be related to deep ethical issues. Value-related conflict can arise from relatively mundane issues too – such as differences in opinion about hand hygiene, organization, parenting style and other day-to-day activities. In fact, research conducted by Lawrence Susskind, a professor at MIT, indicates that even conflict over minor ethical issues can lead to defensive reactions, alienation, loss of trust and rejection[8].

Sometimes people feel really strongly about such conflicts that standing by their values becomes even more important to their interests than fulfilling any other interests they may have. Rather than seeking absolute resolution, it is much more helpful in this situation for both parties to stop demonizing the other and try to move towards mutual respect – even if they agree to disagree on particular issues.

This is where a clear intellectual understanding of the other person’s point of view can help – even if emotionally and ethically, you still disagree. Such ‘values-neutral’ [2] discussions need not involve better emotional connection or empathy – you just need to work on reframing the issue and look to understand where the other person is coming from. It also helps to explore if you share any other values that can help you find common ground.

So, back to the parking lot scenario, you may feel strongly that everybody needs to have a little consideration and civic responsibility towards others, making you feel especially contemptuous of the disorganized mother running around with her kids. However, if you examine the issue further after sharing a brief but positive discussion, you may realize that the mother is simply overwhelmed, and not lacking in a civic sense as she realizes her mistake and apologizes to you for the inconvenience. That’s the thing about conflict, it can be an incredible opportunity for introspection and deeper understanding.

Conflict in times of crisis

Conflicts arising during times of adversity harm you mentally, questioning your values, ethics and relationships. We cannot have a legit discussion about conflict without addressing how the Covid-19 pandemic has brought to the surface issues that were long dormant. Over the past year and a half, many people have realized that we are not helpless victims, each and every one of us has the power to spark change and improve the world around us. As the world reels under this monumental shift, racial issues, religious tensions, gender conflict and many other types of conflict are seemingly on the rise. However, not all conflict is ‘bad’. Some conflicts serve as catalysts for positive change as people start challenging the status quo. Of course, the ongoing political unrest, rallies and other impactful events in 2020 made people more prone to mental distress, anxiety and even depression. According to American Psychological Association[3], nearly 8 in 10 adults (78%) say the coronavirus pandemic is a significant source of stress in their life. A recent survey[4] on Covid-19 shows that the prevalence of mental disorders is more than four times higher among those who experienced feelings of loneliness or isolation as an impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Indeed, people are acknowledging both internal and external conflict and voicing their opinions on the issue like never before. In fact, a conflict with one’s own self is known as inner-conflict. Inner conflict is when you’re battling with yourself via frequent daily internal contradictions. We all experience these, whether or not we are aware of them. The pandemic has simply forced us to slow down and take a long hard look at things we would normally have brushed aside as we rushed about our busy days.

When catastrophic things like a lethal pandemic, climate crisis and mental health crises happen on a global scale at the same time, it is very easy to slip into an ocean of grief and sadness. Still, the beauty of the human organism is that we are highly adaptable and resilient. Over the past year, people have come up with amazing solutions to large-scale problems – climate anxiety counselling, grief counselling, citizen helpers actively connecting patients and their families to oxygen and other resources. Yes, we are seeing rising conflict. However, we are also seeing an increasing number of communities coming together in solidarity addressing injustice, helping those less privileged and even sparking activism and change. Conflict management skills allow us to bend but not break – to bounce back and perhaps even grow in the face of adverse life experiences. Conflict and resilience go hand in hand for a reason.

Resolving Conflict

As we learned earlier, amongst all the other downsides to conflicts, the most prevailing is the definite loss of peace and harmony. Conflict resolution is the ability to find a solution, to tone down or eliminate situations of unrest that do not serve a positive purpose. Learning this skill requires a lot of commitment and time – but the rewards go well beyond getting your way in relationships at work and at home. The process starts with an internal reframing of conflicts as an opportunity for positive change. Here are three markers of a successful conflict resolution exercise.

1. Mental peace

People avoid conflict because it can create an aura of negativity and discomfort. Apart from feeling uncertainty and anxiety, you may feel uneasiness in your stomach, headaches and other psychosomatic responses. When conflict is resolved successfully, you may experience mental peace and the feeling of being at ease.

2. Greater empathy

Ignoring problems will only serve to amplify them. When you work alongside someone else towards a common goal even if it is just cooperating together for conflict resolution, your brain will automatically see the other person as an ally. Finding this common ground can help cultivate greater empathy or at least a small measure of conceptual understanding of where the other person is coming from.

3. Deeper insights

If everyone agreed with everyone all the time, there would be no reason to innovate, consider unique perspectives or improve the world around us. When people share their own individual opinions and ideas, it gives others an opportunity to look at situations in different ways. An environment of open-mindedness and flexibility is created. Oftentimes, the most impactful ideas are ones that combine different points of view towards a shared goal.

Five approaches to conflict resolution

Kenneth Thomas and Ralph Kilmann came up with the five conflict resolution styles that people use to handle conflict. These strategies include avoiding, defeating, compromising, accommodating and collaborating. Let us examine each of these to see where we stand.

Avoiding

Avoiding is when people just withdraw from the ongoing conflict. Watching your angry neighbour approaching you with a scowling face or falling prey to the annoying fellow customer yelling at you for a misunderstanding, you will experience the discomfort of confrontation, making you feel like you just want to scurry away quickly. This may seem to be the easiest option to go for with the least level of assertion and cooperation, but nothing is resolved. This strategy is useful for situations where you know the other person is not looking for a resolution – use this strategy carefully.

Defeating

If you have a high level of assertion and less cooperation, you may be competing to resolve the issue so that you have the upper hand. Your main intention is to win the conflict. There is no room for diverse perspectives. You can win wars and tournaments with this strategy, but it is not preferable for group solving dynamics. This strategy is useful in competitive environments such as sports or sales – but use it with caution because you may end up alienating people.

Accommodating

Accommodating is when one party gives in to the wishes or demands of another. It may appear that one party has figured out their mistake in the argument or is the weaker party because they are acting cooperatively and not assertive. You may accommodate merely to preserve harmony and to avoid disruption. Like avoidance, accommodation can result in unresolved issues. This happens in groups where the assertive party takes control and the rest just follow along to make things easier. This strategy may be useful in a group with a strong leader where you are looking to secure quick resolution for positive action. Again, this strategy works in group situations where cooperation is important.

Collaborating

Collaborating is a strategy used when people are both assertive and cooperative. Both the parties allow each participant to make a contribution with the possibility of co-creating a shared solution that everyone can support. This is made possible when you engage equally in the relationship, differences do not limit participation and you respect the authorities or customs. Collaboration is a great strategy for conflict management – this is true for both one-to-one conflict as well as group settings with multiple stakeholders.

Compromising

Another strategy is compromising. You both are partially assertive and cooperative. You both give up a few of your wants and desires for the greater goal of harmony. The perception of the best outcome when working by compromise is that which “splits the difference.” Though compromise is perceived as being fair, no party is particularly happy with the final outcome. Compromising is a strategy that can be useful when no other method of conflict resolution has been successful. When two parties are standing opposite each other holding on to a strong set of non-negotiables, a compromise can help you move forward productively while still maintaining a working relationship. This strategy may be helpful in business transactions when there are no other options to help create a win-win situation.

Conflict Management Theory

Conflict resolution is not a simple process. However, just because something is difficult to execute does not mean you should avoid it. Conflict management theories are great tools to help you solve the conflict amicably before things escalate to a level where they are difficult to manage. We found this great set of models on the CTO Craft[7] website. Here is our take on these theories.

Transactional Analysis

With the transactional analysis model, interactions between people include direct (spoken and phrase) and hidden (unspoken communication or unspoken words) areas. When people interact, they play the role of parent, adult or child. A ‘parent’ shows attention, controls behaviour and can raise his voice during communication. An ‘adult’ uses objective statements, insensitive discussions and seeks ways to achieve a goal with a focus. The ‘child’ shows emotional behaviour, knee-jerk actions and provides excuses rather than reflection and analysis.

Non-violent Communication (NVC)

Non-violent communication is a fantastic tool for formal, legal, business and social settings. This method can help mediate court proceedings and also serves to resolve conflicts in a variety of settings. The purpose of this type of conflict is to find common ground and agreement between the opposing parties so that no one has to resort to compromise. In this approach, there is no one-sided solution. Instead, the mediator facilitates the conversation and encourages both parties to be open but to listen to the preferences and needs of the other.

Interest-based Rational Approach (IbRA)

With the IbRA method, it may be helpful to reconsider the conflict and see it as a negotiation process. You would begin by separating people from the problem so that you can focus on interests instead of positions. Then, you would help people learn to manage emotions, express appreciation and express solutions through positive messages. When done correctly, this approach helps conflicting parties break the toxic cycle of action and reaction to move forward based on both parties’ interests in order to bring about a positive outcome.

Crucial Confrontations (CC)

The crucial confrontations model encourages both parties to focus on the facts, stay calm, listen respectfully to the other person. This model uses communication tools to help both parties work to encourage the other person in order to implement the behaviour change. Crucial communication is a great tool to be used when trust has been broken because of broken promises, poor communication or bad behaviour.

Each of the above models gives us insights into the different approaches one can adopt in order to create a great resolution

Conflict Resolution

So, you’re armed with all these theories and styles of conflict management. What use is all this knowledge on conflicts if by the end you can’t possibly put these theories into action to influence a positive outcome? If you read the above sections, you already know why you need to resolve the conflict – now, we learn about the ‘how’! It is time for implementation. We found some interesting work by Conover[1] that talked about different ways in which you can put all these conceptual frameworks into action for better conflict resolution. Here is our take on these conceptual frameworks.

Defining the conflict

Before you start jumping to conclusions and resolution, ask yourself, “What is the real problem issue here?” Read between the lines and try to figure out the source that triggered the causes of the conflict at hand. Collect all available pieces of information from all the parties involved. Start with yourself. Avoid generalities at all costs. If you don’t sort the conflict from the very beginning, you may be paving the road for future conflict. So, start by defining the nature of the conflict.

Communicating effectively

Once you have clarified the core issue you are trying to resolve, you and your conflict partner will need air time. However, diving back using the same communication style that you used when the conflict happened will only lead to bigger problems, so you will need to mentally prepare to use a more effective approach towards communication. Listen attentively and with cooperation when the other is speaking. Do not interrupt and make sarcastic remarks. The meeting should be conducted at a place where there are no interruptions. Only after all the cards are laid on the table should you proceed to ask questions. Listen to their story before promoting your own version. Active listening skills are crucial here.

Reframing the issue

Regardless of whether this is a work, personal or social relationship, the ultimate goal is to build an open, honest relationship with two-way communication. Reframing the problem with a lot of respect can help build bridges while still giving each party a semblance of control and comfort. If this is a bigger personal or work issue, you can even take the help of a mediator to ensure that the conversation is positive, productive and an atmosphere of deference is maintained. At this stage it is critical that both parties refrain from violent activities like screaming or yelling. Reframing helps you see new possibilities and allows each person to feel heard so that you can move forward for a mutually acceptable solution.

Planning ahead

After both the parties have teased out their feelings and differences, it is time to find a solution. With your newly refrained perspectives, you will be able to Come up with solutions that make both parties happy. Keep in mind that a resolution may not necessarily give both parties everything that they want. Part of planning ahead when managing conflict is also resetting reasonable expectations that there will be some compromises ahead. Acknowledging this reality will help both parties stay pragmatic and avoid conflict in the future. You both can take part in giving reasonable solutions to the problems. You may not get everything that you wanted, but in the words of Tyrion Lannister, “No one is very happy, which means it’s a good compromise.”

Committing to resolve

Once you have arrived at a potential solution, you must put in a follow-through action plan In place to ensure that all of your hard work does not go to waste. If possible, try to get serious commitments on both sides while avoiding ambiguous phrases like”I’ll try” – such phrases should not be a part of your lexicon if you want to curb future conflict. Instead, phrases like “I will” and “we can” lend an air of genuine concern and serious commitment. This simple exercise ensures that there are no gray areas or lip service that have been overlooked. This also ensures buy-in for both parties – you either speak up now or forever hold your silence. Well, at least for a long time of now forever! The emotional and intellectual work required for such mutual commitment is tough – but the resolution at the other end will be smoother, stronger and ensure a fair takeaway for all involved. Another strategy that helps at this stage is to create a deadline specifying the date and time for the actions to be completed as well.

Sharing feedback

Before you part ways, you also want to set a future date for sitting down to review the new strategies at a later date. This follow-up session will be really valuable in helping you measure the effective implementation of all the planning that came out of your conflict resolution session. Establish a follow-up meeting where you will get back together to measure the results. Take a look at some of these questions that you may consider together. Did everyone do what they promised to do? Is each person sticking to the agreed-upon plan, or did anyone choose to do something different? What was the reason for such a change? If there is a discrepancy, address it immediately to get back on track toward a final resolution. Alternatively, discrepancies are also great opportunities to figure out creative solutions – so keep an open mind.

At the end of the day, conflict management requires people to be as honest as possible while still being sensitive to the feelings of the other person. It helps to come from a place of mutual respect and some sort of common ground. There may be times when you are tested. Of course, with anything new, there will be pitfalls along the road, times where one or both parties regress to old patterns. Think of these blips as opportunities to bring attention back to your mutually decided upon resolution. Instead of being upset at each other, you can use this opportunity for creating a stronger relationship – even if it is a co-worker, client, family member or friend.

References:

  1. Jacobson, Stefan. “The benefits of conflict resolution” Conover Company, 22 March, 2017. www.conovercompany.com/the-benefits-of-conflict-resolution/
  2. Mnookin, Robert., Peppet, Scott, R. and Tulumello, Andrew, S. “Beyond Winning: Negotiating to Create Value in Deals and Disputes” Harvard University Press, 15 April, 2004, www.hup.harvard.edu/catalog.php?isbn=9780674012318
  3. N.A. “Covid-19 is a significant stressor for most Americans” American Psychological Association, N.D. www.apa.org/images/sia-2020-covid-stress_tcm7-279798.jpg
  4. N.A. “Survey on COVID-19 and Mental health, September to December 2020”. Statistics Canada, 18 March, 2021. www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/daily-quotidien/210318/dq210318a-eng.htm
  5. Rivera, Luis. “De-escalation; the art of avoiding violence”. NA, ND. www.endesastres.org/files/The_best_way_to_deal_with_violence_is_to_avoid_it_1_.pdf
  6. Shonk, Katie. “3 types of Conflict and how to address them” Harvard, 1 Oct, 2020. www.pon.harvard.edu/daily/conflict-resolution/types-conflict/
  7. Skipper, Andy. “Models for conflict resolution – choose the right one for you” CTO Craft, 27 July 2020, www.ctocraft.com/blog/models-for-conflict-resolution-choose-the-right-one-for-you/
  8. Susskind, Lawrence and Rose, Adam, Z. “How to negotiate when values are at stake.” CBI, 1 Oct, 2010, www.cbi.org/article/2010/how-to-negotiate-when-values-are-at-stake/

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