When Conflict Appears

By Chris Chittenden

We all have disagreements with other people. It is the nature of being a social being that we will often come across someone who has a different opinion to us. This is a valuable aspect of life because through disagreement we have the opportunity, should we wish to take it, to reflect on our view of the world and learn from others' points of view. Disagreement can be a catalyst for change. Unfortunately, frequently we find that a disagreement will escalate into conflict. How does this happen?

Three of the key reasons for this escalation are our emotional space, our view of ourselves and our tendency to hold our view of the world as the "truth". Our emotional space consists of our moods and our emotions and we would like to distinguish between the two. Moods are with us all the time and act as a background to our actions in that they predispose us to act in certain ways and not others and to see certain possibilities and not others. When we find ourselves in certain negative moods such as resentment or frustration, the actions that we see as being possible tend to be more aggressive. This is the result of physiological changes associated with the emotions of fear and aggression, such as the build up of adrenalin in our body, which puts us on heightened alert. Our emotions are different to our moods in that they are a response to a specific event. These emotions tend to be born out of our current mood. For example, we may be driving along in a frustrated mood and be cut off by another driver. Our immediate response is out of an emotion of anger. If we had been in a joyful mood, this event would have been less likely to trigger an angry response. You would probably just take it in your stride and keep driving. When you observe any escalating conflict situation, you will also be able to track a corresponding escalation in negative moods and emotions.

Our view of ourselves provides another aspect to developing conflict. When we feel that one of our key values or aspirations is being threatened, then we are likely to respond in some way. Interestingly, there is a link here with our emotional state and when we assess that we are threatened our body will produce adrenalin in order to combat or flee the threat. The release of adrenalin normally happens before we have had the chance to apply logic to any situation putting us in a space where our strong emotions may dictate our actions. We should also point out that in many cases people are unaware of just what they specifically feel is being threatened. They simply react. One of the hardest aspects of dealing with conflict lies in establishing what is the true cause of the conflict. More often than not the presenting issue is not the main concern and resolving the presenting issue will just result in another showing up in the future.

The last key aspect of conflict lies in how we see the world. Without an awareness to the contrary, we forget that we see the world only as we see it. Instead, we often fall into the trap of believing that we see the world as it is and that others should be able to see what we see. This can lead us into a conversation where we claim that we are right and, by implication, the other person wrong. Whilst this attitude exists within the conversation, conflict will continue to flourish as both people try to defend their position.

The keys to dealing with conflict lie in being able to manage the moods and emotions of the situation and engage in conversations that will shift the situation from conflict into resolution.

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© 2001 Chris Chittenden