As I mentioned in my post about why conflicts escalate, bad things can happen when we perceive other people's words or actions to be a threat to us in some way.
As a result of this perception of threat, we often get angry. Then, we behave in ways that they perceive as a threat, and the conflict escalation cycle begins.
Our natural responses to conflict often begin with this perception of threat. This perception triggers our “fight-or-flight” response, and our adrenal glands kick into high gear. At this point, our bodies get flooded with adrenaline and logical, rational thought pretty much stops (at least for a moment).
When we perceive others to be a threat, we generally act in two ways that can be incredibly effective at protecting us from physical harm and terribly detrimental when it comes to resolving most workplace and family conflicts.
How the “fight” response contributes to conflict escalation is pretty straightforward. With this approach, we usually come on too strongly and too aggressively for the vast majority of normal relational situations. As a result, the other person feels a direct threat from our response.
How the “flight” response contributes to conflict escalation is a little more subtle, and still just as powerful in its affect on the conflict escalation cycle.
The flight response often leads us to disengage, remain quiet, and withdraw from the person we perceive as a “threat.”
Depending on the other person's perspective, withdrawing from the situation can signal a number of things that actually contribute to escalating rather than de-escalating the situation (if not immediately, then over time).
For example, they might view us as being unmotivated, unconcerned, or unwilling to engage. In any of these cases, they can feel compelled to pursue interaction in an effort to settle the issue. They pursue, we withdraw, they pursue some more, we withdraw further, etc.
Our withdrawal, rather than helping the situation, has escalated the conflict.
To avoid either of these negative responses, I suggest an approach that starts this way:
Question the story you are telling yourself about the other person.
For example, you can question whether or not they actually intend to be a threat to you by re-framing your internal dialogue this way:
- “Do they mean to harm me in some way, or did I just misunderstand?”
- “Are they really on the attack, or are they just tired and having a bad moment?”
- “Are they an evil person, or did I say something that offended them?”
Alternative stories can stop our perception of threat and lead us to a more positive, rational, and engaged response than either a heated attack or an icy withdrawal. We can act to resolve the communication breakdown rather than act to escalate the conflict.
Please share your thoughts on the steps you can take to move conflicts towards resolution and away from escalation.