Conflict is a normal part of life. It occurs every day. At its lowest stages, conflict is seen as an opportunity to learn and grow together. At its highest levels, outside intervention is required. In between, there are distinct stages that most patterns of conflict follow. Different conflict intervention strategies are effective for each different stage of conflict.
In this article, learn more about predictable stages of conflict and the types of interventions that are appropriate at the various stages.
Although there is no bright line between the stages of conflict, there is a continuum that characterizes most stages of conflict. These are:
Level Zero: Freeze-out
Level One: Constructive Engagement
Level Two: Persuade That I’m Right
Level Three: Get My Way
Level Four: Eject the Opposition
Level Five: Annihilate the Enemy
Conflict Level Zero: Siberia
Does everyone in your family or church always get along perfectly? Is there no conflict at all? If so, this is actually a warning sign of a deeper, underlying issue.
In families and organizations, it is normal and healthy to have some conflict! Conflict means that parties are engaged and interacting, and that they care about what they are doing. If there is no conflict, it means one of two things, neither of which is good: Either parties are apathetic, or there is such severe conflict the parties are tiptoeing around some forbidden topic.
Symptoms: Think of a family where some child or cousin doesn’t attend family dinners, of a church where there is no conflict over use of the church van because no one cares to use it at all, or of a business organization where employees are afraid of voicing disagreement because they’re afraid they’ll say the wrong thing and be fired. These small examples illustrate that a complete absence of conflict is usually symptomatic of some deeper problem.
Discussion: Conflict that is never addressed means that it never gets a chance to get resolved. Indeed, an apparent too-calm surface on the water may be a sign of extreme dysfunction. If conflict were a thermometer, Level Zero would be the frozen level. Uncomfortably cold. So cold that this family or organizational system may feel like Siberia, if anyone still remains in the wasteland at all. An organization with such a chill is extremely dysfunctional and actually needs professional intervention.
Strategy: The main strategy at this level will be gradually to educate and empower participants, so that they understand there are ways of dealing with conflict without destroying an organization or family system. Participants may fear that acknowledging the gorilla in the room may destroy their organization. The problem is that the organization has a cancer that will destroy it whether people openly acknowledge it or not. The family reunions will stop; people will leave the church; or a business may close due to high employee turnover.
The best way to restore health is to educate participants about healthy conflict resolution systems and then to help them take baby steps toward healthier communication.
Conflict Level One: Fix the Problem
Conflict at its most healthy stage is not experienced as threatening by any of the participants. It’s like balmy, warm weather with a refreshing rainstorm now and then.
Symptoms: The parties recognize they are in fundamental agreement about most things. When they do have mild disagreements, this doesn’t cause them to distrust one another. Instead, differences are seen as symptomatic of differing priorities, and parties will be eager to find ways of accommodating one another. The few storms bring rain that fosters a fresh way of doing things and new growth.
Discussion: Parties in this level of conflict do not need a mediator. They feel like they have a good team, and they can work things out for themselves. With good levels of trust, willingness to listen to all sides, and clear lines of communication, conflict at this level is easy to resolve.
Strategy: The main strategy at this level will be continuing education about good conflict management and empowerment through conscious development of conflict resolution skills throughout the organization. For instance, a one day or weekend training class or retreat may be sufficient to keep the wheels of healthy conflict resolution well oiled.
Conflict Level Two: Protect Myself
If conflict is not resolved at Level One, the parties will begin to move apart and position themselves into more clearly defined, opposing positions. Although the temperature in the room feels a little warm, there is still time to open the windows and let in some fresh air.
Symptoms: In Level Two conflict, sides are more distinguishable, but the “other side” is still seen as a friend who has a different viewpoint, not as being an enemy or a problem, per se. But there is just a bit of polarization.
Signs and symptoms of this level of conflict are most likely noticed at the water cooler. There is some mild disagreement and grumbling, but not too noticeable. People are joking, but the jokes may not be very funny.
Discussion: Parties are still interested in finding a win-win position and are still willing to listen to the other side. Nevertheless, there is a difference in feeling. Parties engaged in Level Two conflict see themselves as being in competition and are very interested in protecting and promoting their own viewpoint.
Strategy: It is very wise for parties to call a mediator. To do so is like calling in a doctor before a bronchitis turns into pneumonia.
A mediator’s main strategies at this stage will be to coach in positive communication, identify parties who should be part of the conversation and make sure their voices are heard, help the parties see each other’s sides better, clear channels of communication, and point out the good things about the other side’s point of view. These steps also clear the way for finding win-win solutions, thus enabling both sides to the conflict to find things about the solution that support their needs.
Ideally, a church or organization will inoculate itself against toxic conflict by training and designating individuals to intervene in these early stages.
As conflict in Level Two moves from mild to clear disagreement, distrust also builds. Some commentators divide levels two and three into two more levels, so as conflict escalates there the thermometer rises up to 2.5 and then to 3.
A mediator may be helpful in reducing anxiety in an organizational system and by facilitating healthy styles methods for communication. It is very important that conflict be addressed, because unresolved conflict will escalate to level three.
Each level becomes increasingly challenging. The higher up the scale the conflict goes, the more training and skill the mediator must have.
Conflict Level Three: Win this Contest
If Level Three conflict were being measured by a thermometer, the room would now be uncomfortably hot.
The parties have come to view the conflict as a struggle or a battle against the other side to the dispute.
Symptoms: Parties at Level 3 conflict are no longer as concerned with the other side. Instead, they see the conflict as a battle that they want to win, and they see the other viewpoint as enemy combatants to be defeated.
It is often at this point that parties give up on a peaceful resolution. Parties begin to apply stereotypes and labels (such as “dishonest”) to each other. Real communication shuts down and power becomes more important as empathy disappears. Parties often hire a lawyer at this stage, because they want to pursue action when talking has ceased to seem effective.
Discussion: When conflict is at Level Three, distrust is high, and there will not be a peaceful or affirming resolution without outside help. Often parties to Level Three conflict will themselves be convinced that mediation is impossible. They have become distrustful of the other side’s motives. Or they think that the other side is so unreasonable that they will not listen.
Strategy: The injection of a neutral mediator can help tone down this level of conflict and bring it down to a level where mediation is possible.
However, a different style of mediation and level skill is required. Resolving conflict at this level can be done, but the mediation will need to be much more rigidly structured, the communication styles are more challenging, and parties can expect progress to be slower paced than at lower levels. Parties at this level need a professional mediator or, in an organizational or church setting, an adjudicatory team.
The mediator will need to establish firm ground rules, control the way communication is expressed, and work on resolving some trust issues before any real dialogue can occur.
In an extended family or church congregation, the mediation process will occur over time and in stages, as various underlying issues are identified and addressed.
Conflict Level Four: Get Them Out of Here
Level Four Conflict has escalated to beyond the point where the parties themselves have given up hope of a peaceful solution.
Symptoms: A party at Level Four conflict wants the opposition removed. In other words, one party or faction now openly seeks the ouster of the other. Symptoms of conflict at this level in a church or organization are pronounced. This is the level where the employee gets fired, the preacher gets removed from his post, or the beneficiaries to sue for removal of a trustee.
Clear leaders have developed and are lined up into defined, opposing factions. In the church context, groups are meeting in homes. Loud, vocal opponents stifle the more moderating middle voices. Dysfunction is obvious to participants.
Discussion: An organization or family at this level of dysfunction can be healed, but to do so will require skilled, outside intervention. Unfortunately, just as terrorists do not always want the return of peace, the extremists driving polarization do not necessarily want the return of peace and resulting loss of power to “their camp.” Some parties may choose to leave the organization rather than support a return to a more moderate, middle of the road position on whatever issues have been causing conflict.
Strategy: Level Four conflict can still be mediated, but an experienced, professional mediator or adjudicatory team is required. Moreover, the mediation must take place with the support of an outside power such as a judicial or court authority, church adjudicatory or disciplinary board, or a law enforcement agency.
Mediation will seek to empower the less vocal but moderating, middle voices, to moderate the extremist voices, and also to to enforce rules requiring that parties participate and adhere to the terms of the mediation and of the mediated agreement.
Conflict Level Five: Annihilate the Opposition
At Level Five Conflict, parties are not merely content to get rid of the opposition, they want to annihilate the enemy! The client wants the attorney disbarred, the church congregation wants the pastor defrocked, the employer gives all negative future job references.
Symptoms: In churches or organizations, this is the level where people talk in terms of “principles” rather than in terms of reasonableness. This dangerous sign of self-righteously leaning on “principles” is also accompanied by a sentiment that pursuit of these principles, or of “greater good,” justifies behavior that in ordinary circumstances would be considered to be immoral, such as treachery, dishonesty or (in warfare) torture.
Discussion: In short, the parties are going ballistic.
Conflict at level five has gone too far. It has escalated beyond the point where mediation can be of assistance.
At Level Five conflict, the only solution is to separate the combatants. At this very damaging level of conflict, the church must be split, or the business must be sold, or family members may decide never to speak again.
An outside power is often required, to intervene between the parties and force them to adhere to some sort of reasonable standard of behavior. In other words, at this level of conflict it is often necessary or appropriate to call in law enforcement to intervene.
Strategy: The task of the mediator at this level of conflict is to assist the participants in a peaceful split and then to help them gain understanding that will help break continuing cycles of dysfunctional organizational or family behavior.
Conflict proceeds through readily identifiable stages.* An understanding of these stages helps parties to gauge what type and level of mediation is helpful. The most helpful advice is that the sooner a professional mediator is brought onto the scene, the lower the likelihood of the type of miscommunication and distrust that leads to Levels Four and Five of conflict.
If you or your organization would like to schedule a consultation regarding any level of conflict, please call 803-414-0185.
*Other sources of information on staging of conflict Speed Leas at the Alban Institute, who has prepared a similar chart describing stages of conflict, and Richard Blackburn of the Lombard Mennonite Peace Center.