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How Does Disagreement Turn Into Conflict?

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For years I have asked students and workshop participants to define conflict for me.

While I have heard a great variety of definitions emerging from a wide range of contexts, at their essence most definitions are the same: Conflict happens when differences between people become difficult – differences that range from minor irritations to cases of serious violence. In fact, definitions of conflict primarily vary from this basic definition with respect to the degree of difficulty those differences create.

While it might seem strange to allow one word – conflict – to describe a range as broad as that represented by the extremes of minor irritation and serious violence, there is logic to this linguistic decision.  Unattended minor irritations, after all, have a tendency to grow such that over time they indeed take on significantly more serious characteristics of conflict. This is so much the case that it is difficult to define conflict without immediately also describing the nature of conflict escalation – that is, the movement from one extreme of conflict, minor irritation, to the other, violence (emotional or otherwise).

Before conflict is conflict, however, it is disagreement.

“Disagreements transition into conflict when the focus of the parties involved shifts from their shared problem to one another.”

Disagreement is a neutral term, describing differences still free of emotional freight or interpersonal difficulty.  During times of disagreement, two or more parties disagree with one another with respect to a shared problem.  The focus of these parties is their shared problem, not one another.  Disagreements can be calm or intense; they can be about things trivial or about things significant.  When disagreements are engaged from a problem-focused perspective, they can be remarkably healthy – even enjoyable – for the people involved.  In fact, the absence of disagreement can be as disastrous as the presence of conflict.

Disagreements transition into conflict when the focus of the parties involved shifts from their shared problem to one another. The other, not the problem, is now seen as the problem. Over time, “othering” of the other grows – the people in conflict add data to their original irritation with one another, they draw in others to confirm their growing bias against the other and they begin to view the other through the caricature they have drawn of the other for themselves.  This has profound implications:  Once people have fallen into the trap of othering the other, a pattern of relating begins to emerge that over time becomes exceedingly difficult to fully comprehend, notice, or break, limiting the possibility of new and different outcomes with respect to the growing conflict. Eventually, a tipping point is reached and what was once conflict held relatively near now breaks out into the open, causing significantly greater emotional harm and opening the door to violence and the severing of relations with the other.

To make matters more complex, the longer the process of othering occurs, the deeper the pattern becomes of seeing the other through a conflicted lens.  Furthermore, from the place of othering, one becomes increasingly removed from one’s own culpability in the problems that have occurred, limiting one’s ability to take responsibility for one’s portion of whatever happened.

The escalation of conflict described above becomes a warning sign for us, reminding us to enjoy and promote healthy disagreement, while at the same time attending to those disagreements such that they remain disagreements and not escalating conflicts.

Where do you see healthy disagreement in your life right now? Are you able to keep the focus on the shared problem, rather than the other?

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Betty Pries has more than 20 years of experience coaching, mediating, training and consulting in the areas of conflict resolution and change.   Betty's work with churches and church organizations is guided by her desire to enhance their spiritual and organizational health, and strengthen the capacities of leadership to discern a way forward.

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