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September 21, 2007

How to Recognize Conflict Situations Early

Conflict is inevitable. Disputes are not. A dispute begins when someone makes a claim or demand on another who rejects it. For the most part when people think of a conflict, they are already in a dispute. Being able to distinguish between a conflict on the one hand and a dispute on the other is a key skill. If we want to address conflicts early, before they become full blown disputes, we have to know how to recognize them early.

Most definitions of conflict focus on the substance of the conflict-the fact that there are differences about resources, communication, roles, etc. For example, conflict may be defined as differences about how expected needs will be met.

However, there are two other dimensions of a conflict that are often neglected-the psychological and procedural. If we expand our definition to include them, we increase our capacity to detect conflict early.

Let’s start with the psychological dimension. We all know that conflict surfaces a range of emotions, typically those that fall within the negative range of the spectrum, like anger and fear. We often experience awareness of these emotional states before we have cognitive awareness that we are in a conflict. So if we use emotional tension as an early warning sign we are going to be ahead of the game.

Turning to the procedural dimension- When all is said and done, there are really three core responses to conflict- some form of avoidance (flight), some form of combative engagement (fight) and some form of collaborative engagement (talk). Again, we often exhibit or see others exhibit these behaviors before there is awareness that there is a conflict.

So, next time you notice that you have a negative emotional charge in respect of someone that you didn’t normally, and that you are starting to avoid them, then chances are that there is a conflict brewing. Now is your best chance to do something.

That is, if you want to head off a dispute, which is really a conflict that has moved from a difference to a disagreement.


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So if we use emotional tension as an early warning sign we are going to be ahead of the game.

Liked you on Facebook, too. =)

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