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5 stages of relationship conflict

Learn to recognize when you're causing your own relationship drama in the workplace.

5 min read


5 stages of relationship conflict


Workplace conflicts and unproductive behaviors don’t just happen suddenly. Communication and relationship conflicts progress over several stages that can overlap, repeat and circle back around. These conflicts negatively affect productivity, engagement, teamwork and trust.

These progressive stages are not necessarily linear but they are identifiable. Once we understand the stages of relationship drama, we can see the warning signs sooner rather than later, address the situation and potentially turn the situation around. 

Stage 1: Inner disturbance

You know something isn’t right, but you haven’t articulated it yet because you can’t quite put your finger on it. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had a high level leader tell me something like, “They are just not an asset but I can’t really tell you what’s going on.” The point here is that if you can’t name it you can’t change it.

Stage 2: Avoidance

You avoid difficult conversations.  Instead, you say things like, “we’re all adults,” and “It’s not the end of the world.” Putting your head in the sand is a coping technique that almost always backfires.

Stage 3: Seeing the other as an adversary

The very feelings you were trying to avoid at stage 2 has now magnified. Even the mention of the other person’s name triggers feelings of aversion, resentment and anger. You tell yourself a story to make sense of the situation. You say, “He’s clueless” or “She’s a narcissist” or “He doesn’t care about anyone but himself.” The situation has become personal.

Stage 4: Seeking social proof

This stage is where you start building a case that your perception is the truth with a capital T. You talk to others who agree with your assessment. You have become a victim of confirmation bias. All you can see is evidence that you have been correct all along.

Stage 5: Aggression

This stage can range from sarcasm and innuendo to make a point or having a complete melt down on the other person. You explode and think you have an anger problem, when in reality you have an awareness problem.

Here’s a personal example with the breakdown of how it works.

I was working with a team of colleagues and noticed a lot of negativity within the group. One person in particular continued to make rude comments, innuendos and subtle put-downs.

I couldn’t help notice how badly I felt after our interactions.

This is stage 1: I felt bad when I was around this person. I felt defensive instead of safe.

But I thought “he’s probably joking” so I dismissed it.

Now I’m in stage 2: Avoidance.  I justified the bad behavior by saying he is probably joking. This allows me to avoid conflict, therefore the behavior and “joking” continues.

After a few exchanges, I started viewing him as my adversary, which is stage 3.  I started asking others things like, “Do you think he’s sarcastic and negative?” 

And, now I’m in stage 4: Seeking social proof. Sometimes we are unaware of how we are seeing the other person until we start discussing with other people.

Eventually, I started lashing out at him under the guise of “just joking.” I admit, it felt good sometimes to have the last word and put Jim in his place. This is stage 5.

As you might guess, Jim and I are on the brink of relationship drama.

I could have addressed the situation much earlier. I could have questioned Jim’s motives earlier if I would have had the clarity to notice the advancing stages.

The breakthrough happened when I decided to stop viewing Jim as my adversary and redefined the way I viewed conflict.

Here’s a new way to view conflict

Conflict starts with an inner disturbance that can become a relationship struggle if left unaddressed. All conflict is based on opposing drives, desires and demands.

In my case, I wanted Jim to like me, but I also wanted to speak to him truthfully about his behavior. Can you see the opposing desires and drives?

All of this was happening inside of me. Jim had no knowledge of my inner disturbance.

If we avoid or let the situation escalate, we not only experience an inner disturbance

  1. Identify a recent conflict you have with another person.
  2. What stage are you in currently?        

Difficult conversations can turn into productive conversations when we learn to speak up faster and let go of seeing the other person as our adversary. 


Marlene Chism is a consultant, international speaker and the author of “Stop Workplace Drama” (Wiley 2011), “No-Drama Leadership” (Bibliomotion 2015) and “7 Ways to Stop Drama in Your Healthcare Practice” (Greenbranch 2018) and an advanced practitioner of Narrative Coaching. Connect with Chism via LinkedInFacebook and Twitter and at

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