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Uncovering 5 hidden stages of conflict

Conflict can be productive, but leaders must know which stage of conflict they're in to take the right action, writes Marlene Chism.

5 min read



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Many leaders avoid honest conversations because they fear that honest conversations could ignite conflict with the other person. The narrative goes something like this:  They’ll be surprised. We’ll feel bad. They might cry. Harsh words will be spoken, and trust will be lost. It doesn’t matter much if the other person is an employee, a colleague or our boss; the underlying belief is that conflict is the problem. 

But conflict is not really the problem. The problem is mismanagement, which includes avoiding, undermining,or reorganizing departments instead of facing the issues head-on. 

In short, most of us avoid conversations that could actually save time, increase productivity and build trust. 

What has helped me and many of my clients is to understand how to quickly uncover the five hidden stages that indicate conflict is progressing and, if left unaddressed, contributes to relationship problems and, eventually, a culture of avoidance. 

Snapshot of the hidden stages

Stage 1:  Inner disturbance

Stage 2:  Justifying 

Stage 3:  Seeing them as an adversary 

Stage 4:  Seeking social proof

Stage 5:  Aggression 

Stage 1: Inner disturbance

When you realize that you continually feel bad after an interaction, you’re in the first stage. Perhaps they interrupt you constantly, use innuendo, or discount your ideas. For example, I was working with a team of colleagues and noticed that “Jim” continued to make rude comments, innuendos and subtle put-downs toward me. I started to notice an inner disturbance, the sense that something was off, but I couldn’t quite describe what was happening. When you notice your inner disturbance, don’t discount the feelings or judge yourself for being too sensitive. A coping mechanism when we feel uncomfortable around others is to appease them, smile when angry or nod in approval if we’re confused. Instead, ask yourself this question: “Am I pretending things are OK when they aren’t?” That’s a good sign that you’re mismanaging conflict without even knowing it.    

Stage 2: Justifying

In the above example, I justified pushing my feelings aside. I wanted to give Jim the benefit of the doubt. I said to myself, “Jim’s probably joking, and perhaps I’m being overly sensitive.” This rationalization did nothing to change Jim’s behavior. It only made Jim oblivious to how I really interpreted his behaviors. Here’s what I learned:  Rather than avoiding what you feel or psychoanalyzing yourself, ask yourself these two questions: Do I feel supported or discounted, and do I still trust them?  If you answer “no” to these two questions, it’s time for a conversation.  

Stage 3: Seeing them as an adversary

The longer you wait to have a conversation, the sooner you’ll start to see the other person as a nemesis. No longer are they your colleague or a friend. They are the enemy. You may not have the courage or wit to match theirs, so you stay in silent resentment. Instead of engaging with them authentically, you measure your words to protect yourself. The reality is that people can’t change if you don’t tell them what bothers you. Stop wasting time worrying about who’s right and who’s wrong. The two questions are: do I feel emotionally safe, and am I willing to ask for what I want?  

Stage 4: Seeking social proof

If you don’t address the issue, you’ll start seeking social proof to confirm that you’re right. You watch their interactions with others and wonder if others feel the same way you do. Eventually, you’ll ask someone as I did, “Does Jim come off as rude sometimes?” If they agree, you’ll feel a sense of satisfaction. If they disagree, you’ll question yourself. But it’s not about what others think or who’s wrong. The two questions are: what needs explicitly to stop or start, and what are your choices if they won’t? Remember, you’re not powerless. 

Stage 5: Aggression

If you still haven’t yet addressed the issue, you’ll probably do something that surprises you and everyone else. You’ll blow up. You’ll match their negative energy. You won’t be your best self. You’re no longer collaborating. You’re playing to win match point. Don’t allow yourself to get to Stage Five. 

Stage one is the optimal stage to ask for what you want, seek clarification or set a boundary. The more you deny or justify your experience, the further down the slide you go. 

The breakthrough happens when you identify the stage of conflict you’re in and address the issue as soon as possible. Ask for what you want. Set appropriate boundaries. Stop pretending lousy behavior is OK with you. Stop seeing conflict as a problem but as opposing drives, desires and demands. Conflict can be productive when we learn to speak up faster and let go of seeing the other person as our adversary.  

Opinions expressed by SmartBrief contributors are their own.


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