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Conflict Escalation – How to De-Escalate the Conflict Before It Spirals Out of Control

stairs-113610_1920I recently brought out all of my conflict management textbooks from hibernation. As I was flipping through the pages, I stumbled upon one of the topics I recalled finding fascinating when I was in school.  A Conflict Spiral defined by Dean G. Pruitt and Sung Hee Kim is, “escalation as a vicious cycle of action and reaction. One party’s punishing action provokes punishing retaliation by the other side, which in turn prompts increased retaliation from the first party.”

The term resonated with me because I have seen conflict spirals occur throughout my entire life but never knew this behavior had a name. So for example, when I was younger maybe nine or ten, my older brother and I had a pretty contentious relationship. At some point, we got into this battle where we hid one another’s things. It started off simple; he hid my favorite doll then I hid his favorite Nintendo game. He retaliated by hiding all my Dollhouse people; I countered by hiding his favorite CDs. We continued back and forth until eventually, it escalated to my brother holding my bedroom shut until I told him where his belongings were.

The example may not show the most catastrophic result of escalation; however, you can get a general idea. The most recent damaging conflict spirals I have witnessed has been on social media following the results of the elections. I witnessed people who voted for the opposing parties begin with harmless discussion over one particular topic, and after some tit, for tat back and forth the conversation quickly escalates to both sides calling one another names and vowing to “de-friend” both on social media and in life.

A conflict that spirals out of control can have damaging consequences between the two parties. Therefore, it is important to understand how to de-escalate a problem before it reaches that point.

  1. Recognize your triggers. Be mindful of your reactions to the things the other person is saying and doing. Take deep breaths and take the time to think before you speak. We often get hyped up during a conflict especially if we are feeling attacked; therefore, it is important to be self-aware during a conflict.
  2. Ask Yourself: What is the root conflict issue? In addition to number one tip ask yourself what this dispute involves? Often, the discussion goes from being about one topic and escalates to something else. We take low shots, insult the subject matter the other party is passionate about, and most often we cause our opponent to get defensive. We fight from emotions so we must become aware of the root of the actual conflict.
  3. Listen and be open-minded. Differing opinions and viewpoints can be a good and a bad thing depending on how you handle them. If you listen with the intent to be open-minded then perhaps you can extend your understanding of a differing viewpoint.
  4. Walk away. It may be more of an abrupt ending to a conflict; however, walking away from a conflict that is quickly escalating to a damaging point may be the quickest and simplest way to de-escalate a conflict.

Look out for the conflict spirals in your life and determine your best strategy for de-escalation.

Have a Good Week,

Abigail R. C. McManus  M.S Negotiation and Conflict Management


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Just Sleep On It – Insight on Challenging the Age-Old Wisdom, “Never go to bed angry!”

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The age-old wisdom that married couples imparted to my husband, Bernard and me before we got married was, “Never go to bed angry.”

I do not enjoy being in conflict with my husband; for that reason, every time a conflict has occurred between us throughout the nine years we’ve been together I usually try to get it resolved as quickly as possible. Another reason I tried to resolve it quickly is that I feared the consequences of going to sleep still fighting with my husband.

If we did go to bed mad what would happen? Would it automatically mean we were doomed to failure? I believe this fear is why I had always pushed for a resolution, sometimes before we were ready because illogically I thought if I fell asleep and Bernard and I were still fighting we wouldn’t make it.

Recently, Bernard and I got into a heated conflict. Without going into detail, I will say the fight escalated after I lost sight of my emotional triggers. After the battle had met its climax, Bernard did not want to talk. Bernard not wanting to speak moments after an argument is pretty standard; as mentioned, I usually push for a resolution and break his silence. However, this time was different. It was late in the evening and time for bed. I remember thinking to myself, ” Do we go to bed angry? What will come of our relationship? Will we be okay?”

I recognized that a time-out was necessary, recalling all the conflict resolution literature I have read over the years that says sometimes time-outs are fine; good even! I acknowledged that pushing for a resolution on this particular matter could make things worse. So for the first time in our relationship, we went to bed angry. The next morning, we didn’t speak either. I spent the next day researching how going to bed angry could affect your relationship, and I became even more panicked as I read more negative results. I then decided to pull myself together and gain insight from this experience rather than promote a prophecy that has no merit.

So for this post, I wanted to share my insight on what I learned from going to bed angry.

I was at fault in this argument, and I realized that every time in the past when I had pushed for a resolution, and I was to blame, I was minimizing my behavior. My husband was clearly upset with me and my actions, if I pushed him to forgive me, I recognized that I was reducing his hurt feelings to make my uncomfortableness with being in a fight go away. I did not like this realization about myself and immediately felt guilty for all the times in the past I had done this; therefore, this time, I didn’t push for a resolution. I apologized but then I backed off and let my husband make the call on when we could speak and resolve the issue.

Going to bed angry gives you time to calm down and gain perspective. I am aware this isn’t a ground-breaking revelation to most people but to me it was. I have a sharp tongue, I have been told this since I was little, and it has gotten me into trouble before. Therefore, calming down and shutting up helped me not to say anything I would later regret. It also allowed me to gain the perspective I needed so that when Bernard and I did talk I was able to articulate my points and feelings without a high level of emotion.

Lastly, going to bed angry does not automatically mean that your relationship will meet its demise. It is important that you take a break if needed when arguing with your spouse or significant other to gain clarity and de-escalate a conflict. If that means sleeping on it, then that is something you should do. It might make you feel better to know that no one has ever cited “we went to bed angry” on their divorce papers – I checked!

Have a Great Week,
Abigail R.C. McManus

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Cat Fight: Strategies for Disarming Bullying

cat fightI joined a graduate chapter of a very prestigious women’s organization. I was extremely active and financially supportive during my tenure. So you can imagine my shock when two ladies approached me at a group event one day and tried to get all cat fight and “I don’t like you just because” on me. I went from all smiles to being very disappointed about their poor behavior. It was at that moment that I realized that these women were actually trying to bully me.

When you belong to a prestigious organization there are rules that govern a member’s actions and interactions. So to keep in line with those rules, I was lady-like in the face of their bullying behavior. I really wanted to spew out the salt fire pumice that laid on the tip of my tongue onto them but instead, I slowed down the very essence of time by using the fullness of my dark brown eyes to pause the moment. So with a cold hard stare, I slowly invited them to enjoy the rest of the event.

This action did de-escalate the tension in the room and it did give me space to respond in a centered, grounded and empowered manner. I guess Louise and William Senft would say that I was “Being Relational with a Bully”. I know that this seems counter intuitive, but that technique actually worked. After I de-escalated the situation, I knew that I needed to gain perspective of what needed to be done next. I also pulled a little real-life wisdom from my big brother, Mirum.

Now my brother, who was an amazing fashion designer, was extremely funny and wise. During Fashion Week at his college he would often use me as a model for his clothing line. Before hitting the runway he would whisper “Don’t forget to flair your skirt honey.” Let’s envision that the skirt represented the national organization and the chapter represented the pockets that held the monthly dues. Hold that picture in your mind, now visualize that the members in good standing (like me) are the coins and the members acting poorly are the holes in the pockets of the skirt.

Expanding this conflict allowed me to see the financial interest of both the chapter and the national organization. At first, I just saw the ladies trying to be systematically mean toward me and others, but when I expanded the conflict, I noticed how their bullying behavior hurt our chapter as a whole. As a result, I took my grievance and documentation along with my account of my volunteer and financial support to the chapter president and asked; “Is this type of behavior reflective of this chapter?” Long story short, the “cat fight” for me was over! From that point forward those girls were busy with a whole new set of issues that eventually involved them, the chapter president and the national office.
In the end, my response was effective, but it also was a process. If you can keep the following tools in mind, you can create enough space and perspective to work on a possible solution for you too. Those tools are:

Deescalate the situation the best you can. I used a pause and stare.
Take time to respond, meaning just pause to think before you speak
Expand your view of the conflict. This means to do your best to identify the interest of all parties involved and look at the whole picture. Take a moment to objectively look at the entire situation.

Until next time, happy living everybody

Lauren Thompson Andrews
Graduate Student Intern
University of Baltimore – Conflict Negotiation/ Conflict Management

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