How to Escalate a Conflict

I spent some time recently preparing for a mediation.  The lawyers for both sides had done a great job of preparing briefs and supporting documents, so I had over an inch of paper to go through.  I found it fascinating to see the history of the conflict laid out on paper and to watch relationships deteriorate over the course of several months.  There were lawyer’s letters followed by replies to these letters, accusations followed by protestations of innocence, and countless emails back and forth, each more abrupt than the last.  In the initial stages of the conflict I sensed a genuine willingness to co-operate and solve problems.  But early offers of compromise and attempts to work things out gave way to hardened positions and claims of righteousness.

What had gone wrong?  Specifics aside, there are some definite steps to take if you want to prolong, aggravate and intensify a conflict:

  1. Don’t communicate.  Especially don’t listen to anything the other side might have to say.  Communication can lead to understanding a different perspective, which can lead to compromise and settlement.
  2. Surround yourself with people who agree with you. Isolate yourself from any opposing viewpoint and do everything possible to increase your sense of righteousness.  Keep reminding yourself that your conflict is a matter of “principle.”
  3. Focus on people, not on problems.  Assume that those on the opposing side are bad characters and consistently act out of animosity towards you.  Whatever they do (or don’t do), take personally.  If you spend enough mental energy thinking about the difficult individuals you must deal with, you will have none left over for creative problem-solving.
  4. Forget about what really matters to you; think only about being right and “winning.”  Forget what the ongoing conflict is costing you in time, money and stress.

Happily, the mediation I was preparing for was successful.  It took only a few hours of working together to resolve the conflict.