Preventing Conflicts from Escalating

Whether we like it or not, to be human is to have conflict. We find ourselves disagreeing with the views of others. What we want, sometimes conflicts with what others want. Conflict is one of the most universal experiences we as humans have and one of the most difficult. Being able to identify the common dynamics existing within conflicts can be helpful in preventing the conflicts we have from escalating.

When we are in conflict with someone we have unmet needs with that person. In addition to the unmet needs we have with the other person, we often have inner conflicts with our own needs. It is usually easier to identify the needs we have with the other person than it is to recognize the inner conflicts we have with our own needs. Lack of inner recognition, makes it harder for us to ask for what we need from the other person. Our inability to ask for what we need in a relationship may result in an escalating conflict.

Typical Conflict Scenario

Let's look at a fairly typical conflict and see how interpersonal and intrapersonal dynamics escalate the conflict.

John has taken the family car to a mechanic for repair. His wife Mary, needs the car to get to an important meeting and questions the delay in getting the car back. Mary complains that the delay will make her late for a meeting and she questions John's choice of mechanic. She reminds John that the last time they used this mechanic he seemed incompetent. She recommends trying a different one.

John reacts angrily to her challenge and recommendation and dismisses her upset about being late to her meeting as ridiculous. He declares that what is really important is being able to get the car fixed properly. Mary feels unheard, unsupported, dismissed and angry. The conflict escalates. Mary is angry because her interpersonal need to have her experience recognized and respected is dismissed.

It is harder to identify John's unmet interpersonal need because he has an inner conflict with his needs. As a child, he had very little of his experience mirrored or related to. Consequently, he has developed a vicious inner critic that constantly attacks him when he has any need. When a child's needs are consistently unmet, this is often the outcome.

John shoulders responsibility for decisions with great trepidation and anxiety. Even though he has some level of knowledge about auto mechanics, he is automatically vulnerable to "self attack" when making a decision. The possibility that he will be internally "punished" if he makes a wrong decision places him under internal pressure. When Mary questions his ability to make a good choice, it triggers a cascade of negative self-judgments. These "self attacks" are then projected onto Mary, who he then experiences as the attacker. The conflict escalates further.

John is not able to express his need for understanding and recognition. He experiences a deep inner conflict in making a decision. John cannot express his needs to Mary and she is unaware of John's inner world. Mary has no idea that questioning his decision has caused so much inner turmoil. At this point the conflict escalates to an impasse.


This example points out the complexity of our reactions. The more aware we become of the dynamics that drive our conflicts, the more able we will be to prevent their escalation.

Copyright 2011 TruceWorks