Find Mediators Near You:

12-Step Program Tools For Breaking Interpersonal Conflict Patterns

Anyone who has ever worked a 12-Step program knows the grueling process of the 4th Step Personal Inventory. This involves setting to paper a list of all those for whom you hold any measure of resentment; individuals or institutions. Even those of us who haven’t considered ourselves, “the type to hold a grudge,” soon realize how long that life list actually is. The goal is to begin to take an honest look at the patterns of behavior we replicate time and time again, stemming from a variety of ego-based motivations and leading to the same forms of mayhem and interpersonal conflicts time and time again.

Brief History of AA

AA, the first of the 12-step programs, was created by Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith, seemingly hopeless alcoholics who had tried many avenues to stay sober with no long-term success. The pair developed a theory that the answer to the addict’s dilemma lay in one alcoholic reaching out to another alcoholic. These two formed a fellowship based primarily on this key premise. The pair drew from many sources to develop tools for those also struggling to stay sober and found that many were recovering from their addiction and beginning to live more peaceful lives. The program incorporated many of the ideas of the Oxford Groups, a Judeo-Christian group dedicated to helping its members live virtuous lives. Carl Jung also greatly influenced Bill Wilson with whom he was a frequent correspondent. Jung also believed that a spiritual awakening was necessary to affect the kind of change necessary for an alcoholic’s recovery.

Those beginning a 12-step journey are often put off by the references to God. Many quickly reconcile this when they realize how malleable the “Higher Power” suggested for recovery actually is. While some choose a Judeo Christian God as their Higher Power, equally present in meetings are those who choose Buddha, the Great Spirit, the group itself, or the big oak tree in their back yard. Newcomers who are struggling with a concept they can embrace are sometimes told not to worry so much about knowing who or what God is, as long as they realize it is not they who hold the position. The goal is to help the person in recovery begin to understand the ego’s desire to control the universe and the idea that there is a grander force operating and that we are all connected through this force.

The Inventory Format

Who Do I Resent:
Affects My: Pride, Ambitions, Personal Relations, Sex Relations, Self-Esteem
My Role: Where have I been selfish, self-seeking, dishonest, or afraid?
*People or Institutions you have or have held any degree of ill regard for, past or present *The story you tell yourself & others about how they have harmed you *The survival instincts revolving around the ego and one’s place in society *The underlying and often hidden constructs that arise when you feel threatened

This process of rigorously honest self-appraisal, followed by a full disclosure to another trusted human being (the 5th step) who can help gently guide and reflect the budding insights, usually involves various forms of procrastination, self-abuse, denial, and a little kicking and screaming. If one is truly patient with the process, realizing that all humans face similar defeating and reactive impulses, there is hope for choosing new ways to be in relationship with the world. I’ve seen many people courageously take on this somewhat painful method of self-discovery. What follows is invariably a huge sense of “a weight being lifted” and elation at the understanding that we get to choose to change the negative experiences we are repeating in our lives. Continued commitment to these columns (the practice of the 10th step) addresses resentments and old patterns as they pop-up in the course of living.

The 4th and 10th Step Inventories are designed to help us take responsibility for our emotional charge and defensive behavior. Ideally, we will come to understand our conditioning so deeply that we will never again react harshly externally or internally when someone “pushes our buttons.” This foundational intra-personal work will have removed our need to try to force others to change their behavior to suit us. Here is the rub: What about those resentments that just won’t go away, those individuals or institutions that linger stubbornly on the 10th Step Inventory? No matter how many times we acknowledge our role and sincerely seek to become non-reactive, conflict seems to arise almost every time our paths cross. This is particularly painful or threatening when it’s someone we must cross paths with regularly…a boss, a co-worker, a relative. We simply cannot find peace of mind cuddled up with our columns. These situations give us the chance to do our work and be patient with the results.

The Personal Inventory as a Conflict Resolution Tool

Is there a way then to utilize the strengths of the Personal Inventory as an interpersonal conflict resolution strategy that would not only address a particular situation, but one’s particular patterns of conflict? Let’s look at how it might work if two parties involved in ongoing conflicts with one another came to the mediation table having used this tool and made a sincere effort to understand their role in contributing to the problem. They may additionally have done a full inventory to see how this situation may fit their pattern of discord with other individuals. One situation could look like this:

Teresa’s Inventory of the Conflict

Who Do I Resent: Causes: Affects My: Pride, Ambitions, Personal Relations, Sex Relations, Self-Esteem My Role: Where have I been selfish, self-seeking, dishonest, or afraid?
Mary (my boss) She constantly micro-manages me and makes unimportant changes to my work. Pride (it hurts my pride to have her change work I put my all into)
Ambitions (I won’t be able to make advancements if I can’t get along with the boss)
Personal relations (my office friendships are strained by the friction with the boss)
Self-esteem (I start to doubt my own competency and belittle myself for not being able to get along)
Selfish (I haven’t given much thought to how it affects her)
Self-seeking (I’ve been talking about Mary to gain the support of my colleagues and advance my agenda)
Dishonest (I’ve manipulated some information to avoid further changes to my work)
Afraid (I live in fear that I will lose my temper, my job, my self-respect)

Mary’s Inventory of the Conflict

Who Do I Resent: Causes: Affects My: Pride, Ambitions, Personal Relations, Sex Relations, Self-Esteem My Role: Where have I been selfish, self-seeking, dishonest, or afraid?
Teresa (my employee) She gets defensive and offended if I make even a minor suggestion about her work. She doesn’t respect my authority. Pride (it makes me look bad to the other employees to be disrespected by Teresa)
Ambitions (I won’t be able to meet my yearly goals without the support of my staff)
Personal Relations (my other relationships suffer when I am stressed out about this) Self-esteem (I feel like a poor manager when I am not respected by a member of the team)
Selfish (I usually don’t consider what it feels like for her)
Self-seeking (my focus has mostly been on my own desire to receive recognition)
Dishonest (I have sometimes justified my objections to her work by blaming other departments)
Afraid (I fear I don’t have the knowledge to be in my position and that this will be exposed)

Both participants, while they most likely won’t share all of the information with each other, may choose to do so privately beforehand with the mediator. They might now have a grasp of the underlying emotional charge and possibly be able to see the relationship to past events and conditioned patterning. As the look at their thought patterns, they can ask themselves if these are recurrent thoughts that cause them to act out of the story they create? If the parties sincerely come to the mediation process with an understanding of the relational patterns these stories create, they may be able to separate the dispute in the given situation as separate from the story.


Peace comes from accepting what we can and cannot change, taking personal responsibility, and realizing that we are the architects of our own lives. Becoming aware of how our negative patterns create conflict in our relationships is the first step to supporting ourselves to have the lives we want. For those situations where individuals are willing to approach conflict resolution at the deepest level of self-awareness, these tools can affect long-term positive results in all of their relationships.


Kerri Moon

Kerri Moon began her career leading corporate, non-profit, and educational groups in training programs designed to promote positive team dynamics. She has since added elder and family mediation services to her practice. Her goal in her work as a mediator, trainer, and coach is to help individuals change negative patterns… MORE >

Featured Mediators

View all

Read these next


ACR Announces 2012 Awards

The Association for Conflict Resolution (ACR) recently honored Judge Robert Bell, Michael Lang, Tammy Lenski, Frank Dukes, Duane Heffelbower, Leymah Gbowee and Kathy Bickmore with awards at the 2012 ACR...


Teaching Conflict Management Courses: Part 3

This is Part 3. Click to review Part 1 and Part 2. Roving Teachers and “Pracademics”---Have Gavel will Travel. Ironically, in the USA and  English speaking satellite cultures, these five...

By John Wade

AudioBlog: Animal Conflicts and Alternative Dispute Resolution

Texas Conflict Coach Audio Blog by Pattie PorterDuring our series, esteemed leaders in law and dispute resolution Ms. Debra Hamilton of New York and Mr. Gary Norman of Maryland will...

By Patricia Porter