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3 Dastardly Disputes

It seems lately as if there are more ways to classify disputes than there are disputes themselves.

Well, never let it be said that I wasn’t one for jumping on the bandwagon.

Every conflict is unique and complex, of course, but there are common elements and processes present in many of them. Here are 3 of the most common dispute classifications, I have seen, simplified to their most basic element:

1) The Mean ‘n Sneakies.

The mean ‘n Sneakies is a common relationship miscommunication dispute. It stems from an initial miscommunication, that escalates into a power imbalance.

In mediation it often plays out like this:

Amanda: I don’t trust Sarah. She is sneaky.

Me: Why do you say she is sneaky?

Amanda: She hides stuff from me. She doesn’t come to me with important information. There is stuff I need to know to do my job, but she goes behind my back instead of coming directly to me with it. She is sneaky so I don’t trust her.

Sarah: I don’t like Amanda. She is mean.

Me: Why do you say she is mean?

Sarah: When I try to talk to her about stuff she is gruff, so I’d rather just avoid her altogether.

Amanda: See! Sneaky!

Sarah: See! Mean!


Now the disputants are locked in a dispute. One hides information because the other is mean. One is mean because the other hides information. In other words, one employee is nervous about a difficult interaction, making her less communicative than she needs to be to do her job well. The other employee, seeing that she is not sharing the needed information, does not trust her and begins to resent her coworker.

The next step is often escalation. Amanda becomes more and more “mean,” negative and frustrated at the response she is getting from Sarah. Sarah uses this “mean” behavior to further justify her actions.

Power Imbalance. To an outsider, this often looks like Amanda has all of the power. She is acting powerfully (mean and gruff), which is intimidating Sarah and making her feel powerless. And as the conflict continues, this can often be true. However, in some sense, the power imbalance is also switched. You could argue that Sarah has all of the power. She is the one with the information that Amanda needs. Amanda is powerless to get the information because she lacks the necessary communication skills to get through to Sarah. Instead of feeling like a victim, Sarah could use her position of power and discuss the issue with Amanda. By discussing more effective ways to communicate (“Yo, don’t call me sneaky!”) then Sarah will get what she wants (improved workplace culture) and Amanda will get what she wants (sharing of information and restoration of trust in her coworker).

2) Turkey Chicken Syndrome

Have you ever had this argument:

Person A: “You’re a Turkey!”
Person B: “Oh yeah? Well, you’re a Chicken!”

So, maybe you haven’t used those exact words, but I guarantee you have had that argument in some form in your life.

Person A is frustrated about something and wants to discuss it with Person B. However, Person A does not bring it up in a way that Person B can hear it. Probably because Person A is frustrated (remember? I said that two sentences ago.). So instead of bringing up her point effectively, Person A attacks.

What does Person B naturally do? Attacks back!
“You’re a Turkey!” “Yeah, well you’re a Chicken!” And the Turkey Chicken Syndrome begins. And it will keep escalating and spiraling out of control until something is done to stop it. Unfortunately, most of the time what stops it is that one person becomes too hurt to continue. Either they walk away, or they cry, or they quit, or they divorce. They find some way to say “Hey! This has spiraled beyond an acceptable level for me. I’m getting off this ride the only way I know how.”

Let’s take a quick peek at the causes and consequences of Turkey Chicken Syndrome:

Cause: It sounds like Person A waited to bring up their frustration until they were too frustrated to talk about it clearly.
Consequence: Emotions overruled logic.

Cause: Person A attacked the person instead of the behavior.
Consequence: Person B felt attacked and attacked back.

Cause: Person A did not provide any usable, practical information.
Consequence: Person B will not be able to change without understanding what needs to change or how to change it.

Cause: Person A stated a criticism as if it were a fact. Instead, Person A should have stated how she felt, asked an open-ended question, and requested a specific feedback, response, or change. “When you do X, it makes me feel Y. Do you think in the future you could do Z instead?”
Consequence: Because she brought up the issue in an attacking manner, Person B did not hear the request beneath the criticism and will not make any changes.

3) Baby Bully

For this scenario, I’m going to use a woman and a man. The two previous examples are fairly gender neutral. The Baby Bully syndrome is more gender-specific. Everyone falls into different roles on different topics, but in the disputes I’ve scene the predominant response is that women are called the “baby” and men are called the “bully.”

Brad: I can never say anything to you. You’re such a baby.
Angelina: You can never say anything nice to me. You’re such a bully.

Both disputants in this scenario are completely correct and both are completely wrong–it just depends whose side you’re looking from.

Unfortunately, what really matters is not whether they are right or wrong. What matters is whether this conversation is working.

Here’s an example:

Brad: Pass the salt.

Brad has said something that is completely within his comfort zone of acceptable communication. He would be fine with someone speaking to him this way. He does not mean to be unkind in any way. He sees Angelina as an equal, someone he is comfortable with, and is glad he can speak to her easily without having to “put on airs” or “walk on eggshells.” “I speak easily and directly to her because I respect her.” He is glad that he is able to be confident when he speaks with her, and not have to be wishy washy which to him sounds untrustworthy.

Angelina is thinking “I would never just order him around like that. What a bully. I always ask him to do things like some kind of a doormat, like he is better than me. He can’t even say please, the jerk.” Giving a direct statement is outside of Angelina’s zone of acceptable communication. She would not speak that way to someone she respected. She speaks to him with kindness, and expects the same. To her, asking instead of commanding has the underlying assumption that “I know you were doing something else which is probably important, but I would appreciate it if you could take time out of your schedule to pass me the salt. If you do that, it will show me that you care about me/respect me/accept my request and think it is valid.”

In the workplace, this comes across as a power imbalance. Aggressor vs. victim. Boss vs. flunky.
In relationships, this comes across as too sensitive vs. a jerk. Crazy emotional vs. stone cold.

In relationships, this typically represents the woman’s need for love and the man’s need for respect. He treats her with the same respect he would an equal, but she wants to be treated with love. For instance, she still wants him to hold the door for her as a sign of love, but he might feel that doing so is belittling.

Solution: There is no right or wrong answer. Rather, the only option is finding an overlapping zone of acceptable communication. If something is just outside of your zone, you will often need to make a choice. Was this person really belittling me? Did they intend to be unkind? Is this something I need to battle, or can I accept the tone? Was she intending to speak to me disrespectful, like she’s explaining something simple to a child? Was he intending to speak to me so rudely, like I’m a lowly, disobedient child?

First, recognize the motive. Second, recognize what you can accept and what you cannot.

In a corporate setting, I will often refer to this as the Thunder Turtle Syndrome. One person thunders so loudly that it makes the turtle withdraw into his shell. The more the turtle withdraws and doesn’t come out to deal with the conflict, the louder the thunder roars.

These 3 disputes (Meany Sneaky, Turkey Chicken, and Baby Bully) find themselves in every environment, and they all have one thing in common: they are ineffective! If you recognize yourself in the middle of one of those, pause, back out, and attempt the tried and true communication strategies: address early, honestly, openly, and respectfully.


Clare Fowler

Clare Fowler is Executive Vice-President and Managing Editor at, as well as a mediator and trainer. Clare received her Master's of Dispute Resolution from the Straus Institute for Dispute Resolution at the Pepperdine University School of Law and her Doctorate in Organizational Leadership, focused on reducing workplace conflicts, from Pepperdine… MORE >

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