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Communications Theory And Conflict Spirals

From Arnold W. Zeman’s blog

One of the trenchant observations made by Bush and Folger in the transformative practice literature is how much mediation theory has relied on the negotiation paradigm to conceptualize itself.  In place of this paradigm, Bush and Folger offer communications theory and relational ideology as the framework for thinking about conflict and mediated conversations to deal with it.

Here is an excellent example of the use of the communications paradigm in analysing the degenerative and generative spirals that commonly take place in conflict.  It’s a piece by Dorothy J. Della Noce that has been published in the second issue of the Dutch journal, Conflictinzicht.

The bad news is that a negative conflict spiral takes on a life of its own, as people get caught up in the momentum of the developing pattern of interaction. The pull of the pattern can feel quite powerful, explaining why people would report feeling trapped or stuck in a conflict cycle. The good news is that, just as a negative or destructive conflict spiral is built through communication, the direction of the spiral can also be reversed through communication. Bush and Folger call these positive changes in the direction of the conflict spiral interactional shifts (2005, pp. 66-83).

Shifts happen as the parties recognize the negative conflict spiral and take steps to reverse it. […] 

Once the negative pattern is recognized, it is possible to take steps to change it. Building on earlier research with people who described how they had taken a destructive conflict and successfully “turned it around” (Wilmot & Stevens, 1994), Wilmot (2009) offers several strategies for changing a conflict spiral. One strategy is to “do what comes unnaturally” (p. 456). This strategy requires that a person caught up in conflict notice his or her own part in the pattern, and take responsibility for it. Then, instead of doing “more of the same,” he or she can choose to do something different.  […]

Another important strategy for changing a conflict pattern is to shift to metacommunication. Metacommunication is talking about the talking, or discussing how the communication process itself is unfolding. A shift to metacommunication can be recognized when a person says, “let’s talk about how we are talking.” Metacommunication is valuable because it allows the participants to step away from the pattern, and engage in a different conversation.

[…]  Wilmot suggests that persistence is important (2009, p. 457). To reverse the direction of a spiral, one must continue to repeat the new or different behaviors in order to reinforce the change. It is also useful to continue to be observant about the quality of communication while making persistent efforts to produce change. As Bush and Folger (2005) have pointed out, self-absorption is part of the experience of conflict communication. There is a risk, then, that a person who is making an effort to change a pattern believes that he or she, and only he or she, is doing all the work. By being alert for the small changes the other makes in response (called reciprocity), and even acknowledging and appreciating those changes, a participant further reinforces a positive change in the direction of the conflict cycle.

Finally, Wilmot recommends that third parties (people who are outside the direct conflict, like family, friends, coaches, counselors, managers and mediators) can be helpful in reversing a conflict spiral. Sometimes, third parties can support change in a conflict spiral by supporting the participants in enacting some of the strategies discussed here. Third parties can support each participant’s own efforts to do something different and step away from the pattern. But caution is in order. A third party must navigate carefully between being supportive of the participants’ own efforts to create a change, and the temptation to manipulate or coerce the participants into making the changes the third party would like to see. The more a third party imposes his or her own observations and decisions on the participants, the more he or she undermines the will of each participant. By disempowering the participants in the conflict, a third party could actually contribute to a hardening of the negative conflict spiral (Bush & Folger, 2005).


Arnold W. Zeman

After over 33 years in the public service of Canada, the last 20 of which as an executive, I retired from government in 2006 to pursue my passion to help people resolve their differences non-adversarially. I have been trained by the best in the field in both the public and… MORE >

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