There are many causes of constructive and destructive conflict, and we try to engage in conflict in meaningful ways. There is, however, the kind of person who engages in conflict simply for the conflict itself. We need to be able to recognize these people and engage with them in a way that respectfully mitigates the harm they can cause.
Defining Conflict Junkies
This morning I googled “conflict junkies,” and found about 3,490,000 results in 0.19 seconds. This is a common phrase. Many of the results pertain to war zones and other related topics beyond what I want to share with you. Also, I am not using the term “junkies” as a stigmatizing word as it might be used in addressing substance abuse disorders. No, I want to talk about a particular kind of person who engages and escalates conflict in a destructive manner to the misery of those who must deal with their problem making it our problem. This is something to be considered and reckoned with our conflict practice.
A conflict junkie in modern conflict engagement uses a specific form of escalation and narrative to accomplish an unreasonable objective. It is not like an exchange value in returning an item to a store, or a moral exchange where subjectively a person feels diminished and claims some form of restitution for being traumatized or harmed by something that may well be hard to define.
A conflict junkie uses a particular pattern of behavior to accomplish their objective goals and subjective desires. The easiest way to think of these methods is to consider the zone of agreement, a classic model in negotiation. When there is a negative zone of agreement, it is difficult to negotiate. With positive zone of agreement, some usual and customary skills can be used to find a reasonable agreement by creating and claiming as much of the value in the zone. It is the area that includes the far side of reasonable where the conflict junkie is a master craftsman. The goal is to make you negotiate in a new zone of agreement on their terms when prudence would beg you to not do it. However, these people are exceptionally good at this and have done it for a long time in the past and will hone their skills for the future, too.
The method consists of three steps, which can repeat themselves. First, it is the trap, then the attack, followed by the demand, and often with repetition.
An effective way to begin thinking about conflict junkies is to imagine a problem where there is an exchange value that is objective and a moral exchange that would be subjective. The person tells a story about their problem that includes a mix of numbers and words, but the bundle is at or near being beyond the far side of reasonable. You try to understand more about the issues, but each exchange of information gets closer to being beyond the far side of reasonable. One of the methods in the trap is to escalate the language and tone to go past the far side of reasonable. You disagree with the person, or you say “no,” or you say you must appeal to a higher authority. The person then backs up because it is you, they want to problematize. The person will say something like, “I am just having a difficult day. This has been really upsetting to me. Won’t you continue to help me? I feel like we were reaching and understanding.” That sounds good and many people would continue the dialogue.
I would suggest becoming more alert, not less. What seems reasonable may not be at all. When you are more alert, you will be prepared for the next step, the attack.
The hallmark sign of the attack is that it is quite personal. The problem is no longer the problem, you are the problem. Its objective is to blur the area between the far side of reasonable in preparation for what comes next, the demand. The attack is uniformly accompanied by an often-dramatic change in the character of the emotion to signal that something important is happening. The purpose is to make you have doubts about your character and the nature of you as a person; all to create doubt in your thinking about the problem. And it works so well that it is a vital part of the narration for the conflict junkie.
The mindset should be awareness. It is not the action of the other person that matters, this step is all about your reaction. If you overreact you beautifully and willingly fulfill the role that was defined for you by the other person on their terms alone.
There are many simple and easily accessible ways to engage constructively with the attack. A remarkably effective method is to make awareness into something more meaningful. You are ready because you know the model and what the purpose of the attack is. First, name the tactic. Then, count three elephants (3 seconds) before you say anything. These few seconds allow you to gain perspective. Then, respond with a lower level of energy than the other person used. For me, I like to reduce the energy by a third. Frequently, the other person who is expecting a completely different reaction and response will pause. It is the pause that you should look for when you have responded to the attack. Often, the other person will repeat what they just said because they are not prepared for actual dialogue. They are simply repeating what has most often worked before. If that happens, you can simply nod your head. You were alert and now aware.
The demand is always beyond the far side of reasonable. The objective is to create a new zone of agreement where you agree to something you should not because of the emotional escalation and the cleverness of the trap and attack.
The best way to think about this is to be prepared. The other person has signaled to you who they are with the trap and attack. Because you know the model, you are better prepared than the other person expects. In fact, the other person is counting on you not being prepared.
When the demand is made, you need to speak quickly, unlike responding to the attack. In some form or another, depending on your authority and role, you will say “no.” Your statement needs to be clear and direct with the least ambiguous language around saying “no.” You should have already been think about your response as the predictable nature of the interaction progresses. For me, I rehearse the response in my mind using nouns and verbs alone in preparing to respond. However, there is a warning to consider. Do not use words that you are not able to support emotionally. If your tone is not something you are able to manage, find another way to say “no.”
Conflict junkies often reveal themselves in a spectacular way by attempting to repeat the process that did not work. If you feel this is happening, there is a simple and often signaling response you can use. Say, “you are repeating yourself. Is there something new you want to say …” If necessary, make an if-then statement, “If you keep repeating yourself, I will end this conversation.”
Repetition often leads to the other person wanting to speak to someone else about the problem. If the next person understands the trap, attack, and demand, their response will be much like your response which leads to the conflict junkie retreating. Unfortunately, and because this is often a lifelong behavior, the conflict junkie with take this problem, or the next one that comes along, somewhere else.
It is not like any of us realize about how to engage with conflict junkies constructively by alchemy. It is a learned skill and one I keep working on because sometimes I still fall for the conflict junkie’s amazing and creative skills.