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Cyclical Nature of Interpersonal Conflict

Mediation and Business Consulting by Kathleen Kauth.

When talking about domestic violence, you often hear about the cycle of abuse.  It illustrates patterns of behavior by abusers that manipulate their victims to stay engaged in the relationship.  Domestic violence illustrates the worst and most intense instances of the cyclical nature of interpersonal conflict.  These cycles of manipulation are evident in other types of interpersonal conflict, including in the workplace.  That is what we will examine here today.

(Please note: Domestic violence is NOT something that can be addressed by mediation or conflict coaching.  If you are involved with someone who is abusing you GET OUT!  The National Domestic Violence Hotline can be reached here)

Interpersonal cycles of conflict

As you look at the relationships in your life, do you notice that there are some people with whom you have a difficult or complicated relationship?  

  • Do you censor what you discuss, and walk on eggshells around them?  
  • Do you they get upset about issues so much so that you will agree just to keep the peace?  

If you take some time to really analyze their behavior — and yours — you may be able to identify a cycle.  Let’s evaluate it using the chart above:

Tensions build:

  • When you are communicating with this individual, do you find yourself paying attention to their body language and tone for signs of tension?  
  • Does it feel as if they aren’t listening to you, but are pushing you to agree with their stance?  
  • Do you worry that if you don’t take some of the emotion out of the situation (by agreeing to do what they want) that they will “blow”?
  • Is it easier to just do what they want than to stand your ground because of how they will react?

This is the tension building phase where the individual you are with is getting more and more irate about things that are small issues or issues that should be able to be discussed.  In this phase, the individual is stocking up on negative emotions that will most likely come out in an explosive burst triggered by some unknown event.  By holding them in, the individual is building them into much bigger issues.

The incident:

That unknown event could be anything.  Whatever the triggering incident is, it allows the individual to release all those negative emotions.  Taken individually, each one of the incidents the individual is upset about is most likely minor.  In their mind however, they are all lumped together to form a large injustice, which is justification for their anger.  

This release could take the form of:

  • Yelling 
  • Backstabbing or gossip 
  • Sabotage of relationships or work product
  • Silent treatment

Personally effective punishments to let you know that you have wronged the individual will be used.  In this phase, the individual will blame everyone else but themselves for the way they are feeling or the wrongs they feel have been inflicted upon them.  There is only anger — not introspection.


This is the phase that hooks people into sticking with the relationship.  The individual who has blown up will diminish the importance and severity of their reaction and work to keep you hooked into it.  They will try a variety of techniques such as:

  • Gaslighting – denying that there was an issue or making light of it implying that YOU are the one with a problem if you think there is a problem.
  • Compliments – by complimenting you on things that have nothing to do with the incident, they can confuse and disorient you.
  • Excuses – “I’ve just got so much going on and I’m stressed” is a popular one, because it is a subtle back-handed way of saying “if you would only take things off my plate I wouldn’t treat you badly – clearly it must be your fault”.

This phase allows a rational adult to assume that the individual will change their behavior.  If the behavior hasn’t been identified and discussed — there will be no change.


This phase is often tied to how quickly the reconciliation phase takes.  If you are instantly ok and forgiving of someone who reacts inappropriately, what they have learned is that you are able to be manipulated.  Soon, tensions will increase and the cycle starts again.  Different issues — same cycle.

So how do you stop this?

The first step is recognizing a cycle for what it is — a pattern of behavior.  (Again, domestic violence is the extreme end of these cycles and needs professional help to escape.)  These cycles can appear at work, with friends (frenemies is a popular term for relationships that are involved in this sort of cycle), neighbors etc.  Once you recognize the cycle, there are several ways you can disrupt it.

Identify the cycle

You need to point out to the individual that they are engaging in a pattern of behavior.  Take notes and have specific incidents to demonstrate to them what you are talking about.  They may not be aware of their behavior, or may realize that they are exhibiting learned behavior from their history.  If they accept that it is occurring you can encourage them to speak to a therapist about techniques they can use to change their behavior.

Disrupt the cycle

Just say no.  Sounds easy — it’s not, but it is effective.  If you have been conditioned to agree to things because you are avoiding a confrontation, start saying “no”.  You can work with a conflict coach to help you learn skills and strategies to advocate for yourself in a healthy way.

Leave the cycle

Once you have identified the cycle, you can see it coming.  Whether or not you identify it to the individual, you can choose not to engage.  Again – you may want to work with a conflict coach to develop specific skills and strategies based on your individual preferences.  You always have a choice.  Sometimes those choices may not be great options, so you have to weigh the ramifications carefully.  But know that individuals who are successful at using these cycles of behavior generally do not change, and may get worse.  

Cycles of behavior happen because as humans, we do more of what gets rewarded or is successful.  If the cycle is negative — it is important to recognize and change it.


Kathleen Kauth

Kathleen Kauth is President/Owner of K.T. Beck Enterprises, LLC a Mediation and Business Consulting firm which focuses on using Mediation techniques to help individuals, families and businesses resolve conflicts. With areas of interest in Eldercare and Business Mediation, we are able to provide a wide variety of personalized services.   MORE >

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