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Noticing Six Dispute Modes

Noticing the Dispute Mode may help a neutral facilitator in monitoring for safety concerns as well as participant status during a session.  The Dispute Mode concept is based on the science of human emotions.  Emotions are a universal feature in all people, constructed in the moment by core body functions, assisted by a lifetime of experience, to engage in survival-oriented actions.  As natural biological functions, they give meaning in the moment influencing attention, long-term memory, muscle movements, and decision-making.

The Six Dispute Modes can be identified as Flight, Freeze, Fight, Surrender, Ceasefire, and Agreement.  They can be grouped based on how closed or open an individual is to resolving the dispute.  The Flight, Freeze, Fight modes are specifically based on universal natural emotional responses to life threatening events. 

Closed or Open

Part of the job of a neutral facilitator is to observe how each participant is doing.  One element to note is how Closed or Open each person is. The general idea of Closed or Open is based on the universal natural negative emotional bias.  For our own survival, the emotional system does a continuous, unconscious monitoring for dangers.  Is this a safe place? Is it okay for social engagement? We are cautious with our guard up, suspicious, and ready to withdraw until the all clear is established. If danger is sensed, natural biological defensive strategies get triggered.  As a result, being closed or open changes with the flow of events. 

Closed suggests the individual feels threatened.  The threat may be perceived as elevated, perhaps imminent, so their guard is up, and social engagement low.  There is no trust.  Under these conditions certain items are non-negotiable and no agreements will be reached. 

Open suggests the person’s guard is slowly lowering as needed for better social engagement.  Trust is building as methods to verify compliance are discussed.  Such opening up to options can lead to decision-making as needed to write agreements. There may be a shift in view point.

So as a person enters a room for discussions, their caution is the natural emotional default needed to survive the demands of daily living.  The person is further influenced by current finances, life experiences including trauma events, and cultural messaging.  Some people may have untreated health issues including mental illness and substance use.

So here is a place to consider the old expression, “History does not repeat itself, but it rhymes.”  Since each individual human brain is unique, the details for every case will be different with details worth tracking.  At the same time, there will also be emotions impacting each person in the room, including the neutral facilitator, falling into predictable patterns.  That is where Dispute Modes enter the picture.

Dispute Modes

Flight is a mobilization strategy used to run away fast using the safest path possible.  While the specific behaviors may not be displayed as running, the individual refuses to negotiate by just walking away or not showing up.  They do what is needed to avoid the discussion. 

Freeze is an immobilization strategy used to hide.  In natural settings, freeze is a successful strategy because predators are better at noticing moving prey. As a stakeholder, the person is in the room but functionally does not participate.  This may be due to being overwhelmed, tired of the battle, unable to mentally process the proceedings, or avoiding a sensitive topic.  Or, it may be a tactic: working to stay verbally out of sight while in the room, running the clock out, doing the minimum time required. 

Fight is a mobilization strategy used to engage.  The person is aggressive and forceful, taking the actions needed to protect their own interests at all costs. They tend to attack, intimidate, and overwhelm their opponent during the session.  Individuals use the engage behavior because they feel an imminent danger, thus the need to act with aggression.  They may make proposals or other gestures for public show, or setting conditions which cannot be met. 

Some of these actions may come from implicit lessons received from their group over a long period of time.  They learn it is okay to harass, bully, lie about the others who do not share the same points-of-view.  It is okay to bend or even break the “rules” because the ends justify the means.  If a person continues to show a closed, adversarial approach, the negotiations are not likely to work out providing grounds to end the session.  

Surrender involves agreeing to all the demands as a current strategy.  However, the submissive party may still have a closed mind because at its core, no opinion has been changed.  There may be several reasons for surrender such as sacrificing for the sake of the relationship or seek forgiveness in order to restore membership within the group.  Or due to a reality check, their limited resources mean they are not be able to sustain a long battle.  As a no-win situation, needing to pick their battles, and conserve resources for another day, they feel it is okay to stop the fight here.

Ceasefire outwardly aggressive actions stop, but the tensions remain.  The mind is open to some compromise as each side gives up something for the sake of ending the immediate dispute.  However, no core opinion has been changed thus the underlying dispute remains. 

After the ceasefire is reached and holds, on the surface all appears okay.  Everything settles down for now but the tensions remain as the unresolved conflict lays dormant under the surface for extended periods of time.  Then another trigger event changes the inactive conflict into an active dispute and another cycle starts.

Agreement involves open minds on both sides viewing the interests, issues, and positions as a problem to be jointly solved. Both sides are open to the solutions offering each stakeholder a pathway to achieve their goals and maintain the relationship. This involves considerable time and effort, but those involved are willing to try.   

To find the sustainable agreements, the stakeholders show respect to the others involved.  They jointly look for ways to reach agreements needed to end the dispute.  Each acknowledges how something is gained and lost as the decisions are made moving toward the constructive results. 

Generally, how Closed or Open each person is will be observed with their Dispute Mode.  When in Flight, Freeze, Fight, the person is closed to reaching any accord.  With Ceasefire, and Agreement both sides are open to reaching some level of understanding, or pact.  With Surrender, the arrangements are specified by the dominate party, ending the dispute for now.  However, the submissive party, while forced to stop, may not necessarily changed their point-of-view.  

Disputes can be easy to start, very expensive to sustain, and hard to end.  Learning the Six Dispute Modes adds useful concepts to the neutral facilitator’s tool kit.  They also offer a practical guide for making the choice on continuing work or stopping.    

This article is adapted from

The Emotional Side of Conflict: A Practical Guide to the Science of Both

by James Scott Harvey [copyright 2023; used by permission of East Prairie Lane Press]. 


James Harvey

James Scott Harvey has over forty-six years of human services experience, working in the areas of behavioral health, mediation, and more. His work has included direct micro services, administrative macro services, and teaching. He used his lifetime of experiences to develop the ideas inside the book, The Emotional Side of… MORE

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