Skill Builder: Recognizing the Stages of Conflict

Conflict is inevitable and necessary in the process of working toward understanding one another. As organizers, we come from different backgrounds and experiences; we all have different ways of communicating about ourselves and our ideas. Conflict is a natural part of us learning how to interact with one another and how to effectively collaborate towards our shared visions. Our attitudes, beliefs and feelings about conflict will influence how conflict is approached, handled and resolved. The goal of this article is to help explore what conflict is, how we can identify the stages of conflict, and how to intervene so that conflict doesn’t negatively impact our relationships and goals.

What is Conflict?

Conflict can be: (1) a perceived or actual threat to one’s interest and/or needs; and/or (2) something that occurs when the strategies to get one’s needs met are at odds with another person’s strategies to get their needs met. The longer a conflict is left unaddressed the more difficult it will be able to address and manage. If conflict is left unaddressed for too long it may result in relationships that are incredibly difficult to repair and could cause serious harm to people, groups and the organization.  

For example, let’s say I’ve been working on an event for months and am hoping to get support from the chapter for a big turnout. The week before my event, another member brings up a huge community action happening the same day as my event and emphasizes the need for turnout at the action. The other member recommends not advertising for any other events or actions so we can ensure maximum turnout for their community action.

My interests and needs are at odds with this other member. This is a conflict. In order to prevent this conflict from escalating and potentially harming either my organizing goals or my relationship with this other member, I need to address it. Please read below for suggestions around how to identify and address conflict.

Stages of Conflict

While some conflicts may escalate quickly, there are usually several preliminary stages of conflict that are important for us to recognize so that we (you, me, all of us!) can intervene early. It is our hope that members will address conflict early on—ideally by Stage 2—so we can avoid conflict seriously harming our relationships and shared goals.

Stage 1: Discomfort

  • Situation:
    • Something doesn’t feel quite right. You can’t exactly put your finger on it, but you know you feel uneasy.
    • You don’t say anything because you haven’t figured out the best way to describe what’s wrong.
    • You avoid the feeling, and maybe avoid the people or projects that are making you feel this way.
  • Intervention: at this stage you can prevent the conflict from escalating by…
    • Expressing your concerns
    • Asking questions
    • Actively listening to the responses from the other person/people
    • Simply naming your discomfort – e.g. “I’m not quite sure what it is about this suggestion, but something about it is making me feel concerned.”

Stage 2: Misunderstanding

  • The situation:
    • You felt uncomfortable and decided not to say anything – maybe you thought it would blow over, that it would be silly to bring it up because it’s not that big of a deal, or that people might think you’re overreacting.
    • You’ve now continued engaging with people without expressing your discomfort and this may lead to you communicating in a way that’s defensive or reactive and may lead to tense interactions and clashes with others.
  • Intervention: at this stage you can prevent the conflict from escalating by:
    • Expressing your concerns.
      • “I’m feeling worried that this approach might leave out some important people in our membership.”
    • Acknowledging that you’re having difficulty communicating right now.
      • “I’m having trouble being able to fully listen to you and engage in this conversation right now.”
    • Asking for time and space to think through how you’d like to continue the conversation.
      • “I think this conversation is really important and I need more time to think about it so I can be fully present when we talk.”
    • Or using active listening skills to de-escalate the conversation and work towards understanding.
      • “I hear that addressing this issue is really important to you because of your past experiences. What was your thought process with this particular suggestion?”

Stage 3: Incidents of Hostility

  • The situation:
    • Neither person involved expressed concern or discomfort when they felt it, and no one attempted to use active listening skills and de-escalation techniques as tensions rose.
    • Now some negative exchanges have occurred, and both people may have developed negative perceptions of each other.
  • Intervention: active listening and de-escalation between both people may not be enough at this point
    • Problem solving may be the best next step – e.g. finding a way to sit down with one another and directly address the conflict, accessing a neutral third party or utilizing Conflict Resolution (CR) to get support around working towards addressing the conflict.

Stage 4: Tensions

  • The situation:
    • There have been no attempts at addressing the conflict between both people and there have been continued negative exchanges, incidents, and/or misunderstanding.
    • These incidents may lead to more anger and posturing.
    • Each person has become more fixed in their position over time.
    • Both people may have talked with other members to try to “recruit” people to their side of the misunderstanding.
  • Interventions: working towards addressing this issue is greatly more difficult at this stage
    • Problem solving is still a necessary intervention to address this issue.
    • If the conflict has reached this stage, it is advised that both people attempt to address the issue with a third party present (either a trusted neutral person or with the support of CR).

Stage 5: Crisis

  • The situation:
    • At this point, neither party has addressed the conflict, and misunderstandings and anger have increased.
    • Both people have likely developed strategies designed to “defeat” the other person and their perspective rather than working towards a shared resolution.
    • Perhaps both people are using hostile communication and/or passive-aggressive sabotaging.
  • Interventions: achieving understanding and repairing relationships at this stage is incredibly difficult
    • Problem solving is still a necessary intervention to address this issue. However, all involved should be very aware that at this stage addressing and reaching understanding will take a lot of time and effort.
    • If the conflict has reached this stage, it is advised that both people attempt to address the issue via the Conflict Resolution committee resources.

We encourage everyone in our community to practice expressing their concerns and feelings, use active listening and de-escalation skills when communicating with one another, and access CR to receive support around addressing issues.

CR is available to help and strongly encourages folks to reach out during Stage 1 and Stage 2 of a conflict. CR can help provide you with language to use, help you practice how to communicate effectively, and if necessary, be present for a mediated conversation between you and another person.

Learn more about Conflict Resolution services and request Conflict Resolution here:

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[Please note: content related to stages of conflict is largely drawn from resources provided by Community Boards. To learn more about Community Boards, check out their website.]