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These notes were first presented at The Developing Group 7 October 2006 

Modelling Conflict 

Penny Tompkins and James Lawley

The root meaning of the word ‘conflict’ is ‘to strike together’. A friend of ours, Lynne Bell wondered, “Does this produce a spark or a conflagration?” Judy DeLozier calls a minor or early-stage conflict “a bump”. Conflict also derives from the Latin for ‘a contest’. So no wonder the prototypical image of a conflict is a fight.

The following contains a number of items that explore the topic and provide background to our thinking about the subject:

1. A dictionary definition of conflict
2. From Wikipedia
3. Metaphor and political conflict
4. Extract from ‘The Art and Science of Love’
5. Our thoughts
6. A way to model the ‘life cycle’ of a conflict
7. Ways we work with couples in conflict.

1. A dictionary definition

Oxford American Dictionary definition of ‘conflict’
- a serious disagreement or argument, typically a protracted one
doctors often come into conflict with politicians.
- a prolonged armed struggle
overseas conflicts.
- an incompatibility between two or more opinions, principles, or interests
 there was a conflict between his business and domestic life.
- Psychology: a condition in which a person experiences a clash of opposing wishes or needs.
- be incompatible or at variance; clash
there are conflicting accounts of what occurred.
- having or showing confused and mutually inconsistent feelings
my feelings are so conflicted that I hardly know how to answer.
from the Latin verb confligere, meaning ‘to strike together’;
the noun is via the Latin conflictus, ‘a contest’.

- industrial conflicts
dispute, quarrel, squabble, disagreement, dissension, clash; discord, friction, strife, antagonism, hostility, disputation, contention; feud, schism.
Antonym: agreement.
- the Vietnam conflict
war, campaign, battle, fighting, (armed) confrontation, engagement, encounter, struggle, hostilities; warfare, combat.
Antonym: peace.
- a conflict between his business and domestic life
clash, incompatibility, incongruity, friction; mismatch, variance, difference, divergence, contradiction, inconsistency.
Antonym: harmony.
- their interests sometimes conflict
clash, be incompatible, vary, be at odds, be in conflict, differ, diverge, disagree, contrast, collide.

2. From Wikipedia

Conflict is a state of opposition, disagreement or incompatibility between two or more people or groups of people, which is sometimes characterized by physical violence. Military conflict between states may constitute war.

In political terms, "conflict" refers to an ongoing state of hostility between two or more groups of people.

Conflict as taught for graduate and professional work in conflict resolution commonly has the definition: "when two or more parties, with perceived incompatible goals, seek to undermine each other's goal-seeking capability".

One should not confuse the distinction between the presence and absence of conflict with the difference between competition and co-operation. In competitive situations, the two or more parties each have mutually inconsistent goals, so that when either party tries to reach their goal it will undermine the attempts of the other to reach theirs. Therefore, competitive situations [may] cause conflict. However, conflict can also occur in co- operative situations, in which two or more parties have consistent goals, because the manner in which one party tries to reach their goal can still undermine the other.

A clash of interests, values, actions or directions often sparks a conflict. Conflicts refer to the existence of that clash. Psychologically, a conflict exists when the reduction of one motivating stimulus involves an increase in another, so that a new adjustment is demanded. The word is applicable from the instant that the clash occurs. Even when we say that there is a potential conflict we are implying that there is already a conflict of direction even though a clash may not yet have occurred.

Types and Modes of Conflict
A conceptual conflict can escalate into a verbal exchange and/or result in fighting.
Conflict can exist at a variety of levels of analysis:
  • intrapersonal conflict (though this usually just gets delegated out to psychology)
  • interpersonal conflict
  • group conflict
  • organizational conflict
  • community conflict
  • intrastate conflict (for example: civil wars, election campaigns)
  • international conflict
Conflicts in these levels may appear "nested" in conflicts residing at larger levels of
analysis. For example, conflict within a work team may play out the dynamics of a broader conflict in the organization as a whole.

Theorists have claimed that parties can conceptualise responses to conflict according to a two-dimensional scheme; concern for one's own outcomes and concern for the outcomes of the other party. This scheme leads to the following hypotheses:
  • High concern for both one's own and the other party's outcomes leads to attempts to find mutually beneficial solutions.
  • High concern for one's own outcomes only leads to attempts to "win" the conflict.
  • High concern for the other party's outcomes only leads to allowing the other to "win" the conflict.
  • No concern for either side's outcomes leads to attempts to avoid the conflict.
Several theorists detect successive phases in the development of conflicts.

Often a group finds itself in conflict over facts, goals, methods or values. It is critical that it properly identifies the type of conflict it is experiencing if it hopes to manage the conflict through to resolution. For example, a group will often treat an assumption as a fact.

The more difficult type of conflict is when values are the root cause. It is more likely that a conflict over facts, or assumptions, will be resolved than one over values. It is extremely difficult to "prove" that a value is "right" or "correct".

In some instances, a group will benefit from the use of a facilitator or process consultant to help identify the specific type of conflict.

Practitioners of non-violence have developed many practices to solve social and political conflicts without resorting to violence or coercion.

3. Metaphor and political conflict

Taken from Alice Deignan's book review of Corpus Approaches to Critical Metaphor Analysis by Jonathan Charteris-Black (reviewed for the journal Metaphor and Symbol, 20(4), pp 297-298.):

Chapter 4 describes the analysis of corpora of the manifestos of the two main British political parties, Labour and Conservative, since 1945.  Charteris-Black sampled the manifestos of 1974, 1979, and 1997 for metaphor keywords that were then searched for in the rest of the corpora; historical metaphors from the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s may have been missed.  The metaphors used by the two parties are generally shared; the most frequent are “LIFE IS A STRUGGLE,” “SOCIETY IS A PERSON,” and “ACTIVITY IS TRAVEL.” 

Conflict metaphors account for greater than 40% of all metaphors found. However, a more detailed analysis reveals differences in use; for example, in the Labour corpus, fight is always followed by against, whereas in the Conservative corpus it collocates with off and for. Charteris-Black uses evidence of this kind to claim that Conservative CONFLICT metaphors depict Labour as an aggressor that attacks its values, whereas Labour metaphors depict social ills as the enemy. Charteris-Black then traces the development of metaphors, dividing this corpus chronologically rather than by party. He finds a steady growth in CONFLICT metaphors over the years, and a corresponding decline in BUILDING metaphors, reflecting changing conceptualizations of the purpose and practice of politics.

4. Extract from: ‘The Art and Science of Love’
By Katy Butler in Psychotherapy Networker, Sept./Oct. 2006 (italics added by us).

Full article available at:

Gottman’s Research

Mathematician-turned-psychologist John Gottman videotaped ordinary couples in their most ordinary moments. He followed some of the couples for more than two decades, recording who got divorced, who established parallel lives, and who stayed together more or less happily.

In the course of studying more than 3,000 couples, Gottman discovered that most of them fought, and that even the most happily married couples never resolved 69 percent of their conflicts. When they returned to his lab at four-year intervals, the issues and even the phrases were essentially the same. Only their clothing and hairstyles changed.

What was crucial, Gottman learned, wasn't whether a couple fought, but how. Among those couples whose marriages survived well, whom Gottman and his colleagues came to call the masters of marriage, wives raised issues gently, and brought them up sooner rather than later. Neither husbands nor wives regularly became so upset with each other that their heart rates rose above 95 beats a minute. They broke rising tension with jokes, reassurance, and distractions. They didn't escalate their arguments.

Faced with a request or complaint from their wives (and 80 percent of the complaints did come from wives), the successful husbands didn't play king or cross their arms like rebellious teenagers. Instead they changed their behavior - doing more dishes, working fewer hours, giving more than lip service to their wives dreams, or taking an older child to the park to give an exhausted new mother a breather.

Perhaps most notable, the master couples made at least 5 positive remarks or gestures toward each other for every zinger during a fight; in calmer times, their positive-to-negative ratio was an astounding 20 to 1.

The masters of disaster in Gottman's study group those who eventually divorced fought differently. Wives raised issues harshly especially when their husbands ignored them or put them down. (He named the wives openers harsh start-ups.) The husbands got upset more easily during arguments like these and had a harder time calming themselves down. And 94 percent of the time, conflicts that opened harshly didn't get any better as they went along.

Rather than complaining about specifics, the wives frequently globalized their criticisms, using phrases like you never and rhetorical questions like What's wrong with you? The husbands, for their part, frequently shut down, playing emotional possum or becoming as blank as a cement wall. The reverberation between them was so toxic that Gottman named criticism and stonewalling as two of his Four Horsemen of Marital Apocalypse. (The other two are defensiveness and contempt.) The presence of the Four Horsemen alone, he found, combined with pulse rates that rose above 95 beats per minute during a disagreement, were highly reliable predictors of divorce.

In both happy and unhappy couples, partners made plenty of subtle bids for attention, closeness, or reassurance. But the partners headed for divorce responded to each others bids only 33 percent of the time, while the happy couples response rate was 86 percent.

Finally, Gottman's research showed him that it wasn't only how the couple fought that mattered, but how they made up afterward what he called a repair, echoing the language of engineering. In a longitudinal study of 130 newlywed couples published in 1998, Gottman found that 83 percent of marriages initially exhibiting the Four Horsemen became stable over time, as long as the couple learned to reconcile successfully after a fight.

At The Workshop

The workshops goal is to help us learn to imitate Gottman's long-married master couples. The bedrock of their successful relationships, its explained, is marital friendship, built granule upon granule, through tiny rituals of courtesy, kindness, humor, and appreciation. Successful couples, have large cognitive maps of each others worlds. They're curious about each others inner lives, and they don't stint on expressing their appreciation for each other. When one of them makes a subtle bid for attention something as simple as “look at the pretty boats” the other one usually responds positively.

This system of mutual stroking, according to the Gottman's model, produces positive sentiment override an emotional tipping point that allows spouses to think, in tense moments, My sweetie must be having a hard day rather than What a jerk! or He doesn't love me. And that makes it easier to disagree without being disagreeable.

[John and Julie Gottman suggest] that instead of tackling our most upsetting issues head-on, we start obliquely, building a culture of appreciation for each other.

During the weekend, the Gottman's explain, [we] will be taught how to put deposits in our joint emotional bank account and engender positive sentiment override. We’ll learn to soothe each other and ourselves. And finally we’ll develop ways to manage the conflicts we can’t resolve, honor each others dreams, and create a life of shared meaning.

The binder tells us there is no absolute reality in a disagreement but rather two subjective realities. We are to practice softened start-up and making I-statements.

For another article on this site that references John Gottman's research see Learning from Relationship.

5. Our Thoughts

Conflict is a systemic relationship. It is not a behaviour (although for as long as it lasts it will include complementary behaviour) and it’s not an emotional state (although a person’s state is one of the main contributors to the escalation and maintenance of a conflict).

If someone is in conflict with you then unless you leave the area you have little choice but to be involved in the conflict. Even if try to you ignore them, the consequences of their behaviour will impact you.

For many, the opposite of conflict is peace or harmony which are characterised by an absence of conflict.  But what do you do when conflict happens? What’s an alternative model for responding to disharmony, incompatibility and disagreement? Common metaphors are “managing”, “handling” and “dealing with” conflict.

If conflict is inevitable in any complex adaptive system, it is conceivable that reducing conflict in one area might lead to an adaptive compensation or systemic balancing in another area, or at another time.

When does a disagreement become a conflict? Look at the number of words in the Thesaurus above which indicate a conflict. A few of the many expressions we have come across which have, in certain circumstances, indicated an underlying conflict:

A difference of perception.
A mismatch of expectations.
A misunderstanding.
I'm angry.
Don't aggravate the situation.
Don't get tetchy.
You're stubborn.
We've hit an impasse.
there's a lack of mutual understanding
If you keep that up I'm going to get frustrated.

Aida Edemariam notes that even discussing the question of whether to eat food that is past its sell-by-date produces a range of reactions:
Now I’m well aware that not everyone will agree with me. In fact many disagree viscerally. I know. I’ve had these arguments. They tend to end in a scowling stand off, out of all proportion to the innocent pot of yogurt sitting quietly in the fridge. (The Guardian, 30 Aug 06, ‘When is your food really past it’s best?’)

                                         The Conflict Continuum

Mild disagreement                                                                War
                 (When the relationship becomes conflictual)

Below are two lists of different ways people can respond to conflict:
  • Conflict is bad and is to be avoided
  • Conflict is a problem to be (re)solved
  • Conflict is inevitable and must be accepted and managed
  • Conflict is essential and is be promoted (as it leads to a new synthesis - Hegel)
A body-response to conflict can be to either:
  • Fight
  • Flight
  • Freeze
  • Flow
For a description of when conflict is a form of self-perpetuating bind see Metaphors in Mind, pages 181-184.

To give you an idea of the range of ways people know they are in conflict, and then how they react, below are quotes from twelve people:

 How do you know you are in conflict?

Then how do you respond?

We don’t agree immediately.Feel sad.
 2.I hear a pattern of repeating statements that don’t concur without moving on.Think ‘What is going on?’.
 3.I see and hear a difference in the norm – shaking head, etc.
Think of having a drink.
 4.There's a shift from intellect to emotional, taking it personally, taking a position, defending.
 5.When listening has stopped, ‘Yea, but’, and interrupting.
Feel anger: we've got to address it.
 6.When neither of us are acknowledging the other.
Walk out.
 7.When I feel ‘Here we go again’.
 8.Feeling ‘That’s not what I mean’.
Try to sort it out
 9.One of us says or does something that's disrespectful.
Just stop.
 10.We just can't seem to understand each other.
Move as I feel trapped by language.
 11.Our body language.
 12.I feel emotionally uneasy – the differences are not resolvable.
Think 'what's the bigger picture?’

6. A way to model the ‘life cycle’ of a conflict

The following diagram is a schematic of the life cycle of a conflict.  The model gives rise to a number of questions for people wanting to self-model their pattern of conflictual relating.

Modelling Questions

  • Where and when can conflicts occur (and where can they not occur)?
  • What are the first signs that let you know a situation has the potential to become conflictual? 
  • How do you know when your/their threshold is approaching?
  • How does it begin?
  • How does the conflict escalate? 
  • What determines how fast/slow it escalates? 
  • How do you know how far it has gone [what is you scale of measurement]? 
  • How do you know when your/their threshold has been crossed? 
  • Are there any choice points? 
  • Under what circumstances does it not escalate?
  • How do you know when you are in a conflict? [What identifies the category ‘conflict’?]
  • How is the conflict maintained?
  • For how long?
  • When do you change what’s happening (start to de-escalate / pull out / withdraw from the conflict)? [What is the nature of the dampening feedback loop?]
  • How do you end the conflict?
  • How do you know when a conflict has been resolved?
  • How do you know if you have learned from what happened?
  • Does the conflict remain dormant waiting to be re-ignited? If so, how?
Other aspects to consider:

a. How long after 1 does 2 occur?
   (Sometimes 2 and even 3 can happen before 1.)

b. Do the parties have different signals for knowing when 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 is occurring?
   Do they use different scales to measure the conflict?
   Does conflict mean different things to them?

c. What motivates:
- the escalation during 2,
- the maintenance during 3,  
- the de-escalation at 4 and,
- if the conflict remains, the retention during 5?

d. What are the consequences of
- continuing to conflict in this way?
- not having a conflict?

e. Does either party have a model of other ways to relate in these circumstances?
If not, how can they construct one?
If so, what ways do they have to activate it in the moment of conflict?

f. Between the parties, how many choice points, ways to bail out, or interrupt the
pattern, do they have at each stage?

7. Ways we work with couples in conflict

When working with couples in conflict we usually do some or all of the following – but not necessarily in this order:

a)   Catch the couple in the moment of a conflict and find out if the way they are responding to a disagreement here-and-now reflects a general pattern.

b)   Facilitate them to notice how each of their behaviour contributes to the continuance of the pattern of conflict.  And that it always ‘takes two to tango’.

c)   Find out if they both have a desire for a different way of handling disagreement.

d)   Draw out the qualities and characteristics of that desired way of relating (both individually and as a couple) using example behaviours from the pattern,
How would you like to respond when they ...?
How would you like them to respond when you ...?

e)   Facilitate them to practice the new behaviours, and to experience how these lead to a virtuous circle of behaviour. If at some stage they trip back into the conflictual pattern, return to (c) & (d) or move on to (f) & (g).

F)   Use examples of the old pattern as moments to explore ‘what happens internally just before the old behaviour happens’.

g)   Use the above process on any internal conflict (and note when the internal pattern of conflict is a mirror of the external pattern).

h)   Model out the process of becoming conflictual and identify the choice points. One person’s stages involved:

Potential         Becoming        Having a          A full
for conflict      conflictual        reaction           conflict

Time ------->

At each stage they had a different kind of choice (even if in the later stages it didn’t seem like much of a choice), and different behaviour was required to keep the disagreement agreeable.

i)   Use the desired behaviours as a way of supporting a change in behaviour at the moment of choice (even though it may not seem like there is much choice involved at the time).

j)   Be on the look-out for the new behaviours happening here and now, and bring them to the couple’s attention.

k)   Facilitate the individuals to find mutually acceptable answers to the questions:

What do you do when you can’t have what you want?
How would you like to respond when you can’t have what you want?

Penny Tompkins & James Lawley
Penny and James are supervising neurolinguistic psychotherapists – registered with the United Kingdom Council for Psychotherapy since 1993 – coaches in business, certified NLP trainers, and founders of The Developing Company.

They have provided consultancy to organisations as diverse as GlaxoSmithKline, Yale University Child Study Center, NASA Goddard Space Center and the Findhorn Spiritual Community in Northern Scotland.

Their book,
Metaphors in Mind
was the first comprehensive guide to Symbolic Modelling using the Clean Language of David Grove. An annotated training DVD, A Strange and Strong Sensation demonstrates their work in a live session. They have published over 200 articles and blogs freely available on their website:
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