Conflict in a COVID-19 environment

The COVID-19 pandemic has introduced to the world a new norm of curfews, social distancing, mask wearing and lockdowns. As the world grapples with this avalanche of change, the likelihood of fear, discomfort, frustration and anxiety will increase. These have always been fertile grounds for conflict and existed since the beginning of time; hence, change is natural, continual and unavoidable. Our goal and objective should not be to view change as negative, for to do so will create a barrier to adopting positive movement. Rather, we should focus on finding ways to manage conflict in our homes, jobs, society and within ourselves because conflict is inevitable and will continue to exist post-COVID-19.

We know that at the core of any conflict is communication failure and in many instances, issues can lead to conflict because of the way a person reacts to them. These reactions are often based on values, biases, experiences and lack of effective communication. Understanding what conflict is and categorizing it — its causes and people’s reaction to them — can be a difficult and complex undertaking, yet it is necessary to address this topic. Researcher Daniel Webster defines conflict as the “competitive or opposing action of incompatibles”. Essentially, conflict exists when two or more competing responses or courses of action to a single event are considered. So, having understood that conflict is natural and fluid and if left unattended, can leave destruction in its path, what are the types of conflict, the basic stages of conflict, and conflict management styles?

There are three types of conflicts: intrapersonal conflict, interpersonal conflict and group dynamic conflict.

Intrapersonal or internal conflict is seen as a disturbance originating from within oneself (the prefix “intra” means “within”). It is linked to one’s emotions and has the potential to immobilize someone if it goes unchecked. This type of conflict develops in stages and can range from headaches and backaches (stage one), to tiredness and burnout (stage two) and to depression and suicidal thoughts (stage three). Intrapersonal conflict is the body’s altering signal that directs one to assess where unnecessary energy is being drained from. It alerts one to the need to step back from, assess and manage one’s life. Intrapersonal conflict requires stress management skills and techniques such as keeping a positive attitude, being assertive and not aggressive, accepting that some things cannot be changed, practicing relaxation techniques, praying, exercising, getting sufficient sleep, staying away from excessive alcohol or drugs and maintaining a balanced life. The ability to manage internal conflict will determine how well one can manage interpersonal conflict, as this kind of conflict is external. Failure to manage one’s intrapersonal conflict will prove futile in managing external conflicts.

Interpersonal conflict exists between individuals (the Latin prefix “inter” means “between”, “among” or “together”). We see this type of conflict in our daily lives, whether on the job, at home, in social interactions or during commutes. Interpersonal conflict can be sparked if one does not feel valued or appreciated or feels that they are being taken advantage of or controlled. This type of conflict can trigger anger or fear. When one feels their needs are not being met, they will react either by way of retaliation, domination or isolation.

Intergroup or group dynamic conflict exists between individuals within a particular group, team, department or company. Intergroup conflicts can take on a life of their own and are often fueled by politics, gossip, rumors and innuendos. This complex web of confusion creates layers of conflict that can escalate and spread throughout the group. It can damage a business, company, group, team or department if it goes unchecked and it has the potential to be combustible.

The key to resolving any type of conflict is to identify and assess it and then employ a conflict management or resolution strategy. The extent of the conflict will determine the most effective strategy to be adopted, as well as the degree of emotion and intensity involved. If the conflict is identified at an early stage and appropriate steps are taken to manage the emotions, its resolution may be attainable. However, if the conflict is ignored and left unchecked, it could escalate into a Category 5 hurricane, leaving a trail of destruction in its path.

There are several ways to describe the stages of conflict; however, for the purpose of this article, we will look at a simplified stage approach. The three-stage approach to conflict involves assessing whether it is a simple, moderate or severe conflict.

A simple conflict is categorized as a low-intensity conflict and involves everyday concerns and disputes. This kind of conflict can be least harmful and best addressed by adopting coping strategies. Care should be taken so it does not escalate. It can be easily resolved by brainstorming possible ideas, solutions or options. Communication is normally clear and specific and the focus should be on the issue and not the personalities of those involved. Examples of low-intensity conflict are parent–child misunderstandings, spousal disputes regarding housework and chores such as throwing out trash or cleaning or workplace misunderstandings such as when a subordinate fails to complete a task or a customer has a dispute with a store employee.

Moderate or moderate-intensity conflict evokes a higher degree of output and can have long-term consequences. Coping strategies may be ineffective, so the focus should be more on training and specific management skills. Examples include a child who has not been taught to respect adults and talks back at home or school, spouses who fail to communicate with each other and allow silence to linger or a boss who overlooks an employee for a promotion and favors another who has a limited or nonexistent skill set.

Severe or high-intensity conflict happens when the objective shifts from a desire to win to a desire to hurt someone emotionally, physically, economically or psychologically. Here, emotions may become volatile and the focus is to establish who is right; there is an insatiable desire to attack or punish those who are wrong. Each person may hold a polarized position, which can result in an impasse. Coping strategies or more specific management skills may not be effective. Intervention is required from a neutral, impartial third party such as a negotiator or mediator. Examples of severe conflicts include an escalating dispute between two individuals wherein one is injured, a husband or wife beating their spouse or a revenge-seeking employee verbally or physically attacking a coworker.

It is important to note that conflict can move between these stages. There is no set timing as to when it will escalate if it is left unattended; therefore, one must recognize and address the conflict before it gets out of hand.

Stuart Hampshire, in his book “Justice is Conflict”, states, “The skillful manager of conflict is among the highest of human skills.” This is indeed true as conflict in and of itself can be fluid. Behavioral scientists have identified several universally accepted approaches to deal with conflict management, which they call conflict management styles. Examples of these are the following: avoidance, accommodation, passivity, compromise, aggression, assertion, collaboration and problem-solving. These scientists have further postulated that each individual has at least two predominant conflict management styles, and these styles are usually the ones that make the individual feel most comfortable; in most cases, they are formed through learned behavior. Behavioral scientists have also concluded that people often use the same conflict management style in dealing with all types of conflict in their lives and that this conflict management style is tied to their communication style.

It is therefore important for us to understand and develop the ability to use different conflict management styles so that the appropriate style can be used in a given situation. Some styles will feel more comfortable to certain individuals than others. It ultimately depends on the situation, which will determine the most effective conflict style at a given time. It is also necessary to individually assess the strengths and weaknesses of one’s personal conflict management style. Awareness of conflict management styles may help people understand the style of those with whom they may find themselves in conflict.

When dealing with a conflict, one should strive to use an appropriate conflict management style. It is also important to be aware that a conflict can become intractable, especially during these trying times and as we look to the future in a post-COVID-19 world. Stress management skills and techniques or coping mechanisms are the first point of reference when dealing with conflict, especially as it relates to simple conflicts. If these methods fail, it may be necessary to seek assistance from a neutral third party. However, at all times, it is highly recommended that where there is any element of abuse in the home or elsewhere, one should seek external assistance such as from the police or a crisis intervention hotline. One should not attempt to personally de-escalate a conflict that might prove harmful to themselves or someone else. Remember, as the Bible states, “Be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger” (James 1:19 ESV). As we look to the future, stay safe and always remember, we should strive to be our brother’s keeper (Galatians 6:2).

Koschina L. Marshall is an expert in the field of dispute resolution and conflict resolution. She is a certified mediator and arbitrator and holds an LLM in the field of dispute resolution.

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