Teaming Up Against Destructive Conflict

three white cubesDestructive conflict often sends people spiraling downward in a negative cycle of me versus you. This creation of “other” is the basis of conflict escalation which allows one person or group to dehumanize the other which makes it “okay” to perpetrate everything from indignities to violence.

Why does this happen? One explanation may have to do with empathy or lack thereof. Over the past several years researchers have been considering what is called “empathy gap”–otherwise seemingly reasonable and empathetic people behave in ways that are not empathetic toward those they perceive as their enemy.

Of course most of us would say that’s ridiculous and we would never behave that way… turns out how we think we’ll behave and how we actually behave in a “hot affect” situation (such as when we are scared or angry) are quite different. Worse? We’re not very good at predicting our behavior. Worse still? In the midst of a “hot affect” situation people tend to act primarily in their short-term interests throwing long-term interests out the window. (,

This may not be as surprising when you considered what Goleman dubbed the “Amygdala Hijack”–evidence that when we are flooded with strong emotions it is literally impossible to access the reasoning part of our brain. (

While most people’s brains light up with recognition (representation) of the pain or suffering of another, it doesn’t automatically translate to empathy for the other person. In fact, research being conducted by Bruneau at MIT shows that the empathy we access and express can depend upon the individual or group in question. His early studies have shown that people can create an “empathy gap” toward those they perceive as an enemy while at the same time expressing deep empathy for those in their group or other groups. (

In the meanwhile…

Where does this leave us when we are grappling with a conflict escalating before our eyes or between us and another person? Humans, it has been well-documented, have the tendency to feel affinity for those within their own group. Being on the same team or in the same group increases empathy for in-group, while increasing the likelihood of conflict with out-group members. Yet Sherif’s famous Robber’s Cave experiment showed that when working on a shared problem (a.k.a. on the same team) conflict decreased. (

Problem-Solving Mediation uses this tendency to help people focus on their common interests and see themselves as aligned together against the problem. Narrative Mediation, similarly, invites people to externalize the conflict, see its ill-effects as separate from the person, de-construct the conflict-saturated story, and work together to develop a new story. 

Prevention is always the best course when discussing conflict. All those silly team-building exercises, it turns out, may help. Anything that you can do to solidify the sense that you are on the same team may increase your odds of constructively working through conflict when it does arise. Reflecting on a time you worked together well, may also underline this. Determining together what your common interests are and listing them where you both can see and access them (e.g. increasing the bottom line, raising healthy kids, etc.). Even using words like “us,” “working together,” or “on the same team” may help to create a more cooperative atmosphere.

And if all else fails and you find yourself in the throes of a conflict, don’t let your Amygdala get hijacked! Taking a time out, counting to ten, or even thinking about or doing something else for a while might be the best thing to do for yourself and the other person.

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