Patterns that Perpetuate Conflict (Part 2)

Previously, in Part 1 (, I shared a number of key patterns of interaction which I believe contribute to conflict going around and around in circles, without resolving.

In what follows, I again name the key patterns from Part 1, without their detailed descriptions. And, I add some patterns that I see as being versions (or sub-patterns) of the patterns I shared before.

I hope that this more comprehensive (but still incomplete) list of patterns that perpetuate conflict will broaden and deepen your awareness of what can get in the way of our connecting with each other in truly satisfying ways.

Here are the patterns and sub-patterns:

  1. Responding without confirming understanding
    1. Constructing and engaging with “straw-men” – People sometimes summarize what other people are saying in a way that doesn’t make sense and is easily refuted. If the position doesn’t make sense, that may be a clue that that is not what the other person actually means. A “straw man” is a cartoon version of the other person, saying things that are a distortion of what the other person actually wants to have understood. When this pattern is active, people “talk past” each other, responding to things that aren’t what the other person meant or is concerned about. (This is a version of “Responding without confirming understanding.”It may also be a version of “Believing your diagnosis of others.”)
    2. Not sticking with reflection until the other is satisfied you’ve “got it” – Sometimes people reflect what they think they’ve heard, then simply continue to address what they assume was meant. This is a version of “responding without confirming understanding.” If the conversation is “stuck”, it becomes essential to ensure that “message received” is the same as “message sent.” While offering a reflection is a step in the right direction, it’s not going to help much if you aren’t committed to continuing to check until you “get it” to the other person’s satisfaction.
  2. Focusing on proving yourself right vs. developing an integrated understanding
  3. Failure to integrate information, concerns, and corrections
    1. “Boomerang” engagement – After something has happened which stimulated conflict, there is some discussion, the person goes away — and then a while later they return, and do essentially the same thing they did before which stimulated conflict. There seems to be a failure to learn from, or be changed by, or be responsive to, what happened before. This virtually guarantees that the same cycle of conflict will repeat over and over again. This is a version of “Failure to integrate information, concerns, and corrections.” This is often combined with “Hit-and-run” engagement.
    2. Repeatedly asking for what has already been given – Sometimes someone repeatedly asks for information that has already been offered. This pattern is problematic in a number of ways. It can create an imbalance and lack of mutuality, by shifting the burden of effort to the other person. It can create an “impossible threshold” to the extent that information offered is always rejected or ignored, yet is held out as essential in order to be able to proceed. And, it constitutes a form of “Failure to integrate information, concerns, and corrections.” It stimulates frustration and a sense of not being heard. This pattern is very effective at inhibiting conflict transformation. When this pattern happens, it may be useful to name the pattern and explore what is happening and why.
    3. Asserting that one is responsive rather than demonstrating responsiveness – Sometimes a person hears a complaint such as “you’re not being responsive,” and, rather than taking this as important feedback about how the other person is experiencing the interaction, they defensively assert or try to “prove” that they are “responsive,” failing to actually be responsive to the feedback. (This pattern has variations involving other virtues being asserted rather than demonstrated.) This is a variety of “Failure to integrate information, concerns, and corrections.” It typically contributes to others feeling unheard, increases alienation, and erodes connection.
  4. Dialoging without openness to being touched and changed
    1. Absence of curiosity – To achieve mutual understanding, it helps to really want to understand the other, want to make sense of how they see the world. This wanting is most likely to be fulfilled if approached with curiosity, careful listening, and active investigation. If the other person’s position doesn’t make sense (in a way that isn’t easily refuted), then chances are you are not yet understanding them. Curiosity increases trust and opens the path for mutual learning.
    2. Reflecting without respect, empathic imagining, and care – Sometimes people mechanically reflect what another has said, without any respect for or understanding of the words they are reflecting. This can be a part of a path towards connection, but connection is unlikely to happen if reflections remain at that level. Reflections are more likely to contribute to connection if you can find an expression of the other’s message that you can respect in some way, even if you don’t agree with it. It helps if you can make sense of how the other person is seeing things intellectually and experiencing things emotionally. This is not about “diagnosing” the other person, but about connecting to a frame of reference in which their beliefs  are “reasonable” and their emotions are natural. It helps if you can imagine that, in their situation, you might feel similarly. Condescension, or a belief that you “know better” and they have nothing of value to express, is deadly to connection. Care, humility, and curiosity are important when feeling into how to reflect another’s message in a way that’s likely to support connection.<
  5. Believing your diagnosis of others
    1. Assuming that knowing one thing about a person tells you other things about them – Sometimes, someone is certain that “If X is true about you, then Y must also be true.” Maybe Y is “you will have a biased view of a particular issue” or “you’re driven by fear” or “you think you’re better than me” or… some other generalization. (Sometimes, people are so convinced of such things that they focus on trying to find out X, so they can “know” whether or not Y is true.) This is a form of “Believing your diagnosis of others.” Such unjustified certainty about others is a barrier to seeing and understanding others.
  6. Not allowing other’s concerns to matter
    1. “Stonewalling” – Sometimes people completely fail to respond in any way to others’ concerns. Researcher John Gottman identifies Stonewalling as one of the “Four Horseman” that signal high risk for the complete failure of a relationship. (The other Horsemen are Criticism, Contempt, and Defensiveness.) Stonewalling is an extreme form of “Not allowing other’s concerns to matter.” It reflects relational breakdown and poses extreme risk of further breakdown.
    2. Neglecting interdependence: “Let’s agree to disagree” / “Live and let live” / “We each have our own truth” – Sometimes people want to leave conflict unaddressed, and want others to simply accept that different people have different perspectives. In situations where people can co-exist independently, without their different perspectives having much impact on each other, this can be a helpful strategy. However, people are interdependent, and sometimes a conflict arises from ways that people’s choices significantly impact others. (It doesn’t work to say, “I like taking things that you think belong to you and you don’t want me to, but let’s just agree to disagree about that.”) When interdependence is significant, arguing that we should “agree to disagree,” “just live and let live,” or “accept that we each have our own truth” becomes a form of “not allowing other’s concerns to matter.” Such a stance contributes to the perpetuation of conflict and resentment, while seeming “reasonable.”
    3. Denying that there is a conflict – Sometimes, one party experiences there as being a painful conflict with another party; yet that other party, if asked to engage, asserts “There is no conflict between us,” and uses this as a reason to decline to engage in dialog or conflict transformation. While the idea that there is “no conflict between us” might mean something, using such a belief to reject engagement is typically experienced as a form of “Not allowing the other’s concerns to matter.” It escalates conflict.
  7. Continuing using modes of communication that aren’t working
  8. Focusing on intention without addressing impact
  9. “Hit-and-run” engagement

This isn’t a complete list of all patterns that contribute to conflict continuing unresolved.

This list arose from observing just a few particular conflicts, noticing patterns, and drawing on some more general insights about conflict transformation. From what I’ve seen, other conflicts are likely to include distinct patterns that play an important role in perpetuating that particular conflict.

Yet, some of the patterns I’ve listed seem common, maybe nearly universal. I hope that this list might be helpful to you. I hope the naming of these patterns will serve to raise awareness and create new possibilities.

Please try to apply this list only in service to love.

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I hope this list contributes to you, and to your community.

I welcome feedback. I will likely continue to maintain both parts of this list, so let me know if you see errors or want to suggest improvements.

I’d particularly like to hear about it if you find what I’ve written helpful in some way.

In service,

Last revised: Feb. 1, 2021