By the time we decide to get help with a conflict, or by the time we’re called in to help others, the conflict has often become chronic or acute. Chronic conflict and acute conflict are harder to resolve and more likely to damage personal and workplace relationships. Resolution of chronic or acute conflict is reactive. Upstream conflict resolution is proactive and mitigates acute and chronic conflict’s side effects.
You’re standing at a river bank and hear a child crying. You look around you, but see no child. Then you’re shocked to see a toddler floating by, struggling to stay afloat. The person next to you jumps into the water to rescue the child. Almost immediately, another toddler floats by, then another and another. You dive in and rescue two of the toddlers. Other bystanders jump into the water too. But the children keep coming.
As you struggle toward shore with the two crying toddlers in your arms, you see one woman set a soaking wet child on the ground, then begin to run along the shore. “Wait!” you yell, “Don’t leave! We need your help!” As she runs upstream she yells over her shoulder, “I am helping! I’m going to stop whoever is throwing these kids into the river!”
Like the woman in this parable attributed to sociologist and disability rights activist Irving Zola, upstream conflict resolution positions us to handle conflict in ways that prevent it from becoming acute or chronic.
Acute conflict resolution
Acute conflict resolution attempts to address conflict that is intense, severe, or escalating rapidly. Acute conflict often feels like a crisis.
Typical hallmarks of acute conflict include minimal or severed communication, escalated emotions during interactions, entrenched positions and opinions, and formation of factions.
By the time people think of getting outside help with their conflict (e.g., mediator, HR manager, marriage counselor, attorney), they’re typically facing acute conflict. Acute conflict is the hardest to resolve because it’s often entrenched and beset by the kinds of complications that arise when conflict has escalated.
It is harder to salvage the personal or professional relationship when conflict has become acute. Mutual commitment to address the conflict, combined with the right approach, can make the difference. This will not be a short-term effort and will often need a series of conversations and actions over a period of days, weeks, or even months.
Acute conflict resolution is a downstream solution — it occurs after the conflict has run amok.
Chronic conflict resolution
Chronic conflict resolution focuses on addressing conflict that is recurring, gradually worsening over time, or has been begun to interfere with the personal or professional relationship.
Chronic conflict may feel low-grade with occasional spikes in irritation, or it may feel as though every interaction is annoying or frustrating but not severe. Typical signs of chronic conflict include perennial bickering, increasing personal attacks, increasing distrust, and over-reliance on indirect methods to communicate (e.g., email, texting). Chronic conflict can become acute.
The particular challenge of chronic conflict is that it has become habitual and habits take commitment, effort, and specific measures to change.
Recognizing early that a conflict is becoming chronic, and taking action sooner than later, will help. As with acute conflict, chronic conflict can still be addressed at later stages, but because it is a well-formed habit by then, it doesn’t lend itself to speedy resolution.
Like acute conflict resolution, resolution of chronic conflict is downstream — it occurs after the conflict has taken deep hold.
Upstream conflict resolution
Upstream conflict resolution concerns itself with approaches that prevent conflict from its damaging side effects, and that address the systemic reasons conflict arises or becomes acute or chronic.
Upstream conflict resolution is the form that most people don’t think or care much about because an unresolved or unaddressed conflict doesn’t seem to be a problem until it becomes chronic or acute.
I’ve pondered for years the right term to describe this work and finally found it when I read a chapter of Dan Heath’s forthcoming book, Upstream and was reminded of Zola’s children-floating-by story. Heath defines upstream efforts as those that (1) prevent problems before they happen or (2) systematically reduce harm caused by those problems.
Why “upstream” instead of “preventive”? Preventive signals that the idea is to prevent conflict. Conflict isn’t preventable, nor should it be. Trying to prevent, deter, or smooth conflict creates unintended consequences, including poor decision making, stifled communication, and diminished creativity.
Upstream conflict resolution is not about preventing conflict. It’s about preventing the downstream problems that happen when differences aren’t attended to effectively.
Stop trying to prevent conflict. Instead, try to prevent conflict’s bad side effects.
Please understand that by differentiating upstream and downstream conflict resolution, I am not making a value judgment about which type is better or worse. There are places for both types because we’re human and we’re a messy bunch, even when we try hard not to be.
Conditions for upstream conflict resolution
Another reason I prefer “upstream” to “preventive” is that prevention typically prompts us to think “training.” Effective upstream conflict resolution is about more than training.
Upstream is an orientation, a direction we go to address problems before they’re acute or chronic. It’s an orientation that acknowledges the merits of efforts like these:
- Celebration of ambiguous work. As Heath points out in his forthcoming book, upstream work is more ambiguous because it’s harder to see problems that have been curtailed or prevented. We need to celebrate the people who focus upstream at least as much as we celebrate the people who save the downstream day.
- Regard for individual agency. When people sense that their own voluntary action has a direct effect on their work, their success, their lives, or the organization’s success, we create the environment and circumstances where upstream effort feels and is worthwhile.
- Commitment to systems thinking. Conflict looks interpersonal because we see and hear the dynamic. But the way conflict is expressed is a distinctly different factor than underlying cause. Family and workplace structures and systems have a profound impact on the way people live, work, and interact. Conflict resolution cannot be truly upstream without understanding and addressing systemic reasons that conflict occurred.
- Commitment to “first things first.” Stephen Covey famously illustrated the difference between urgent and important. It’s difficult to go upstream as children are floating by in front of you, but without doing so, you can’t stop the flood of urgent matters hijacking your attention from the things that will ultimately make the real difference.
- Attention to early conflict resolution. This is about both having good conflict resolution skills and the organization’s or family’s expectations that those skills be applied early in conflict, before things become chronic or acute.
I see upstream conflict resolution as an essential element of a triad for organizations, pairs, and teams committed to the benefit of robust disagreement without the damage that comes from conflict run amok:
- Upstream conflict resolution
- Chronic conflict resolution
- Acute conflict resolution
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