Understanding the dynamics of conflict can help you feel more in control in your relationships. This blog entry will look at one way you can bring awareness to your conflict and help you feel more in control.

Consider the two-phase model of effective conflict management from the book Working Through Conflict by Folger, Poole, and Stutman: differentiation and integration. Differentiation sheds light on the differences causing the conflict. Transition from sharing and understanding the differences then moves to integration, the work of problem solving or option generating. Let’s look at a common conflict that comes to our office as an example while we learn about differentiation and integration.

As a hypothetical example, Joe and Julia worked side by side for 4 years on the same team until Julia’s promotion. Julia just got a promotion and now Joe reports to Julia. This seems OK at first but then tension starts to build. Joe starts to feel like Julia isn’t willing to get her hands dirty and do the work. Julia doesn’t ask to get coffee with him anymore. He thinks the position and power are going to her head and that she thinks she is better than Joe. Julia believes Joe is intentionally sabotaging projects and not providing his best at work to make Julia look bad as the new manager. Julia wants to feel like they are back on good terms.

Looking at this conflict through the lens of differentiation and integration can instruct the parties on what they need to do to navigate the conflict productively. For Julia, it would be helpful for her to recognize that they are in the very beginning part of the differentiation phase. It can spark the awareness that she needs to take the time to better communicate her experiences and concerns. She also needs to be genuinely curious and learn about Joe’s experiences and concerns.

Differentiation is a tough, yet necessary, phase. It requires everyone involved productively and thoroughly share their perspectives and underlying issues as well as hear those of others. On the surface, that does not sound too bad. In actuality, however, it can be a very scary, emotional and uncomfortable experience that some of us fear and more of us don’t do very well. 

Differentiation has two dynamics: avoidance and escalation. Both can be problematic. Some avoid because they “fear the consequences of open conflict so much that they refuse to acknowledge the conflict and avoid anything that might spark confrontation” (pg 16). Avoidance has a few pitfalls.  1) The other person never knows what the problem is and 2) You may become resentful of both the other person and the relationship. If Julia tries to address the issue with Joe, Joe could avoid and not tell Julia everything that is going on for him. Joe will never feel resolved and Julia will never know what she needs to change or do differently. The conflict could continue to fester.

On the other side of the coin, situations can escalate during differentiation. Heightened emotions and worries about the outcome can perpetuate problematic and harmful behavior. It can lead to feeling hopeless or overwhelmed. Escalation is also sparked not by what is being said by how it is being said. Delivery counts! How we say something is often more important than what we say. Raising issues too harshly might alienate the other person. This can undermine their willingness to continuing working on the issue entirely cease engagement.

Julia actions could escalate the conflict. She could do this by sharing her concerns and demanding Joe make changes, without taking the time to hear what is going on for him, reinforcing the negative interpretation he already started building for Julia’s behaviors.

With awareness, we can take the time, the effort, and the skill required to engage in the differentiation stage well in order to move into the integration stage set up for success. Otherwise, the integration phase, or resolution, is incomplete and ineffective because the parties do not have all of the information. Sometimes, integration doesn’t happen at all and the conflict continues to exist and the relationship works around it (albeit always in an underlying state of conflict) or the relationship ends. If Joe and Julie engage in escalation and avoidance, the conflict will most likely grow and not resolve.

“The key to effective conflict management is to achieve the benefits of differentiation – clear understanding of differences, acceptance of others’ positions as legitimate (agreement is not necessary), and motivation to work on the conflict – and to make a clean transition to integration, which sets the conflict on an entirely different course” (pg 19). The move to integration can be tough and may require a conscious decision on everyone’s part to shift the phase of the conflict. 

Below are four conditions Working Through Conflict gives to help facilitate the transition from differentiation to integration:

  1. Individuals raised and heard all concerns or differences.
  2. Individuals feel others won’t concede or be pushed into your position.
  3. Individuals have experienced the negative impacts of the differentiation phase. 
  4. Individuals are ready to transition to integration.

The goal of this blog post is to give you a conceptual framework to increase awareness of conflict dynamics. We can’t engage intentionally if we aren’t aware of the situations we are in and our roles in them. If you want to learn more, check out Working Through Conflict by Folger, Poole, and Stutman. The authors offer details on tips and strategies to engage effectively in both differentiation and integration. For additional tips and strategies, take a look at Non-Violent Communication and Crucial Conversations. Or better yet, make an appointment with your campus Ombuds to speak about specific conflicts and strategies to help you embrace conflict and engage productively and intentionally. 

We all experience conflict. With some extra awareness, tools, and practice, we can use conflict to benefit and strengthen our relationships, not ruin or threaten them.

By Teresa Ralicki, Ombuds,
University of Colorado Denver|Anschutz Medical Campus Ombuds Office