A true story of escalating conflict and getting unstuck

Conflict is going to happen—you live alongside your neighbor long enough and, rest assured, someone’s dog will bark too loudly, or a tree will grow and damage a fence, or your kid’s ball will bounce over the fence too much—who knows.

I once mediated a neighbor-to-neighbor dispute that had been going on for over twenty years. Neighbor X stated that his garage served as the back fence for his neighbor. He claims since there is no fence protecting his garage the damage inside his garage is his neighbors fault, thus he wants compensation. Neighbor Y requested that I ask two questions: “Ask him when he says this took place,” and “Ask him if he sees any damage to the exterior of the wall.” Neighbor X, when asked when this took place replied, “Twenty years ago.” X then proceeds to show me grainy photos of the interior wall damage that clearly did not come from any external source. He then showed me pictures of the exterior wall, and there was no damage.

While I was attempting to gather additional information our discussions would go something like this: “X called the police on us so we called the police on him.” “Y built a fence between our driveways then he put flood lights up that shined into my house, so we shined flood lights into his house.” As each described what the other had done they both became increasingly agitated and angry. I needed to separate them when they began attacking each other and not the problem.

Overwhelming the Other party

When one party is attempting to “WIN” they will attempt to overwhelm the other party into submission, or try to force them to give in to demands. Conflict can sometimes stop escalation; however, if the other party feels that they are right, or have been wrongfully accused or bullied, they may retaliate or escalate the conflict.

I. William Zartman, Professor Emeritus at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) of Johns Hopkins University, stated in his theory of ripeness, that both parties will move to mediation or negotiations when they enter into a mutually hurtful stalemate.

Ending Conflict

Conflict typically stops when one party gains a unilateral advantage; that is, ending the conflict by gaining the upper hand. For example, if Y had built the fence that X had requested, and X could not respond with a counter measure, then Y would have gained unilateral advantage. This did not happen.

Had both parties agreed to avoid further conflict, the escalation process would have stopped. This did not happen.

Both parties could have reached a settlement. This did not happen.

5 Key Factors to getting unstuck

  1. Effective Communications- Being an antagonist will not do you any good. Highly confrontational behavior will stall negotiations. Having a safe space that allows parties to express themselves and to be heard will allow everyone to clearly understand the problem.
  2. Attack the problem, not the person. Defuse the emotional component of the conflict so progress can happen.
  3. Humanize the issues.
  4. Take cooperative actions. This will show the other party that you are serious about resolving the conflict; and it requires nothing from them.
  5. Celebrate small victories until the big problems get resolved. This strategy allows the parties to build the momentum and confidence required to solve the bigger issues.

The more tools you have to resolve conflict, the more successful you will be. Utilizing these basic mediation tools can assist you in resolving conflict. Always bring empathy, active listening, and positivity to the mediation table no matter which model you use.


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