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Center for Appropriate Dispute Resolution (CADRE)

Conflict 101

by Rod Windle and Suzanne Warren

Section 2:














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It is useful to understand how conflict starts and is carried on. (We'll speak here in terms of just two parties in order to keep things simple.)

Conflict occurs when one party decides that the way things are is not okay and seeks change, but that change is not agreed to by the other party. It is important to realize that despite the old saying that "it takes two to tangle", in reality it only takes one party to declare a conflict. At that point, the other party is drawn into the conflict whether they want to be or not, unless they have the option to leave the relationship. In a public school situation, neither the parent nor the school can leave, unless the parent pulls the child from the school system entirely.

It only takes one party to initiate a conflict.

Whether a conflict remains unresolved, is resolved with good feelings on all sides, or becomes a protracted legal dispute with high emotional and financial cost depends primarily upon the skill the parties have as dispute resolvers.


Our society's prevailing view of conflict is brought into sharp focus with this definition from Webster's New World Dictionary:


1. to fight, battle, contend

2. to be antagonistic, incompatible or contradictory, be in opposition, clash

3. sharp disagreement or opposition as of interests, ideas, etc.

4. emotional disturbance resulting from a clash of opposing impulses

The preceding definition makes it sound like a root canal would be preferable to any sort of conflict. Truthfully, conflict is stressful and unpleasant for a majority of people. One of the main reasons this is so is that most of us are not confident of our ability to successfully resolve disputes.

Sometimes, we may pave over the conflict with superficial gestures or social masking. Another common strategy is blaming, talking or complaining about the situation with friends or third parties (while failing to talk directly to the other party we are in disagreement with). This may give some emotional venting or relief but rarely solves the problem, especially when our friends agree with our view and reinforce our necessarily one-sided perspective.

If we perceive the conflict as truly serious, we may contract with lawyers as our hired guns to deal with our problems. We use lawyers because the complexity of the law is so intimidating, and also so we do not have to confront the issues or the people involved directly. However, this third party approach has some definite liabilities, which include a high monetary cost, a loss of personal control over the outcome, and a winner/loser scenario that can provide the basis for future conflict.



Despite all of its negative aspects, conflict and disagreement between people has its good side. Conflict is actually the main vehicle through which change takes place in our society. When we disagree, it helps us sharpen our focus and define what the important issues are for us. Suppression of conflict and dissent is a sure sign that freedom is on the decline and democracy is in trouble. Seen from this point of view, conflict is both evolutionary and absolutely necessary.

Unless we have reached a utopian society, there will always be conflict, as there will always be disagreement about what is fair and best for all of us. If we accept the inevitability of conflict, it becomes obvious that it is in our best interest to gain the skills to be successful dispute resolvers.

It can be useful to begin to think about conflict as potentially beneficial in the long term: normal, natural and something to engage, not avoid. It will be easiest to make this kind of a shift in attitude if we have good

skills to resolve conflict. We naturally tend to be attracted to those things we do well and shy away from those we are not so good at. Therefore, if we want to gain a more positive attitude about conflict when it appears, we will want to expand our skills to resolve conflict effectively.


Depending upon the range and quality of our dispute resolution toolbox, dealing with disagreement does not have to be disagreeable. Successfully resolving a conflict can actually be an enjoyable and empowering experience. Becoming more skilled in resolving disputes and solving problems can also help us to understand the workings of the human mind in relationships, which can lead to better relationships overall. This is not to say that problem solving is always fun or easy; in fact, many times it is hard work. The rewards, however, usually are worth it.

"If you want to make quantum improvements, either as an individual or as an organization, change your frame of reference. Change how you see the world...change your paradigm, your scheme for understanding and explaining certain aspects of reality."

-Steven Covey

Working Together

In special education, parents and teachers often work even more closely together than with a regular education student. A special education child may have more difficulty than a regular education child in fitting in, especially in today's school climate of educational reform with the emphasis on achievement, high-stakes tests, and certificates of mastery. With all of this pressure to perform, it's all too easy for parents and teachers to get stressed and fall into conflict.

When we do have a school-based conflict, it's almost always desirable to avoid a win/lose outcome, because we are going to have to continue to work together in the best interests of the child. The relationship between parents and school is ongoing; it continues long after the conflict is over. The last thing we need is for one to feel like a winner and the other a loser.

Parent and teacher are the two centers of almost every child's universe. No one knows their child better than the parents. No one knows how to teach better than the teacher. It is a centered child who finds that his/her universes are in harmony with each other. The consistency breeds safety, which allows growth.


Lessons from geese: when geese fly in a ëví formation as a group, each bird is lifted by the one before it. Overall, the whole flock adds 71% in flying range than if each bird flew alone.

The whole flock is able to fly 71% further than if each bird flew alone.


Any conflict can give rise to feelings which may manifest as physical or mental anxiety about a situation. At the root of these feelings is fear. A wise teacher once said, "If you're afraid of something, become interested in it!".

"If you are afraid of something, become interested in it!"

Looking with "interest" at conflict, we see that the root causes of conflicts can be broken down into fairly clear and distinct categories. Solutions usually must take into account the underlying type of conflict.


A preliminary step in resolving conflict is to understand what the conflict is actually about. Having a clear picture of what the issues are reduces the chance of a mismatch between the problem and the solution. In this section, we identify conflicts according to their core elements. Seven main types of conflict are discussed below: data conflicts, relationship conflicts, conflicts over values, conflicts regarding resources, conflicts about past history, conflicts about structure, and psychological conflicts.

Conflicts can be complex, and they may not always be about what they seem. For example, a disagreement that seems to be about data may actually have elements of relationship or values embedded within it. It's necessary to observe carefully to determine the true combination of elements that are involved.

Most conflicts will have one or more of these elements as root causes. Generally, a solution to conflict will match the cause.

DATA conflicts will have DATA SOLUTIONS


VALUES conflicts will have VALUES-BASED solutions

RESOURCES conflicts will have solutions that address RESOURCES

conflicts generated by past HISTORY must address that HISTORY

conflicts about the underlying STRUCTURE of a situation must deal with that STRUCTURE

PSYCHOLOGICAL elements which cause problems in resolving issues must be dealt with creatively and must address the underlying PSYCHOLOGICAL needs.


There are conflicts which exist primarily over data or facts. Most data conflicts have data or factual solutions, either through obtaining more information or through new data collection.

Example: Mother is convinced that her daughter can learn to read on grade level and accuses the school district of failing to provide appropriate instruction. However, two separate ability tests given several years ago place her daughter's IQ between the 2nd and 5th percentile, leading school personnel to believe that grade level performance is most likely unrealistic. Mother believes, for a number of reasons, that the test results are invalid.

Discussion: Some methods of using data to help resolve the issue could include providing more information regarding the relationship of IQ to reading achievement, re-doing the ability test to meet mother's concerns about test validity, or devising a data-driven reading instructional plan and reading assessment strategy that everyone can agree on.


Conflicts can arise over a relationship, or over a communication style.

Example: Father is upset because he believes that the special education teacher is not following up sufficiently on his child. He states that an agreement to provide weekly feedback regarding progress has not been reliably kept. Finally, he feels that the special education teacher is condescending and diffident in her dealings with him, often failing to return his phone calls the same day.

Discussion: Educational relationships can often be improved by clearly stating needs, developing clear expectations, and writing agreements down for the parties to follow. Many times people are unaware of how they come across to others. "You can't change if you aren't told what's wrong!"


Conflicts can occur over values, where the parties have perceived or actual incompatibilities in their belief systems.

Example: Maryís teacher feels that Mary, a third grader, gains valuable social skills and modeling when she participates in problem-solving class meetings. Mary's mother feels that school is a time that Mary should be learning her math facts, particularly since she is behind. She wants Mary pulled out for individualized math instruction during class meeting time.

Discussion: Our values help us define what is right or wrong in any situation, and provide a moral compass for our lives. Different values do not need to cause conflict; people can live together in harmony with different value systems. The keys to successful resolution are improvement and expansion of tolerance, understanding, and acceptance of others points of view.


Conflicts often occur over real or perceived scarcity of resources:

Example: Beth is a student who requires assistive technology in order to communicate. Her parents feel strongly that she needs the latest in voice-generating computer technology in order to maximize progress on her IEP. This technology costs over $10,000. The school district feels that Beth's IEP goals can be met by utilizing existing technology at a much lower cost.

Discussion: A key concept useful to work with when scarce resources are at stake is that of expanding the pie. Expanding the pie involves brainstorming ways to use existing resources more effectively. Perhaps the technology can be leased instead of bought; perhaps it can be shared. The possible solutions are limited only by the flexibility and creativity of those involved.


Conflicts occasionally result from a history of slights or bad blood between parents and schools. Sometimes the core of these conflicts goes clear back to when those parents were students themselves.

Example: John, a parent, has a great deal of difficulty communicating with the school, particularly when his child is in trouble. He comes to meetings stiffly, with his arms folded, and says little. Privately, he blames the school for picking on his child. John went to this school as a child and remembers his experience in mostly negative terms.

Discussion: In such cases, itís most important to communicate person to person, to allow the person carrying the history a chance to vent and tell his story, to stay away from evoking rules as justification for decisions,

and to ultimately allow a new perspective to emerge overtime.

It's important to remember that histories weren't created overnight and usually won't be resolved overnight. Building trust takes time.


Conflicts can occur over how to deal with structural realities which exist outside the immediate world of the parent/school but which are having an impact on them.

Example: Vicki is a child with medical/emotional issues that sometimes require her mother's attention. School is not going well and frustration is mounting because mother must work and cannot come to school when she is needed and when she would like to.

Discussion: It can be helpful to assist those involved with this type of problem to appreciate the external forces and constraints bearing upon them. Their appreciation that a conflict has an external source can have the effect of everyone coming together to jointly address the imposed difficulties. Structural conflicts will often have structural solutions.


Conflicts can be caused or maintained by the psychological needs of humans: the desire for power, control, autonomy, recognition or love.

Discussion: These conflicts are often difficult to identify and it is important that dispute resolvers not engage in excessive psychoanalyzing of others. Still, there are times when these basic human tendencies and drives will be contributing to a conflict, often masquerading as some other, more tangible issue. Few people are going to be able to come out and say "I'm in this conflict with you because you're not giving me enough recognition." Sometimes it is wisest to not deal with these issues directly; people hate to feel as if they are being analyzed. If you become aware of these issues, it may be useful to search for a viable solution that will help some of these needs to actually be met, and will thereby reduce the need to create more conflict.


If we have an understanding of how humans have been evolutionarily programmed to respond to conflict, we are better able to understand how this programming influences our physiological and psychological responses of today and influences how we deal with others to solve problems.

In times long past, conflict was likely to have life or death consequences. Whether under attack from a marauding tribe or being stalked by a saber-toothed tiger, our ancestors had to be constantly ready for action in order to survive. When faced with a perceived threat, these humans of old responded immediately and automatically with a package of hormonal output designed to enhance survival. At the first sign of danger, signals from the amygdala (located deep within the emotional brain), triggered the release of epinephrine and norepinephrine from the adrenal glands. This immediately raised the heartrate, elevated breathing, and diverted blood flow from the stomach and the areas near the skin into the large muscle groups. The body was ready to do what it took to live: fight, or if necessary, flee. Of course, there were also times when fighting or fleeing was useless, and the best alternative was to play dead. Playing dead at least gave the ancient one a chance to survive.

Three Hardwired Ancient Responses:

1. Fight

2. Flee

3. Play Dead



The rapid pace of change in our society over the last few hundred years has far outstripped the human body's natural evolutionary change rate. As a result, we find that even as we live in today's world, the ancient physiological survival mechanisms are alive and well inside each of us. However, it is rare to have to confront threats to our lives in our school buildings (although the recent school shootings have led to a general increase in fear and insecurity).

These days, the type of threats we usually experience in school settings are not physical threats but psychological ones. There are threats to our self-esteem, threats to relationships we value, and threats to our success. Many people also experience a sense of threat when they encounter conflict or a problem that seems unsolvable.

From the point of view of the emotional brain, these psychological threats are considered identical to physical threats. At the first sign of trouble the amygdala kicks in and triggers the same ancient packet of survival hormones and chemicals. Our cheeks may flush, heartrate increases, palms become cold and sweaty. We experience a classic stress response and we are ready for action!


However, adults today don't usually resolve conflicts in schools by a punch in the nose (as much as we might sometimes want to!). It also is not considered a proper response to run away down the street, and we certainly can't play dead. Like it or not, we have had to adapt to the civility of the workplace. The adaptations we have made, still based on ancient responses, have led to common styles of resolving conflict that we observe in society today.

Understanding these styles can help us see what skills and strategies we may already have, as well as begin to think about additional learning that can help round out our dispute resolution toolboxes.


When faced with a conflict, people most commonly employ one or a combination of three basic response styles. These responses have parallels with the survival tactics of earlier humans: a fighting response which mirrors the ancient fight response; an avoiding response which is a variant of the flight response, and the acquiescing response which resolves conflict by choosing to give in to the other's demands, i.e. by playing dead. In real life, most people tend to have one main response style but may react with any variant of these, depending upon the situation, the timing, and their mood.

Each of these three responses to conflict has it's appropriate time and place, and is not necessarily good or bad.

Rather than judging a particular response, the question we might want to ask is this: "Does what we are doing represent the best approach we can use right now in order to most successfully solve the problem at hand?"

Does what we are doing represent the best approach we can use right now in order to most successfully solve the problem at hand?



A FIGHTING response is to take sides, become caught up in the emotional energy surrounding the dispute, and perhaps get hot under the collar. A person in FIGHTING mode identifies what they believe is the right side in the dispute. People FIGHTING are generally in touch with their own feelings, and the feelings of all those on their side of the dispute. The one-sidedness of their emotional involvement means that the FIGHTER'S ability to clearly see the perspective of the other side is limited, since they are convinced that their side is right. People in a FIGHTING mode tend to see the world in black and white terms: there is a right side and a wrong side, and they, of course, are on the right side.

A FIGHTING response may be the most appropriate when there is a legal point which must be decided, when a crucial moral issue is at stake, or when having a clear winner and loser will not cause long-term damage to an ongoing relationship.


People engaging in an AVOIDING strategy protect themselves from the difficulty of conflict by putting up a mental wall. Even though they want to win, they are reluctant to jump into conflict the way someone with a FIGHTING response would. A common thought pattern of someone avoiding might go like this: "I don't want to deal with this. Maybe if I do nothing about it it will go away". People may also use various forms of social propriety to keep away from conflict, i.e. "nice people don't fight".


AVOIDING means dealing with the conflict from a safe emotional distance. As with viewing a distant mountain range, however, specific details get lost the farther away one is. Emotional distancing as part of avoiding may mean that there is difficulty in empathizing, in putting on another's shoes.

A strategy of AVOIDING may be useful when it's important to give some time and space to a conflict. In the short term, timing can be extremely important in determining when a problem is brought up or a conflict is discussed. People are mood driven, and a day (or even a few hours) can make a tremendous difference in their willingness to engage productively.

In the longer term, it is also true to say that "time heals some wounds". A conflict may go away over time, particularly if there is continued contact between the sides on other issues and that contact is mostly positive and productive. At a certain point, both parties may decide that what they were upset about in the past is just not important anymore.



A person who is responding with a response style of ACQUIESCING simply gives in. Faced with a fight, they drop their demands and let the other party have what they want. A person who finds fighting morally wrong may adopt an ACQUIESCING strategy to avoid conflict. More commonly, however, people simply say to themselves "It's just not worth the fight". Sometimes, however, as they later review what they have given up, they may feel used, abused, manipulated and angry...thereby sowing the seeds of future conflict.

Sometimes, an ACQUIESCING approach to problems results from genuine generosity brought about by an ability to empathize with what the other party wants. In such cases satisfaction comes from giving to another, rather than from getting what one wants.

Sometimes, also, an action with regard to a conflict that looks like weakness (e.g. giving in) may actually be strength. Perhaps the person has seen the big picture and is prepared to lose the battle in order to win the war.

a FIGHTING response engages the other side in battle.

an AVOIDING response declines to engage with the other side, but tries to win indirectly.

an ACQUIESCING response gives in to the other side.


People generally resolve conflict using what skills they have learned and are most comfortable with. Just as with parenting, many of us have had no formal instruction, and we go on the basis of what has been modeled for us in the past. This means that most of our learning about how to resolve conflict has taken place through experiencing one or more of the three common problem solving styles.

However, there are methods of resolving conflict which are inherently different from any of the three common responses we have discussed to this point. There are strategies available for dealing with problems that do not involve responding with fighting, avoiding and/or acquiescing responses. These methods, collectively referred to as win-win or collaborative, can hold promise when the other responses aren't working as well as we would like.

Though much of our focus here is on collaborative problem solving, it's good to remember that the three common approaches also have their time and place (and are quite widely used!). Ultimately, in evaluating the appropriateness of any approach, we will always want to ask ourselves the BASIC QUESTION: "Is the approach I am using the very best I can use to resolve this conflict or solve this problem?"





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