One evening recently we were walking up to the cinema and passed an altercation, one car coming down the hill and the other going up – with no room to pass. The traffic was building up from the top of the hill, so the only sensible thing was for the young woman in the lower car to back down. She wasn’t moving so the young man had got out of his car and was berating her with hostility and sarcasm.

We were late for the film so didn’t stop to intervene – but I really wish we had.

The woman driver, whose English was not fluent, was perhaps unsure, if not actually scared, of reversing down a lane with cars on each side (in the dark). I certainly would have been. I suspect she was increasingly intimidated by the situation and the resulting anxiety affected her ability to think straight. Barbara Fredrickson’s research confirms that positive emotions enable creative thinking whilst negative emotions shut this down. It would have taken just a little bit of creative kindness to have offered to help her reverse the car or even done it for her. Problem solved!

It seems that the first thing people often do in a tricky situation is assume negative intent by others, attribute blame and communicate with aggression. This just raises the temperature so that in the end no-one is able to access any creative solutions, resentment grows and people are left feeling aggrieved – perhaps even if they ‘won’.

Conflict in life is inevitable as people want different things and do not necessarily share the same perceptions or world-view. But most of the time we don’t actively seek conflict and would prefer to live in peace. Lois Edmund (2013) asserts that both parties often have a similar end goal and initial intentions are usually benign. The important issue is the quality of communication between individuals or groups. Intentions are not voiced so remain hidden – and actions can easily be misinterpreted. In this case both drivers wanted to get on their way. Although each person was stopping the other from achieving this, no-one would have actually wanted this confrontation. It takes unnecessary time and too much precious emotional energy. But rather than working out how best to get everyone moving it became a battle for ascendancy and who was going to ‘give in’ or ‘win out’.

A satisfactory resolution to conflict entails not jumping to conclusions about another person’s motivations but checking these out first – and then maintaining enough calm in the situation to think creatively about how best to proceed.

Do others have similar examples on how to manage conflict well?

Fredrickson, B. (2009) Positivity – Crown Publishers
Edmund, L. (2013) Conflict and Confrontation in Roffey, S. (Ed) Positive Relationships: Evidence based practice across the World – Springer.