Conflict Circle: Understanding the Drivers for Conflict
Today I would like to discuss the Circle of Conflict which was a model originally designed by Christopher Moore at Collaborative Decision Resources (CDR) Associates in Boulder Colorado and appeared in his often-cited The mediation process. It was later adapted by Gary T. Furlong in his (2020) book, The conflict resolution toolbox: Models and maps for analyzing, diagnosing, and resolving conflict (2nd ed.); both stress the importance of understanding the model to better understand conflict.
The model (or map) of conflict identifies the “drivers” or underlying causes of the conflict situation. It can be used both for assessing the conflict and for presenting strategies once the drivers have been identified. Keeping interests at the forefront, the five drivers are: values, relationships, externals/moods, structure, and data.
Values: The values section of the circle relate to the mores, beliefs, and opinions of the person that are causing or adding to the central conflict. It is what tells the person what is right or wrong, who is good or evil, and what is just or unjust in the conflict. To be sure, religious, spiritual, and cultural systems play an important role here but so do the daily interactions at work and home like civility, loyalty, and work ethic or home etiquette. When these values collide against other peoples’ values, the situation is fertile for a conflict and often either causes a conflict or augments an existing conflict. These values are deep seeded so they almost always come with emotion and turmoil which create a perfect storm for conflict narrative escalations.
Relationships: The piece of the circle deals mostly with past negative experiences and are at the centre of or cause the conflict. In other words, the person in conflict sees the conflict through the eyes of past history rather than what is happening in the moment. For example, a work colleague might borrow office supplies from a person’s desk and that person might warn the colleague to not borrow any further supplies; when a stapler is missing from the person’s desk, they might automatically blow up at the colleague without actually finding out if the missing stapler was the doing of the colleague. In many cases, the person in conflict might even retaliate with similar actions or might form a stereotype of that person or might limit or cease all communication with that person. In extreme cases, in an unrelated situation, the person might even treat people of similar personality, gender, or race (to name a few) in the same manner even though that person has never wronged them or might not even know them. In psychology, this treatment is a form of transference.
Externals/Moods: This section of conflict circle relates to indirect factors that could contribute to conflict situation or narrative. It can be as simple as someone cutting off the person in traffic so that they are so upset when they come to work that they lash out at their colleagues or as complex as labour disputes taking place during COVID-19 in which the two sides become animated and unreasonable over a very basic term in the contract. Sometimes the externals and moods can fuel the fire for conflict and sometimes they are sitting in the background as another layer to the conflict. As above with transference, the person in conflict might take out their emotions on a colleague because the person was treated badly by a boss so that now they are in a management position, they treat the person badly because the person reminded them of themselves at that part of their careers. In psychology, this treatment is a form of countertransference.
Structure: As a piece of the circle, structure is important as it encompasses several types of situation in which conflict can occur and, at times, flourish. Three common structural problems are limited resources, authority problems, and organizational structures (Furlong, 2020). Limited resources can be a problem as companies, departments, and even families compete for the same resources so it can become a point of conflict as the respective parties compete for a set amount of resources. Authority problems can also be a source of conflict as they occur when someone is tasked with resolving a situation when they do not have the authority to do anything about it given their work status. Lastly, organizational structures can occur when groups of people work together but they do not necessarily share the same goals, objectives, or visions. I have written elsewhere about these three structural problems.
Data: This part of Moore’s Conflict Circle involves information—incorrect, incomplete, or differing—and is a key component of the conflict situation. In other words, data becomes problematic when it is blatantly wrong (i.e., full of mistakes), when it does not contain all the facts (i.e., the person has not done due diligence), or when one person has more information than the other person (i.e., power imbalance). Related to the keeping of data is the interpretation of that information which can play a critical role in conflict as one person’s understanding of the facts often does not match the other person’s way of interpreting what is presented to both parties. It is important to remember that each party believes vehemently that their interpretation of the data is the correct version (and probably, the only) and each becomes firmly entrenched in that belief.
So why is understanding the Circle of Conflict important in conflict situations. For the client, this understanding assists them in realizes which part of the circle is problematic for them as a possible inhibitor of conflict resolution. For the conflict management consultant, both assisting the client in understanding the components of the circle and their influence on conflict and in assessing which part, or driver, of the circle requires a closer look.
Furlong, G. T. (2020). The conflict resolution toolbox: Models and maps for analyzing, diagnosing, and resolving conflict (2nd ed.). Wiley.
Moore, C. W. (2014). The mediation process: Practical strategies for resolving conflict (4th ed.) Jossey-Bass.