Not all conflicts are created equal by M. Nycole Hearon


“All Polishing is Done by Friction”

~ Mary Parker Follett 

One of the traits that a mediator learns to cultivate is the ability to “read” the parties involved in the mediation.  At the start of my career, a mentor told me to ask a general question to the parties, 1) notice who answers first, and 2) notice how the other party answers.  I took the advice with the proverbial grain of salt, but the “General Question Method” has allowed me to gain initial insight into the type of conflict involved.  Yes, it may be divorcing couples having a hard time agreeing on who receives certain property or two business partners separating assets; however, these designations do not reveal the type of conflict I will mediate. While the hope of mediation is to facilitate negotiation between two parties in conflict, once they come to the table I have to identify the type conflict, notwithstanding the parties’ title, to direct me in my approach.

There are generally five types of conflict: veridical conflict, displaced conflict, misattributed conflict, latent conflict, and false conflict. Veridical conflict has an objective basis recognized by both parties. Displaced conflict occurs when the focus of the conflict shifts to other issues. For example, an argument between married couples may escalate from the division of property to the wife accusing the husband of never appreciating how she cared for their home. Misattributed conflict occurs when one party blames other people. Latent conflict occurs when neither party recognizes the issue and false conflict occurs when there is a misunderstanding or error in perception. I determine the type of conflict by incorporating mediation measures like the “General Question” and sometimes allowing the parties to escalate in airing their grievances before de-escalating the conflict to finally discuss terms.

Veridical conflict is the easiest to identify. It is objective conflict, the parties have correctly identified it, and nothing about their personalities or changes in circumstance will alter their conflict.  The easiest example of this type of conflict is the debtor/debt collector scenario.  The parties have arms length dealings and the terms of negotiation involve whether the debtor will pay all or some portion of the bill.  Practitioners generally speak of this type of mediation as “guerilla warfare”. We get in and get out—providing a neutral atmosphere for the parties to negotiate.

When called upon to mediate in a divorce, I frequently encounter displaced conflict. For example, I may mediate a case in which one spouse is refusing to sign over the home to another spouse, despite the refusing spouse having moved out of the home and moved on in another relationship.  After a lot of back and forth, it becomes evident that the home represents the refusing spouse’s belief that s/he never received acknowledgement for being a good provider. To “give away” the marital home is comparable to saying s/he never provided anything of value to the family. As if their place in the family was as significant as a cardboard cutout. Even if I go into a divorce mediation understanding that working through displaced conflict will be part of that mediation, I cannot predict the trigger of the underlying conflict until the parties spend some time airing their grievances. 

Misattributed conflict occurs when parties are fighting the wrong people over the wrong issues.  Again, divorce mediation is a good example because many times I am involved in mediation where the divorcing spouse really seeks to divorce from in-laws.  They have waged a battle for respect in the home only to have it undermined by the mother-in-law or father-in-law. As the mediation progresses, I find the divorcing spouse speaking more and more about the difference it would have made if the husband or wife would have stood against the parents on behalf of the divorcing spouse. Yet, the divorcing spouse lacks any real form of retaliation against the in-laws so they resort to retaliating against the spouse.

Latent conflict is more nuanced than other conflicts because even when it is recognized, it will not or cannot be addressed. For example, when I was a prosecutor in the criminal justice system, I encountered defendants who committed crimes of necessity, such as burglarizing local shopping centers for diapers and milk. In one case a couple pled to the charge of conspiracy to commit theft. The type of stolen items did not negate the fact that a crime was committed.  An underlying factor, however, was that the socio-economic status of the defendants played a major role in the type of crime they committed; however, socio-economic status and lack of resources in underprivileged communities is not a conflict that is addressed in the trenches of criminal law. And arguably, it is not the type of conflict that can ever find resolution.

Finally, false conflict occurs when no objective basis for the conflict is evident.  Unfortunately, this type of conflict can occur in any mediation setting due to the parties’ general dislike of each other.  I have ceased two mediations once it became evident that the parties had no intention of negotiating.  If the parties resolved an issue, one of the parties would return with another issue of first impression. As a practitioner, I had to realize that the only help I could offer was allowing them to go before a judge.

The foregoing only touches the surface of conflict recognition. Conflict is nuanced and can involve issues of value, beliefs, perceptions, and the relationship between the parties. My role as mediator is not to solve every conflict—and many occur in one setting—but facilitate a discussion where the parties can reach an understanding and walk away with some level of satisfaction. I can better aid the parties when I am able to identify the type of conflict in which they are engaged.

© Conflict Change Consulting Ltd.  2014