How Conflict is Born

While all conflict is unique based on its content and what the people involved are bringing to it, there exists a common blueprint at their inception that, once identified, can help you recognize and resolve it in its early stages.  

How Does a Conflict Start?

The precursor of any conflict can be defined as the moment you notice that the reality you needed or expected to happen isn’t the reality you experienced.  

Sometimes these moments are pretty big and hard to miss (like someone messed up the station you just cleaned up), sometimes they’re more subtle and easy to overlook (like someone you’re friendly with not acknowledging you when they arrive for their shift). Regardless of the nature of the situation, the thing you’re caught up in could be called a record-scratch moment: “an abrupt interruption – like the sound of a phonograph needle suddenly producing a single scratching sound on a record  – used to call immediate attention to something.” –Merriam-Webster “Words We’re Watching”


If you’re in a record-scratch moment, you’re not in conflict yet.  You’re on alert. Something unexpected has happened that has altered your experience and you’re figuring out what to do with it.  Maybe whatever it is went in your favor, so you register joy and the chance of conflict disappears. Maybe you’re not sure if it’s worth spending any energy on it at all.  Maybe you simply experience the emotion that came up and are able to let it go, clearing the slate. If your gut is indicating that something might be off, and it’s triggering emotions that put you on guard, you’re at an intersection about to make one of two choices.  

I’ll take the road to understanding and resolution:
I want to get to the full truth of this and come out together in a better place.


I’ll take the road to judgement and conflict
I want to stay in my own story and we’ll see what happens.

If you choose the road to understanding and resolution, you’ll say how you feel about what happened and any observations you have about it, and ask questions to get their perspective so you both start to share a more accurate picture of what’s really going on.  After you share an understanding of one another, you might find out there is something up between you and that gets it out in the open for you to resolve together. Or, you might find out there was a simple misunderstanding and there actually is no conflict to resolve.

If you choose the road to judgement and conflict, you’re going to use your assumptions to create your own story about the situation which either

  • pushes blame and responsibility on someone else: their fault, they should fix it or else
  • pushes blame and responsibility on yourself: my fault or my bad reading on the situation, I should fix it

Whatever story you’re in, you’re actually missing the whole truth of what is really going on, and will start behaving in ways that might cause a record-scratch moment for the other person (“why are they acting like that?”).  If they choose judgement over understanding (“what is up with them?”), conflict is on.  When you both continue to talk to yourselves or vent to everyone but one another about the situation, the conflict gets bigger, you’ll both fill up with more negative emotion, and it will take more time and energy to resolve.  

Here’s what the first steps down these roads might actually sound like in real life.  

Record-scratch moment: I thought that person would say hi to me when they walked in, they actually just went right past me without acknowledging my presence.

  • Understanding
    • (Said directly to the person): “Hey there, it felt weird when you came in and walked right by me without saying ‘hello.’  What’s going on?”
  • Judge and Blame Them 
    • (Often thought internally or said to others, sometimes said directly to that person): What the what is their problem?  That was pretty rude of them. They should have at least said ‘hi.” If they don’t say anything to me or apologize, I’m going to be pissed.  Whatever. Screw them.  
  • Judge and Blame Me 
    • What was that all about?  I must have done something to piss them off, it was probably about that mistake I made last night. I don’t want them to be mad at me, I’m going to lay low or do whatever I think it takes to make things normal again.  I hope it works.  
  • Judge and Blame Me 
    • That felt weird.  I bet they just didn’t see me, still, feels kind of bad.  I don’t want to make a big deal about it, so I’ll just chill and wait to see what happens.  

Why does any of this matter?  

Most of the time, we’re not even aware that all of this is going on.  Our emotions or subconscious habits make the choice for us in a matter of seconds.  If you can tune into your own clues that you’re in a record-scratch moment, you’ll get better at recognizing that you have a choice and can respond more mindfully.  Through trial and error you’ll hone your own skills for going the understanding and resolution route, which means you’ll defuse conflict before it starts or you’ll catch it when it’s small and easy to work through. 

À la Carte

Find links here to unrelated yet thought-provoking content that has caught our attention.  Order it, share it with a friend, or skip it to save room for info you really want to digest.

Three Videos that Introduce The Karpman Drama Triangle

I love being introduced to models that explain the nature of human interaction, especially when they make intuitive sense almost immediately.  One that quickly got added to my list of favorites? The Karpman Drama Triangle. While it was introduced decades ago, the theories in it are timeless and can be easily applied to relationships we experience in our private and professional lives.

The gist is simple: whenever we’re caught up in a drama or conflict, the players involved switch between three dysfunctional roles: the victim, the persecutor, and the rescuer.  Understanding that you’re in a drama triangle is the first step out of it, finding different strategies to get out of those roles is the next.  If it’s new to you or you need a quick refresher on it, here are two quick videos that do a great job of explaining it in similar, yet unique ways.  

Video, 6 minutes

Drama Triangle: Information & Overview by “The Coaching Habit” author Michael Bungay Stanier 

This one does a great job at showing how people that are in a work drama together move through each role rather quickly.  Check out three additional videos (and other amazing content!) that focus on each role over on his website,

Video, 5.5 minutes

The Drama Triangle by Lauren Kress

This one does a great job at suggesting how you can move out of the roles.

Video, 3.28 minutes

There is plenty out there on the interwebs if you want to research this more.  If you want to take it one step further, check out the book “The Power of TED: The Empowerment Dynamic” by David Emerald.  He was inspired to write a fable that illustrates the nature of the Karpman Drama Triangle roles, and how you can turn from victim to creator, persecutor to challenger, and rescuer to coach.   If you don’t want to read the book, they have a fantastic blog and newsletter that both dive deep into their theories on how to get and stay out of drama.  

This video by Conscious Leadership Group (who also have a great website with amazing resources) explains the Dreaded Drama Triangle and shows how you can become Emerald’s more empowering roles, which will have you spending less time feeling angry and stuck and more time feeling engaged and creative.


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