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Communication and Conflict Newsletter, Issue #004, Trouble on the Tube
May 10, 2008
(or why standing up for someone and 'taking sides' can be one of the main causes of the escalation of conflict)
Consider this situation which I observed on a busy tube train in London recently:
Eventually a young man sitting next to me said that he didn’t think she had done anything wrong and so the discussion became a 3-way debate across the tube carriage. Then another man, standing next to the original objector joined the debate, this time agreeing with him and so the debate became more complex, and the number of people involved increased.
A simple request by the man disturbed by the girl's music for her to turn her music down may have been enough, but the man who objected was saying things to suggest it is ‘wrong’ to play her personal stereo on the tube and said ‘What about other people who use the train, they have to hear it too?’.
He spoke for the rest of us when he said this and yet was not mandated by any of us to do so – as clearly evidenced by the man next to me who spoke up in support of the woman. The objector also challenged the person and not the behaviour by calling her 'inconsiderate'.
It all ended when the objector and his supporter got off the tube a couple of stops along. However, in the brief period in which the incident occurred there was far more disturbance caused than the personal stereo had caused, mainly because of the ineffective way in which the original objector had communicated his concerns to the young woman.
This was then escalated by the rescuing actions of the others who chose to become involved, increasing the debate to a full argument and ‘stand off’, ultimately affecting not only those originally involved but also the rest of us in the carriage.
I think the situation provides a very good analogy for what happens in many disputes when they are responded to destructively and rescuers also believe they need to become involved in a partial way, to 'take sides' (back to the competitive approach to conflict again).
The sequence of events, the actions of the main protagonists, the intervention of the rescuers and the ultimate impact on those who witness the situation are all very similar to what happens in families, in workplaces, in international disputes, in schools, between neighbours and in pretty much any escalating conflict situation you could identify.
Unfortunately, in many of them the destructive responses don’t end after a few tube stops but continue to escalate to relationship breakdown, stress, and even violence and destruction.
The involvement of the 'rescuers' was not an impartial involvement and so the competition approach was further developed as more and more people become involved to 'even the score'. In some situations there can develop such a strong perception that the 'competition' is being 'lost' that people resort to violence to even the score.
And of course we all lose when this approach is taken. Even those who have remained uninvolved.
This is such an ingrained approach to conflict, that few question whether there could even be any other way.
Once a conflict has started to escalate, it seems that our available choices in how to respond have been reduced and so we resort to reactive, competitive or avoidance behaviours.
Does this have to be the way?
The answer is simply NO. When what we are doing is not working, why would we continue to do it?
There are always alternative responses that can be created and the Principles of Effective Communication and Conflict Resolution can support us in creating these.
Ideas and Information
Some links that you may find interesting......Mediate.com is an excellent resource of information relating to mediation. There are articles, links to websites and blogs as well as the possibility of locating mediators in your area.
SelfGrowth.com- - SelfGrowth.com is a comprehensive guide to information about Self Improvement, Personal Growth and Self Help on the Internet. It is designed to be an organized directory, with articles and references to thousands of other Web Sites on the World Wide Web.
Transforming Conflict is an excellent organisation which works with young people, and adults, in educational settings, promoting restorative approaches to conflict.
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