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Communication and Conflict Newsletter, Issue #004, Trouble on the Tube
May 10, 2008

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Trouble on the Tube

(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:

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A young woman sitting across and to the left of me was listening to her personal stereo. A man standing in front of her asked her to turn the music down – I’d not been able to hear it but he clearly could. I missed much of the initial conversation but it developed into a discussion between them with the man pointing out how inconsiderate she was to play her personal stereo so loudly.

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'.

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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.
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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 Principles of Effective Communication and Underlying Philosophies of Mediation can assist in finding better ways of responding to conflict situations.

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The objector did not have to 'put up' with the situation, but to bring in his judgement of the lady as 'wrong' set up the start of the 'competition' - and as stated elsewhere, the competitive approach to conflict is never an effective means of resolving it. To simply ask her to turn the music down is the start of a request for co-operation, a much more effective response. She may not have responded, but she is more likely to when what she is doing is 'challenged' rather than to challenge what she 'is' in his view('wrong'?).

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.

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Ideas and Information

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Trainers and Facilitators


An exercise I have sometimes used on training courses for mediators is called ‘Does he take sugar?’. One of the benefits of the exercise is that it promotes self awareness with regard to how we see others, and how this can affect our impartiality.

Click here to find out more about this training exercise.

Recommended books this month:

Conflict Coaching: Conflict Management Strategies and Skills for the Individual - this is a fairly detailed and somewhat 'academic' book, but it will be of interest to practitioners in the mediation and conflict resolution field. Conflict coaching has partly arisen as an outcome of the fact that in many disputes, only one party will want to try mediation to resolve the dispute. In such cases, conflict coaching for the person wanting mediation can provide support and strategies for resolving the situation for themselves at least, if not directly with the other person.

For more books that relate to communication and conflict go to the Books page on the website.

Principle Focus

Would you like a Weekly message relating to one of the Principles of Effective Communication?
Sorry this offer is no longer available - please look out for the ebook Guide to The Principles that is based on these 9 Weekly thoughts. This month I want to draw your attention to the 9 Free Weekly Thoughts on the Principles of Effective Communication and Conflict Resolution that can be delivered to your inbox by clicking the link and signing up.

  • Become more aware of your day to day use of language and how it affects your relationships with others
  • Learn to approach communication as a continuous opportunity for personal growth
  • Lose your 'fear of conflict' through developing an understanding of the Principles of Effective Communication.
  • Learn to empower yourself in any conflict situation through losing your dependence on others to 'change'
These are just some of the insights and challenges that you will find in the 9 Weekly Thoughts.

Quotation Corner:

Remember that when you point a finger at someone there are always 3 fingers pointing back at you.


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Challenge the behaviour and not the person.

Some links that you may find interesting...... 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. - 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. helps people, like yourself, create change in their life and business. They share fun stress management strategies and personal development articles.

Learning Supersite is a fascinating site dedicated to the development of informal learning. "A new approach to learning, the Learning Supersite is a venue that provides personal learning community, but with state-of-the-art Web technologies."

Transforming Conflict is an excellent organisation which works with young people, and adults, in educational settings, promoting restorative approaches to conflict.

Would you like to build your own website?..... SBI! Quick Tour

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