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What is Conflict and how do we approach it?

When we train Mediators at CAOS Conflict Management, we do an exercise on our mediation training course that goes like this:

It's called '4-Word Build'..... and could just as easily be '3 Word Build' or '5-Word Build'.......but we use 4 words.

Each person is asked to write down any 4 words that come to them when they think of the word 'conflict'. When they have 4 words they are asked to pair up and then, from the 8 words between the 2 in the pair, eliminate 4 words and keep 4, meaning they have to discuss and agree on the 4 they'd like to keep. This pair then has 4 words.

We then ask each pair to find another pair and from the 8 words they now have, reduce them down to 4 again in the same way. So now the 4 people have their group's 4 words for conflict.

Depending on the numbers in the group the activity could continue to another stage, even to the extent of getting the whole group's '4 words' for conflict.

Of course every time we do the exercise the group's 4 words are different, and many people gain new understandings that a simple word can mean different things to different people.

This is a great thing to acknowledge on a Mediation training course because destructive responses to conflict often arise when a word is interpreted differently by two or more people.

As a race we've gone to war over such things.

4-word build is a great exercise to use to enable a group discussion about any important concept you want to address in your organisation or family or class etc. so feel free to use it!!

However, interesting though the exercise is, it often throws up words which are more about our responses to conflict rather than conflict itself, such as war, aggression, anger, etc. (Although I accept that even that is based on my own interpretation of the word which is also subjective like anyone else's.)

So here's the basis for looking at conflict that is used on this website, and, as stated elsewhere, this is based on the approach of Mediation:

Mediation sees conflict as an inevitable part of life arising from difference.

But conflict can be responded to destructively or constructively.

We frequently respond to conflict constructively without realising it, but when conflict has been responded to destructively, Mediation seeks to promote a return to constructive responses to it.

However, it doesn't stop there:

Mediation sees conflict as an opportunity for learning, connection and insight.

Now that's a little different from the ways in which conflict is often thought of in organisations, families and other areas of social interaction.

We do gain learning, connection and insight on a frequent basis when we respond to conflict effectively.

But often we don't even realise we've done it.

For example, that time when we had a negative thought or view about someone and then found out that we were quite wrong about them and realised that they 'weren't so bad after all'. When they were never bad in the first place really.

In those situations we stopped 'speaking on their behalf', that is we stopped making our assumptions about them. We acknowledged that 'it is ok to make mistakes' by allowing ourselves to change our view about them rather than continue to try to 'prove' it to be true even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, because to be wrong would be too much of a loss of face and pride.

And we challenged our own behaviour and not ourselves : 'mmmm I must be more careful about having preconceptions about people'....instead of 'I'm such a horrible person, that's why no-one likes me!'.

In those situations we responded effectively and constructively to a conflict arising from what we perceived to be 'difference' (in values, in language, in culture, in dress, in attitude, etc. etc.....)

But did we congratulate ourselves for being so insightful and constructive and for opening ourselves to connection with this person? Probably not, even though we deserved it.

Unfortunately the other ways in which conflict is responded to are not usually so constructive, insightful and educational.

They are Conflict as:

A Competition we must win

A Problem to be avoided

And so, together with the approach being promoted on this site, that is:

Conflict as an opportunity for Learning, Connection and Insight

.......there seems to be 3 common ways of 'conceptualising' or thinking about conflict, which, in turn affects how we approach it.

Click on the links above to open up a new webpage describing each of the different ways of responding.


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Join our new 

ONLINE Introduction to Conflict Coaching Skills 

(6 x 2 hour sessions on Zoom)

Learn about the CAOS Model of Conflict Coaching, the first to be developed in the UK in 2008 and one that does not have to be connected to ongoing mediation but can be simply a 'stand alone' support service for individuals. 

Open to non-UK attendees - visit the link above for more details and to register your interest.

Train to be a Mediator in London UK with CAOS Conflict Management:

Are you experiencing difficulties communicating with someone? Perhaps at work with your boss, or your colleagues, or at home with your partner, children or other family members? Is there an unresolved conflict that you are struggling with? The following book can help you with that.......

A Guide to Effective Communication for Conflict Resolution

A Guide to Effective Communication for Conflict Resolution introduces the 9 Principles that are also described on this site to help the reader develop a 'mindfulness' in relation to their communication in a way that supports the resolution of conflict. In this book

Alan shares his observations and learnings from working as a Mediator and Conflict Coach with regard to the ways that people become stuck in unresolved conflict but also how they go on to create more effective ways forward in their difficult situations. 

"I think you put together so well all the essential components of
conflict transformation in a way which people can relate to and
understand. A brilliant book and I will recommend it to everyone." Jo Berry  www.buildingbridgesforpeace.org


I work at a homeless shelter/rehab and I teach a class on community living. This is a new field of employment for me. I can use this site for ideas for the class I teach.

This is going to be very interesting and educational for myself as well as others.

This site is a big help. Thank you!

TM, Kentucky, USA

Working with 'Bullying'? - This may interest you….

Hello Alan Sharland

Thank you SO MUCH for this article! It brings forward some very key points about the phenomenon of "bullying" which I have been pondering for some while. Among others, asking to what extent can/should the person on the receiving end of the bullying/perceived to be bullying take responsibility/initiate steps to shift the paradigm? How can this happen without implying that the recipient is somehow responsible for the bullying behavior?

Laurie McCann, Campus Ombuds, Univ Calif Santa Cruz

Hi Alan,

You have put together an awesome web site with lots of fantastic materials.

John Ford - Managing Editor Mediate.com

Hi Alan, ..... your site is great. I've been reading all the material and have to say its already made a difference in how I sort out/manage some of life's little problems. JH - West London, UK


This article is the BEST article on questioning I have ever read and I'd like, with your permission, to pass it along to our mediators.Your examples of both genuinely open and 'not-so-open' with explanations are very insightful.

ML - Canadian Govt. Agency


Hi Alan

I have just spent hours on your site as I truly love the eclectic mix of reference material that you kindly share. From Gibran to Byron Katie and the fab youtube clips! I am making my free hugs poster as of now :-)

Anni with joyful smile :-)
Preston, UK