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The Five Stages of Conflict

Updated: May 19, 2020

Conflict can develop in a pretty predictable way. Here we see the value of skillful action or intervention, even when it seems subtle or insignificant.

Stage 1. Discomfort

Discomfort is a worrying feeling that something is not quite right and you are not sure why.  How can you get comfortable? Say something or ask a question. Check how the other person feels. Are they worried about something? Try some small talk to relax the relationship or get more general information. It’s not a big issue yet. Perhaps it really isn’t about you and you should stay out of it.

Stage 2. Incident

An incident is relatively minor. Something has happened that leaves you feeling a bit irritated or upset. You might think you should just forget about it because it’s not important. Over time it might cause problems. Talk with them about it as soon as you both can. Use facts and good dialogue and listen to their explanation. It is a small thing and you want to be sure that the relationship goes well from now on. Express respect and good will to put it to rest.

Stage 3. Misunderstanding

People misunderstand each other when they make false assumptions. They might have confused some facts or misinterpreted the other person’s motives. Perhaps a sensitive issue was raised and communication has not fixed the problem yet.  You often think about the problem and perhaps exaggerate it with new concerns. Have a longer, deeper talk about the situation. Make it relaxed and un-rushed. Don’t assume you understand. Check your assumptions, conclusions and the meaning you are making of it.

Stage 4. Tension

A build-up of failed communications precedes a state of tension. Emotions are high and the relationship is weighed down with the negative attitudes and fixed opinions of both. It has taken time to get this bad. It will take time fix it. Name the good reasons to resolve the issues. Everyone has to want it fixed. Deal with your own bad feelings first. Be prepared: you will need a plan with a range of actions. Work patiently on the relationship as well as the bigger issues. Work together over time with everyone involved. You may need a neutral person to help.

Stage 5. Crisis

A crisis has extreme behaviors and emotions at boiling point. Perhaps someone walks out of a job or a relationship. There may be a very heated argument or violence. It feels out of control. Someone with authority may be needed for control. Someone with a cool head may be able to make the communication of information clear and simple. People may need support and practical help. First, make sure it is safe and calm. Work on long-term outcomes later.



We didn’t make this stuff up. The skills in this article are based on over 30 years of experience in conflict resolution and psychology. The Conflict Resolution Network (CRN) is a resource center that offers high-quality free and low-cost training materials for educational programs that move people and systems away from adversarial approaches towards cooperation and sustainable solutions. For more information and access to their absolutely incredible (and extraordinarily accessible) resources, we recommend you visit

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