Have you ever been in the midst of a heated conflict and wondered how the battle got so intense? What starts as a simple miscommunication can quickly escalate into something bigger, especially when workplace issues like high pressure deadlines and ambiguous emails add to the confusion.

In Eve Berry’s summer class on Conflict, Facilitation and Community Building, we learned that conflict intensifies according to a pattern – just as a tropical thunderstorm can escalate into a hurricane. In their book¬†Becoming a Conflict Competent Leader,¬†Craig Runde and Tim Flanagan identified these stages as the 5 Levels of Conflict Intensity.levelofconflict

Often what starts as mere differences between individuals can lead to a misunderstanding if communication breaks down. When this confusion turns into discomfort, the conflict has intensified to a disagreement.

If misunderstandings and disagreements are mishandled – either avoided, confronted too aggressively or handled negatively – discord develops between the two parties that extends beyond the immediate issue. Finally, discord can escalate to polarization – the most intense level of conflict where negative emotions are severe and reconciliation would be extremely challenging.

I’ve found that one of the most essential steps to solving a problem is being able to name it. It’s never easy to be completely objective in a conflict; even in business, sometimes it’s personal. But in conflict, being able to identify and understand which Level of Conflict you’re experiencing helps me take a more rational, outsider’s stance on the issues at hand.

After discussing the 5 Levels of Conflict in Eve’s class, I can look back on some of the most complicated situations I’ve experienced in the workplace. I can see how small differences in opinion escalated into disagreements. What strikes me most from the model is how Levels 1 and 2 focus on conflict around tasks or an issue. It might be differences of opinion or misunderstandings over a project that lead to these lower levels of conflict. But in Level 3, as we feel discomfort, our emotions come into play. As we assign blame and make judgments based on our emotions only, the latter Levels of Conflict shift from task-focused to relationship-focused. The problem is no longer with an outside idea or project – the problem has become the other person.

Now I can understand that some of the most uncomfortable conflicts I’ve experienced or observed in organizations sparked when the focus of a disagreement shifted from projects to people. Those of us in the summer class learned that conflict is inevitable when we’re working with other people. But with this new awareness of the Levels of Conflict, we’re able to deal with conflict constructively before it can begin to disintegrate relationships.