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Arguments at work? How does conflict start? Understanding the Conflict Zone

This blog started as part of a longer piece looking at links between the recent brutal killing of Drummer Lee Rigby in Woolwich and a victim of bullying, but it became clear it would better stand as a separate article.  In this blog I look at our ideas of identity and how conflict can arise between people.

Who are we, as people?  Taking as an analogy the concept of an onion with a number of layers, at my core I have an identity that I consider is ‘Me’. Around that I have a set of basic needs, which are common to everyone, and which are reflected in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.  These are things such as basic security and food, love and acceptance, on up to ‘self-actualisation’.  Around that core of ‘Me’ and the inner layer of ‘My Needs’ I have as further layers a set of beliefs and of values that have developed over time, influenced by my upbringing and environment, and shaped by experiences through life.  My Needs, and my Beliefs and Values are what motivate my Behaviours, the next layer of the onion.


And across the room at work there is another ‘Me’, a colleague with whom I work, with his or her own set of Needs, Beliefs and Values, and Behaviours.









That colleague, called ‘You’ let’s say, does something that affects me in a way that I don’t like.  I don’t really know ‘You’ very well.  I don’t know what You’s Needs, Values and Beliefs are, so I don’t know what has motivated You’s behaviour.  I therefore have to interpret You’s behaviour by reference to my own Beliefs and Values, and the extent to which You’s behaviour affects my Needs, either positively or, in this case, negatively.  My reaction then drives my Behaviours in response.  If I have a passive-aggressive style I might sulk, make it very plain by the expression on my face that I am not happy, and perhaps make a sarcastic comment.


This is where ‘Attribution Theory’ also has a part to play, in understanding both You’s and my own behaviour.  If You behaves in a negative way towards me, I tend to attribute the cause of that internally, and interpret the behaviour as an aspect of their personality, as being because You is an unpleasant or a bad person.  Of course if I am aware of my own grumpy behaviour I know full well that is because the neighbours were having a row last night and it kept me awake and its because I’m tired; or I might say ‘Well, You was horrid to me, so what can they expect?’  I tend to be understanding of myself and use ‘External Attribution’ to blame it on the external circumstances.


At its core I have justified my own negative behaviour towards someone else by means of a belief of the ‘rightness’ of my position.  In my work I see this in the cases that crop up on occasion where it is the person bringing the complaint of bullying who in fact turns out to be displaying bulling behaviours, but it lies behind much of the negative behaviour that I investigate in workplace complaints.


One reason why mediation can be so helpful an approach is because it allows space and time for ‘You’ to explain his or her needs, beliefs and values in a way that ‘I’ can understand, perhaps for the first time; and vice versa.  Once ‘I’ and ‘You’ have a better understanding of each others’ needs and motivations, then they are in a better place to work out how they can work together so that both their needs are met.


  • Tim Kingsbury says:

    Many thanks for taking time to share your comment James; it’s much appreciated. It’s a really interesting point.

    Politicians may decide they should not “Do God” (in their public roles at least), but without an external frame of reference how can society find a basis of morality for regulating behaviour (law-making) that doesn’t end up finally by following the most popular opinions and loudest voices among the electorate i.e. running the risk of pandering to vested interest? Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn memorably stated that he gave thanks for his years in the gulag because it was there he learned that the faultline between good and evil lies not in states, governments or institutions, but that “The battleline between good and evil runs through the heart of every man.” (http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/a/aleksandrs405286.html

    So I agree with you; my observation is that our values are an extension of our belief system, what we believe about ourselves and our place in the world.

    But, just as with those politicians, it is difficult for employers to address internal belief systems, and easier to endorse a set of Organisational Values for adoption by employees in their working lives. These may well have some effect on external behaviour, but transformation ultimately relies upon personal beliefs, which drive personal values.

    The interest for the employer is an environment where conflict is managed constructively and people are enabled to contribute positively. In the majority of cases having Organisational Values can support this. However where there is dysfunctional and disruptive behaviour, it seems to me there is a role for pointing employees to therapeutic services where their inner beliefs about themselves and their place in the world can be addressed…but I’m not sure that can properly be addressed in mediation.

    Do you think it should be?

  • James Coleman says:

    As a former RAF and army chaplain I was interested to read this blog from a former RN Commander. I’m now involved with the United Reformed Church working as a Development Officer for the URC’s Yorkshire Synod in which role I’m developing a growing interest in mediation within the church context. What is particularly noteworthy in your blog is the recognition that beliefs and values lie at the core of our identity, although I would prefer to think of my values arising out of my beliefs. It seems to me that too often mediation focuses on behaviours or, at best, needs (either recognised or not), but rarely attempts to tackle core beliefs. You might also know that in the late 1990s the army introduced its core value programme to try and encourage the instilling of key values in new recruits, but has usually tried to pass on these values in a ‘belief neutral’ way – and one wonders about the permanence of a value system adopted without necessarily altering one’s core beliefs. For me the key question is simply this – how, in mediation, can people be encouraged to think about their own personal belief systems, especially if they aren’t in the habit of articulating those, or simply prefer a problem-solving approach to mediation?

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