Understanding and dealing with the cycle of conflict

One of the striking aspects of observing and understanding conflict, is that a pattern often emerges unique to each individual and situation. Based on history of past experiences and perceptions, core beliefs, assumptions and biases are developed, that determine the reaction to a given situation. Over time these reactions become unconscious or intuitive, and entrenched in neurological pathways. We become caught up in a pattern of reacting, or a cycle of conflict that can often be destructive and seemingly impossible to escape from.


Tool for creating meaning


Understanding this cycle is crucial to interrupting it, and reacting in a different and perhaps more positive and constructive manner. There have been many analyses of this, but one that I find very useful for working with family disputes, is that developed by Cinnie Noble in her conflict management coaching approach.[i]


Cinnie describes this as the “not so merry-go-round of conflict” which very aptly produces an image of the circular feature of many conflicts, and the aspect of this as not being a positive experience for those caught up in it. Her model uses this as an insightful way of revealing the emotional, mental and behavioural dynamics that underpin the escalation of conflict.


Getting on to the not so merry-go-round


Most conflict begins with a precipitating event. Something can tip a situation over the edge from being an internal annoyance or irritation, into an externalised conflict. Some boundary is crossed, or some straw breaks the camel’s back, leading to the communication of displeasure, and distress. Thus the conflict becomes a dispute-a situation that must be managed or sorted out.


Neuroscience and the amygdala hijack


Something happens that triggers this reaction. An understanding of our triggers is crucial to understanding and managing the conflict. Most triggers revolve around a perception that needs, values and/or identity are being challenged. When the essence of our being is seen as under attack, we are triggered to retreat to the limbic part of our brain for a sense of meaning, and from there to the reptilian brain and the notions of fright, fight or freeze. Our brain does not often recognize the difference between actual and perceived threat, so even assumptions can be enough to set this reaction off with lightening speed. There will be a strong sense that a line has been crossed, even if there is no clarity regarding what precisely has created this disturbance, and what part is most challenged. This is known as the amygdala hijack!


Story telling as an approach for change


It is an important quality of human beings that we want to make sense of what is happening around us, and we search for meaning. We do this by creating a story in our heads that joins all the dots together to make sense of what is happening in a way that we can live with. Most working in this area will have experienced the power of generating a story that makes sense and reflects core beliefs and interpretation of events, and going over and over this so often that after some time there is a genuine belief in the version that has evolved, regardless of whether this reflects accurately what has occurred.


In times of conflict this generally takes the shape of a story featuring us as the victim, with a villain who has caused the suffering, and demanding consequences that flow from this description.


To get off the merry-go-round of conflict, and break the cycle, we need to develop a more nuanced understanding of the situation, and be able to move to an alternate version of the story that allows for growth and change. Biases have been applied and assumptions made, and this interpretation has been treated as fact. Untangling the conflict requires that the threads be teased out to achieve new insight and understanding, and other possible explanations.


Strategies for change


Cinnie has developed a very sophisticated process to achieve this goal. After inquiring about the situation, she deconstructs the conflict by facilitating the naming of all the elements that go to make up the conflict. She does this in such a way to remain in the rational parts of the brain and to prevent the decent into the more emotional parts where this type of exploration would not be possible. Thus her process is very different from mediation and requires very different interventions from other forms of Alternate Dispute Resolution.


The trigger points are clarified by investigating the relevant values, needs and identity; the impact internally; the assumptions, biases and interpretation that provide motive and intent; the boundary that has been crossed; the external reaction; and the consequences. She does this for the person she is assisting directly, and then asks that they put themselves in the position of the other party to the dispute, and consider all these aspects from their point of view. She then assists the client to examine the contribution that each party may have made to the conflict situation, checks any insight gained from this exercise, and reassesses the overall goal to identify any change in perspective.


Cinnie then explores options, advantages and disadvantages, and reconstructs the conflict situation taking into account the insights that have been gained.

This allows for the conflict merry-go-round to be left behind, and for the development of an alternate story that will provide a better foundation for choices to avoid the same unconscious reaction to the triggers experienced, empower different choices to be made, and pave the way for better conflict management and a brighter future.




This approach can be applied to those preparing for another dispute resolution process such as mediation or collaborative practice. It can also be extremely useful for those dealing with a conflict situation where the other party will not engage in any process, or where an outcome has been negotiated or imposed by a judicial determination and the parties have to make this work for them on an ongoing basis.


I have been developing these skills and using this model for the past several years. If you would like to discuss with me how it may assist your clients with family disputes, or like to find out more about it, please do not hesitate to contact me at Creative Family Law Solutions.










[i] “Conflict Management Coaching” The Cinergy Model by Cinnie Noble 2012

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