By Bill Southworth

People struggle with conflict. It’s an unpleasant feeling, to say the least, and is not something most people choose to do. But everyone has conflict of some sort in his or her life. Why do some people so quickly respond to conflict in ways that make it worse, while others can respond in ways that bring calm and stability to a potentially charged situation? Part of the answer has to do with our stage of consciousness about potential conflict with an angry person or a person with a very different opinion than yours on a topic that matters to you. Let me explain.

There are four stages of consciousness or awareness we can use to respond to conflict-laden situations. They represent a journey of consciousness which may even take as long as a lifetime to master. Whether you choose to take the journey or not will require a conscious choice. Let’s look at the four stages and then you can decide if you want to begin. To assist in understanding the journey draw a large letter “U” on a piece of paper. Label the upper left area “Unconscious Inappropriate Response”, the lower left “Conscious Inappropriate Response”, the lower right “Conscious Appropriate Response” and the upper right of the letter “U” “Unconscious Appropriate Response.” The two unconscious stages of responses represent habits. You do them automatically. So the journey of consciousness is really one of moving from a response habit that is inappropriate to a response habit that is appropriate.

An “Unconscious Inappropriate Response” in a potential conflict situation represents a response that usually contributes to or even starts the conflict, without any awareness that that the action is inappropriate. For example, when someone says something that offends you your first response might be to start arguing with the other person. Not only are you now arguing, but you are trying to win the argument and you haven’t yet begun to listen. In another example, someone who simply wants to talk about an issue that has been bothering her may approach you. You listen for a couple of minutes and then your “Unconscious Inappropriate Response” of problem solving kicks in and the speaker begins to feel like you’re trying to solve her. It’s also at this unconscious stage of inappropriate response that you often allow your prejudices about people to hinder truly hearing their opinions.

When you become conscious that your response to a person and/or what they are saying is inappropriate, then you’ve moved to the second stage, “Conscious Inappropriate Response”. Now you know that your response is inappropriate. This knowledge usually comes from feedback from the other person or from someone else who may be observing your behavior. This stage is quite important because it represents a large leap in your self-awareness. You’re more aware of what not to do, but not aware of what response is appropriate.

The third stage is where you are fully conscious of what response is appropriate and you act on it. You are now at the “Conscious Appropriate Response” level. You’ve learned the many ways to respond appropriately to a conflict-laden situation so you neither start a conflict situation nor make an existing conflict situation worse. At this stage you are even skilled enough to calm a situation and encourage some active listening.

The fourth stage is the most difficult to achieve. The “Unconscious Appropriate Response” stage is the master’s level of this whole journey and it may take a lifetime. At this stage you don’t need to think about what response is appropriate. It’s like remembering how to ride a bicycle. It’s how a master of the martial arts responds. Your response is now habit and it’s appropriate.