Untangling Toxic Conflict

Nick AdlingtonUncategorizedLeave a Comment

When differences turn into toxic conflict[1] it usually takes a toll on all involved. As someone who supports people through conflict, increasingly I see my job as helping people live a life they can be happier in. That may look different to each one of the people I work with, it could constitute feeling more settled, peaceful, connected, energised, more in touch with ones’ feelings and emotions, or something different altogether.

Viewing my job as a mediator through this lens helps me move away from concepts or ideas of what a relationship should look like in any given situation. It helps me focus on the needs of each of the individuals involved in the dispute, rather than the positions they may be taking. It helps me retain my third-party perspective when faced with the risk of getting too immersed in the dynamics of the dispute.

Disputes usually become disputes because they feel so overwhelming and intractable to those involved. It makes sense that someone in dispute may very quickly cling onto the idea/hope that the mediator is going to fix it for them. I believe this can be a strong “pull”, though often very subtle and unconscious, in the dynamics between mediator and those trying to move on from the dispute they are facing. As a mediator there is a risk that we “step in front” of our clients, we get drawn too quickly into what’s happening in the dispute itself, rather than considering the needs and nature of those involved. When we try to fix it for the participants, it is a very short-term relief for those involved; for they walk away from any mediation with the same views, perspectives, feelings as they entered the process with, and the conflict continues.  

However, to focus on supporting someone to a happier, or better, place, is not only a protection towards impartiality for the mediator. Mediators are usually called in to mediate because a difference between two or more people is leading to a significant degree of distress for those involved, e.g. sleeplessness, constant rumination, inability to focus on other areas of life, overwhelming emotions. People living in intractable conflict are more often than not, suffering…a lot. Conversely, I believe that for the most part (though there will always be exceptions) if someone is living with some sense of feeling OK about life, then they are probably not immersed in regular, ongoing, toxic conflict.

This is one lens I may use to help me stay a step outside of the, sometimes, magnetic vortex of the dispute dynamics; to steer clear of becoming just another person with a view of what could or should be done. Throughout my experience of working with people in dispute (and in managing my own disputes) I almost invariably find that for those involved, their worlds have become entwined somehow. So, to come in from the outside and focus on people as individuals, with individual needs and wants, potentially supports greater clarity and less entanglement. It helps people find what it is within themselves that they need, and locates the agency, power, and choice, back with the individual which in turn means they have a better chance of getting their needs met and living something that is better or happier. Practically, I may ask questions such as, “what do you need to live a life that is different?”, or “what would be happening if life was better?”, or “how would you know if things were working well?”.

Any mediation process usually starts with individual meetings with those involved. This in itself calls to the point I’m outlining – that ultimately the power for change lies with the individuals involved. Therefore, it is our job as mediators, through empathy, listening, questioning, shared observations, and radical verbalised imagining of the other’s experience, to help people understand more about their world and their way to a better or happier place, one free of toxic conflict.

I feel it is important to add that in outlining this focus on an individual’s version of a happier or better place, I don’t mean to negate the power or needs of the group or community or place the needs of the individual above the group. From one context to another, the weight given to individual and community needs will vary. Indeed, it may be that a clear focus on the needs of the greater group can help people get along better. However, the dynamic, between the individual and the wider group calls to a different aspect of conflict transformation that I may perhaps tackle in a future article.


[1] Toxic conflict – distress related to the ongoing and repeated dynamics between two or more people. Ref: Nick Adlington   

An article by Nick Adlington

Photo by Martijn Baudoin on Unsplash

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