The two phase conflict management model is based on the work of Richard Walton from his 1969 book, Interpersonal Peacemaking1, and was furthered by Joseph P. Folger, Marshall Scott Poole, Randall K. Stutman in Working Through Conflict2. The two phase model is simple, yet robust and envisions the conflict management process as taking place in two separate phases.
In the model’s first phase, differentiation, the parties communicate to learn about one another’s positions and interests related to the issues in the conflict. The differentiation phase presents challenges due to the parties’ focus on conflicting perspectives, but it is a necessary step in the conflict management process. The differentiation phase includes the following actions by each party: expression of perspectives regarding the issues in contention, exchange of information relevant to positions and interests, development of a sense of satisfaction that accompanies the expression of grievances, and potential acknowledgement of differing perspectives by the other side.
Due to the differentiation phase’s inherent difficulties – negative emotions, hostility, tensions, and a focus on seemingly irreconcilable perspectives – the parties may begin to avoid or escalate the conflict.
Avoidance. When parties consciously or unconsciously elect to avoid the conflict, they often do so out of concern that confronting the issues at stake may lead to an escalation of the conflict. The parties’ avoidant behavior can assume many forms – ambiguity in communication, suppression of communication, unwillingness to acknowledge differences – but it ultimately results in the conflicting issues not being discussed. Avoidance is more common with affective conflicts (interpersonal conflicts) than substantive conflicts (conflicts about something), but it can be present in both types.
Escalation. If the parties fall into confrontational, threatening, or competitive patterns of communication during the differentiation phase, in which each party is exchanging demands and making negative motivational attributions of the other, the conflict is escalating. Escalation can lead to irritation, frustration, and anger, which tends to reinforce a cycle of negative communication. The potential for the parties’ communication to escalate into negative exchanges during the differentiation stage creates a disincentive for parties to participate in open discussion of issues. The risk of escalation is grounded in in the differentiation stage’s focus on the differences between the parties’ points of view, tensions inherent in communications over conflicts, and the sense of high stakes arising from the outlined differences.
Managing Differentiation. The ability to effectively guide the process away from escalation and avoidance and towards the integration phase is the goal of negotiation. This path is narrow and can be difficult to transverse, but it is essential to move through differentiation to integration for the conflict to be resolved. There are five behaviors that parties should avoid to more effectively move through differentiation into integration:
- Personalizing the issues in conflict
- Allowing psychological and emotional barriers to block understanding of opposing positions
- Engaging in hostile communications and behaviors
- Allowing uncertainty regarding the conflict’s resolution to derail constructive communication
- Not developing a solid understanding of the risks of non-agreement
Conflicts are prone to these destructive behaviors, which can lead to avoidance or escalation. When these behaviors arise, it is important for the parties to recognize their deconstructive capacity and for the mediator to monitor the direction of the parties’ interactions to ensure they do not slip into avoidance or escalation.
There are several signs that one or both parties is moving in the direction of avoidance or escalation. Indicators of a party moving towards avoidance include:
- A decreasing engagement in the process, where one or both parties stops paying attention to the conversation and/or withdraws from participating in the conversation
- An increasing disengagement from communication focused on controversial issues, problem solving, and/or sharing of information
- A lack of commitment to addressing issues that have not been resolved and/or communication only focusing on uncontroversial issues
- Acceptance of proposals without discussion about the proposal or its implementation
Indicators of a party moving towards escalation include:
- An increasingly tense pattern of communication with subtle hostility and threatening body language, tone of voice, and comments
- One or both parties continue to repeat themselves and the time spent on any given issue (even basic issues) increases
- The intensity of the conversation increases, the pace of collaborative activities decreases, and a sense that agreement is impossible increases
In spite of these risks, the differentiation stage is necessary, as it serves as the pivotal point in the management of a conflict. Once parties have exchanged information about their positions, they have the opportunity to shift the focus of the discussion from attributing blame to one another and to move toward the integration phase and potential solutions to their mutual problem. The integration stage allows the parties to find common ground for the contrasting issues they communicated during the differentiation phase.
Integration is the model’s second phase , in which the parties who have previously discussed their perspectives and positions pivot their discussion towards options for resolving the conflict. Though integration is usually less tense than differentiation, parties are susceptible to relapsing back into differentiation if their communications revert from a future-oriented perspective to a past-oriented perspective.
Conflicts that are effectively managed will transition from focusing on the parties differences to focusing on how the parties can cooperatively resolve a mutual problem. This transition can be difficult, but is necessary for progress.
Successfully facilitating the transition from differentiation to integration involves:
- Both parties’ readiness to move into an integrative conversation. Most often, this change is not synchronized and may require one party to focus on a collaborative approach even while the other party is still focused on differences. This requires a breakdown in tit-for-tat interactions
- Each party being prepared to pivot the conversation’s focus from their positions and differences to a forward-looking focus aimed at resolution
- Ensuring the parties have thoroughly explained their positions to each other and all relevant information is on the table. This helps prevent a relapse back into differentiation.
- Each party should have a clear set of goals and understand the needs that drive those goals before engaging in collaborative, solution-focused dialogue
- Each party must understand that they cannot push an unfavorable settlement onto the other party. Each party must also understand that they cannot be pushed into an unfavorable settlement.
The two phase model is intended to be implemented as a linear model, starting with differentiation and proceeding to integration and resolution, but it often plays out in an iterative manner, in which the parties begin in differentiation, then move back and forth between differentiation and integration, and finally conclude their discussions with a resolution. For example, imagine a conflict between two business associates. They would start in the differentiation phase by outlining their conflicting perspectives, then move into the integration phase, where they discuss potential solutions to their problem. However, at some point in the integration phase, a misunderstood comment or new information could move the associates back to the differentiation phase, where they will continue to discuss their differences before moving back into the integration phase.
The more effectively the conflict management process is executed, the less likely the process will result in an iterative loop. It is important that as much information as possible is uncovered during the differentiation phase and that the parties maintain a forward-focus during the integration phase to avoid cycling between the two phases. Constant cycling will tire and frustrate the parties, making a settlement less likely.
- Richard E. Walton, Interpersonal Peacemaking: Confrontations and Third-Party Consultation, (Addison-Wesley: 1969).
- Joseph P. Folger, Marshall Scott Poole, Randall K. Stutman, Working through Conflict: Strategies for Relationships, Groups, and Organizations, (Pearson: 2012).