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  • Writer's pictureNeal McIntyre

Why Most Conflict Resolution Strategies Fail

In almost every industry today, businesses and organizations have concern about tension and toxicity. While some conflicts can be beneficial and lead to necessary changes, most is destructive and causes significant, often unrealized financial loses. Many times, these conflicts go unaddressed within an organization while administrators hope that things will work their way out. Unfortunately, this rarely happens.


For organizations, toxicity can be internal or external. Many administrators will deny the presence of any type of internal tension although they are most often always present. Instead, administrators usually express more concern about hostilities demonstrated by frustrated customers, patients, and/or clients. In fact, in some sectors, such as healthcare, the perpetration of violence at the hands of patients or the families of patients has led it to become the most violent profession in the nation. As a result, many healthcare organizations are scrambling to find a deterrent or solution within a realm that they have very limited to no knowledge of.


This will work to resolve conflict, won’t it?


To address this challenge, some organizations have secured the services of armed security either through developing security positions within their organization or by contracting with outside security services. It’s even common for churches to routinely engage in discussions about having church members on their security teams armed whenever the church is open. This search for armed security by organizations is often fed by fear stoked by the media in their portrayal of violent events, particularly shootings, at workplaces, churches, and other organizations across the nation. The reality for organizations is that well over 95% of hostile situations in these settings will not call for an armed response.


The harsh reality is that even if your organization has armed security, their presence does very little to deter or prevent violence from happening on the agency’s grounds. Their presence does provide a rapid armed response should a shooting situation occur but, again, there is often a very low probability that these events will occur – although I agree that plans should be put into place just in case.


In most cases, workers have a higher probability of encountering verbal, non-physical hostilities displayed by customers, patients, and/or clients. Unfortunately, most people have little to no training as to how to handle these types of situations. If anything, individuals will often threaten to call security, or the police should the aggressor not calm down. Or they may ask the irate customer to leave the premises. Or they may call their manager who usually responds to the tense customer by letting them know what company policy allows or doesn’t allow them to do. These responses rarely work and could increase the tension from the incident. Not only that, but with easy video access through cellphones, many of these hostile customers or their friends or family may be taping the entire conversation to post it on social media – which often helps to create a negative impression on the organization, something they would prefer to avoid.


Why didn’t it work? It worked in the training classroom!?


Why is it that our most common approaches to de-escalating conflict and tension become failures? Whenever a hostile situation arises, our tendency is to often calm it down as quickly as possible. This approach is flawed from the very beginning because it calls for the hostile individual to think logically in the very moment when they are incapable of doing so because of the emotions hijacking their rational brain and allowing their amygdala to run crazy – causing irrational comments and action. Most often, we simplify conflict to the point that we think the problem is simply the behavior of the hostile individual and, thus, we need to quickly change their behavior before things escalate. This is why, in these moments, we tend to tell the person to calm down or to stop yelling, etc. We have this flawed thought process where if we could get them to calm down or be quieter, the problem would be solved. This is why most approaches to resolving tension fail.


The Components of Conflict


To begin to resolve conflict, we must first understand the very structure of conflict itself. It’s not simply behavior. I created the following model to visually demonstrate the components or dimensions of conflict. They are emotional, mental, physical, and behavioral. While each dimension is separate and distinct on its own, they are also all linked. More specifically, one does not de-escalate conflict if they are only addressing the physical dimension of the aggressive situation.


I developed the above model based on my dealings with different individuals and organizations over the years. Back when I was in law enforcement, much of my time was spent with felony probation where my caseload consisted of violent and sexual offenders. I had daily contact with these individuals to the point that I’ve most likely had more contact with violent and potentially hostile people than the average person will have in a lifetime. Conflict de-escalation isn’t about which party can muffle the other or which party can bring the biggest weapon to the situation. Conflict resolution is about understanding the components of conflict and realizing that each dimension must be addressed to effectively calm the situation.


What does this require? It requires the very thing that most people don’t want to do when responding to a hostile situation and/or person – they’ve got to be willing to communicate with the individual. By this, I’m not talking about giving orders as that does nothing but make the situation worse. I’m talking about being able to talk and listen to the agitated individual to understand his/her concerns and interests. This is what most people responding to these situations don’t want to do. Why? Because it takes time! Too often, our conflict response teams are in too much of a hurry to enter a conversation with an agitator and to build rapport with them. Instead, they’re too hurried to shut down the hostile threat and return to work as normal because they have other, more pressing things to get to.




Most people are not very good at communicating. Even those who we think are good at calming hostile situations, such as police officers and security agents, are often terrible at communicating. I remember years ago that I worked with this one officer back when I was in law enforcement who stated at night that “this is the coolest job in the world because it’s the only job where you can legally fight someone”. I cringed when he said it then, and I shudder when I think about that now although there is some truth to that, at least in terms of mindset. See, many individuals who are tasked with conflict resolution approach conflict with that same type of mindset – “I’m going to force compliance”. That’s been proven time and time again to not effectively work, yet we still do it although there are better options.

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