ConflictInzicht, Issue 2, May 2009

Spirals and Shifts
Dorothy J. Della Noce
ConflictInzicht Issue 2
May 2009

When conflict is going badly, it is fairly common for us to describe the experience of being “stuck” in conflict, that is, the experience of being trapped, immobilized, and unable to move forward. It is so common, in fact, that McCorkle and Mills found that “confinement” metaphors were among the top five that people used to describe the experience of conflict (1992, pp. 60-61). For example. participants in that study described feeling “tied up in chains,” “in a time warp,” and “buried in a hole” (p. 61). Similarly, Angus and Korman reported that partners in conflictual marriages frequently used metaphors of “containment” in therapy sessions, such as referring to the marriage as a “prison,” and themselves as “stuck” and “frozen” (2002, pp. 157-159).

Of course, despite the vividness of the metaphors, we are not really “stuck” in anything. Conflict is not a place or a thing; it is an interactional experience. The metaphor of being “stuck” actually describes our experience of the quality of the interaction. Thus, it is useful to look at how the experience of being “stuck” in conflict is created in interaction, because it is also through interaction that we are able to break free.

Human interaction is made up of many smaller, repeating, interlocking patterns. The patterned nature of interaction is functional. It is what enables us to understand and predict the behavior of others, and also to act appropriately ourselves. Wilmot (2009) suggests that one common communication pattern is the spiral. A communication spiral occurs “when the actions of each person ... magnify those of the other” (p. 452).

Spirals emerge because, as we interact, we tend to respond to each other with “more of the same” (Wilmot, 2009, p. 453). For example, if we experience understanding, trust, closeness, and harmony in communication with another, we tend to respond with more of the same. These positive experiences reinforce each other, and the communication pattern that develops is positive. This is called a generative spiral (p. 454). On the other hand, if we experience distrust, distance, and discord in communication with another, we tend to respond with more of the same. These negative experiences reinforce each other, and the communication pattern that develops is negative. This is called a degenerative spiral (p. 455).

Conflict scholars also use the image of the spiral to describe the typical pattern of conflict interaction. While the image can be traced back at least as far as Deutsch (1973, p. 354), it continues to inform contemporary conflict theory. For example, Rubin, Pruitt and Kim describe the conflict spiral model of escalation. They suggest that conflict escalation is the result of a “vicious circle of action and reaction,” in which each participant responds to the other’s tactics by intensifying his or her own tactics just a bit more (1994, pp. 74-75). Driven by blame, anger, fear, and perceived threats, the participants move from fairly light tactics (like ingratiation, persuasion, and guilt trips) to heavier tactics (like threats, irrevocable commitment, and even violence) (pp. 74-81).

Similarly, Bush and Pope talk about the degenerative conflict spiral (2002, pp. 68-77; see also, Bush & Folger, 2005, pp. 49-62). They argue that, as conflict develops, participants in the conflict behave in ways that are increasingly disempowered and self-absorbed. In their model, the spiral has a downward momentum, as the quality of human interaction degenerates more and more. For them, too, destructive conflict is a vicious circle, as mutual acts of diminishment and demonization reinforce each other.

The bad news is that a negative conflict spiral takes on a life of its own, as people get caught up in the momentum of the developing pattern of interaction. The pull of the pattern can feel quite powerful, explaining why people would report feeling trapped or stuck in a conflict cycle. The good news is that, just as a negative or destructive conflict spiral is built through communication, the direction of the spiral can also be reversed through communication. Bush and Folger call these positive changes in the direction of the conflict spiral interactional shifts (2005, pp. 66-83).

Shifts happen as the parties recognize the negative conflict spiral and take steps to reverse it. A conflict spiral can often be recognized in language use, especially the use of metaphors of confinement or containment (like those with which we began this column). A person directly involved in conflict might use such metaphors while engaged in the conflict or while describing the conflict to others. An outsider to the conflict might hear such metaphors while observing the conflict or while listening to others describe the conflict. In any case, the presence of such metaphors in language use is a pretty good indication that someone feels stuck in a conflict spiral.

Once the negative pattern is recognized, it is possible to take steps to change it. Building on earlier research with people who described how they had taken a destructive conflict and successfully “turned it around” (Wilmot & Stevens, 1994), Wilmot (2009) offers several strategies for changing a conflict spiral. One strategy is to “do what comes unnaturally” (p. 456). This strategy requires that a person caught up in conflict notice his or her own part in the pattern, and take responsibility for it. Then, instead of doing “more of the same,” he or she can choose to do something different. For example, if two parties to a conflict are both being silent and withdrawn, one could try to start a conversation. If both are yelling, one could try to adopt a softer tone. Other changes are also possible, such as changing the physical environment by moving to another room or moving the discussion to another time.

Another important strategy for changing a conflict pattern is to shift to metacommunication. Metacommunication is talking about the talking, or discussing how the communication process itself is unfolding. A shift to metacommunication can be recognized when a person says, “let’s talk about how we are talking.” Metacommunication is valuable because it allows the participants to step away from the pattern, and engage in a different conversation.

While even small disruptions to a pattern can have a positive effect, a single act is not generally sufficient to reverse a pattern. Patterns are remarkably strong, the result of being reinforced by repetition. Therefore, Wilmot suggests that persistence is important (2009, p. 457). To reverse the direction of a spiral, one must continue to repeat the new or different behaviors in order to reinforce the change. It is also useful to continue to be observant about the quality of communication while making persistent efforts to produce change. As Bush and Folger (2005) have pointed out, self-absorption is part of the experience of conflict communication. There is a risk, then, that a person who is making an effort to change a pattern believes that he or she, and only he or she, is doing all the work. By being alert for the small changes the other makes in response (called reciprocity), and even acknowledging and appreciating those changes, a participant further reinforces a positive change in the direction of the conflict cycle.

Finally, Wilmot recommends that third parties (people who are outside the direct conflict, like family, friends, coaches, counselors, managers and mediators) can be helpful in reversing a conflict spiral. Sometimes, third parties can support change in a conflict spiral by supporting the participants in enacting some of the strategies discussed here. Third parties can support each participant’s own efforts to do something different and step away from the pattern. But caution is in order. A third party must navigate carefully between being supportive of the participants’ own efforts to create a change, and the temptation to manipulate or coerce the participants into making the changes the third party would like to see. The more a third party imposes his or her own observations and decisions on the participants, the more he or she undermines the will of each participant. By disempowering the participants in the conflict, a third party could actually contribute to a hardening of the negative conflict spiral (Bush & Folger, 2005).

Conflict spirals can be reversed. New metaphors of movement, freedom, and growth can replace metaphors of confinement or containment. Thus, we might hear people talking about how they are “moving on”, “making progress,” or “going forward” after a difficult conflict interaction, or how the situation has “loosened up” or is “thawing out.” What they are saying is that the interaction has taken on a different quality. They are no longer stuck. Shifts happen.


Angus, L., & Korman, Y. (2002). Conflict, coherence, and change in brief psychotherapy. In S. R. Fussell (Ed.), The verbal communication of emotions: Interdisciplinary perspectives (pp. 151-165). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Bush, R. A. B., & Folger, J. P. (2005). The promise of mediation: Responding to conflict
through empowerment and recognition. (Revised 2d. ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Bush, R. A. B., & Pope, S. G. (2002). Changing the quality of conflict interaction: The principles and practice of transformative mediation. Pepperdine Dispute Resolution Law Journal, 3, 67-96.

Deutsch, M. (1973). The resolution of conflict: Constructive and destructive processes. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

McCorkle, S., & Mills, J. L. (1992). Rowboat in a hurricane: Metaphors of
interpersonal conflict management. Communication Reports, 5(2), 57-66.

Rubin, J. Z., Pruitt, D. G., & Kim, S. H. (1994). Social conflict: Escalation, stalemate, and
settlement. (2d Ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.

Wilmot, W. W. (2009). Communication spirals, paradoxes, and conundrums. In J. Stewart (Ed.), Bridges not walls: A book about interpersonal communication (10th ed.) (pp. 450-466). NY: McGraw-Hill. (Originally published by W. W. Wilmot as a chapter in Relational Communication, 4th ed., 1994.)

Wilmot, W. W., & Stevens, D. C. (1994). Relationship rejuvenation: Arresting decline in personal relationships. In R. Conville (Ed.), Communication and structure (pp. 103-124). Philadelphia, PA: Ablex.


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