Site Map    

News Headlines

A Constructive Approach to Conflict Resolution
Debbie Garr

Another professional, engaging speaker presented to The Center for Spirit at Work on Friday, October 12.  Valerie Burke, a licensed attorney and approved mediator in Kansas and Missouri, presented an informative framework for approaching and resolving conflict. Ms. Burke, who holds a J.D. from St. Louis University and a B.S. in Journalism from the University of Kansas, has received several awards for her professional and volunteer work in dispute resolution. She is a speaker, consultant, trainer, adjunct professor, and coach who helps people in various situations resolve rather than litigate, using facilitative, transformative, and evaluative approaches.

Ms. Burke assured us from the outset that experiencing conflict is human nature. She added that people of faith oftentimes tend to shy away from facing conflict, but it’s always best to talk it out. In doing so, having a mentor or objective person facilitate the conflict resolution process can be a plus.

Litigation, we learned from Ms. Burke, so often comes from conflict that could have been resolved. While many people avoid conflict, others seem to enjoy it. For resolution, communication is key, and the style each of us was born with can lead us in both positive and negative ways.

When talking out conflict issues, she recommended slowing down before you speak, react, get angry, or take things personally. Realizethat both parties are right and both are wrong.  It takes compromise for resolution. No one is going to get everything he wants.

To aid in her discussion of conflict resolution, Ms. Burke introduced a conflict map called Social Transformation of Conflict (copy attached), developed by a professor at Notre Dame, John Hall Lederach, and she encouraged us to share this map with others to educate people about conflict resolution.

She prefaced the discussion with the statement: “Conflict is not bad.”  We have it when there’s change. The key is to make it transformative instead of destructive, which is not easy for those personally involved because it’s personal and therefore hard to see.

Ms. Burke said she uses this map with seven levels of conflict when meeting with each person individually. Her first question is: “Where are you on this map?” (In her presentation, Ms. Burke used the example of a conflict between two workplace associates and how their supervisor should step up and help them work toward resolution.) 

1.      Problem solving, disagree but share problem—If (e.g., John and Sally) walk into their supervisor’s office and say they can’t solve a problem, he should not  turn them away. First, he must talk to each person individually to get both sides of the story and then get them the resources they need. Perhaps it’s systemic. It could be a workplace problem.

2.      Shift from disagreement to personal antagonism, person seen as problem—If the supervisor says, “Go talk it out and come back in a week to tell me what you’ve decided to do,” when they come back, it will have become personal. With different communication styles one may think she needs more info and the other may think she should be able to make a decision quicker.  Now it’s John’s problem and Sally’s problem—they don’t want to work together.

3.      Issue proliferation, from specific to general—The next week each has many reasons why the other is impossible to work with. John decides Sally’s a slacker. He comes in early and she comes in late (but he may not know she stays late). Now they’re the problem and  the boss is showing he doesn’t want to get in the middle of it.

4.      Triangle, talk about not with—Sally and John reach out to others for reinforcement. John might say to another worker, “Do you know what Sally did?” Sally or John might bring several other people to the boss to say they’re not going to put up with this.

5.      Eye for an eye, reaction and escalation--This is a critical time for the boss to be involved. John and Sally are now intentionally leaving each other out; e.g., not copying one another on emails or not giving one another info they need to do their jobs. There is no mutual trust and it gets ugly here.

6.      Antagonism →→→ Hostility—At this point it can become tragic. When Sally sees John’s car in the parking lot, she gets upset. It can get violent at this point.  It’s critical to intervene.  (Interestingly, oftentimes the people involved say it’s at a level 6, while the supervisor says it’s at a level 2.)

7.      Polarization, change in social organization—Factions have totally separated. If one person is alone, they’ve been destroyed at this point.




Ms. Burke asked us to think about what we as bystanders can do to help resolve conflict.  She reiterated that instead of standing back, we must call attention to the situation right away. Get help for the people involved. Coach them. Refrain from getting triangulated in, which only adds to the problem. Realize there’s no right or wrong answer and tell the people in conflict that they need to be talking to one another. 

In closing, Ms. Burke asked, “Why do people litigate?” Her answer: “Cases that don’t settle have become personal. “

Her solution is that we need to resist these forces by developing self awareness, self control, and reciprocity.


About the Author: Debbie Garr, Center for Spirit at Work CommunicationsVolunteer is a Human Resources consultant, facilitator, and author in Kansas City, MO.