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Intractable feels as if the circumstances are pulling you into a spiral of conflict.

You repeat the same arguments, you can’t see any other way of responding to the situation, you feel trapped.

You want to get out but you don’t know how, and the whole conflict is draining you.

Very likely you’re experiencing one of the five percent of disputes that experts call “an intractable or seemingly impossible conflict.” ou know this is the case when you feel weary and tired, desperately wanting to end it but again and again finding yourself back at square one.

Peter Coleman points out two signs that suggest the conflict you’re involved in may be one of these five percent:

  • You find yourself denying or discounting any and all positive information about the other party/your opponent.

  • You feel overwhelming resistance in yourself and others against acting differently towards the other party/your opponent.

Think about Israel and Palestine, or a couple you know who had a particularly nasty divorce. Think about friends who used to be best pals until they got mad and never spoke to one another again, or colleagues at work who got into a heavy confrontation that was only resolved when one was fired or walked away.

At one point or another we’ll all experience conflict in this difficult five percent, either because we’re involved as one of the parties or because colleagues, friends or family are drawing us into it.

Most of it is due to our simplifying the roots of what’s causing the conflict and identifying with our own narratives, reinforcing a culture of blame (it’s your fault, you did this to me, you want to take this from me, etc).

How can we end this kind of conflict?

First map the narratives, to avoid oversimplifying what’s going on and falling into the trap of constantly blaming others.

Then look for the consequences, behaviours and dynamics that these narratives create. The premise here is that you can’t change what you don’t see.

When you see how the narratives are creating a spiral of madness, you can choose to act differently. It becomes less personal and is easier to get out of.

The best time to do this is when the people involved haven’t yet identified with their own narratives and the spiral hasn’t reached its strongest point of attracting and pulling everybody in.

If you’re experiencing the pain of a conflict that you feel could escalate, don’t wait too long to address it; you could end up leaving it too late.

I’ve created a process for teams and individuals wanting better conversations that avoid spirals of endless conflict.

You can find a short version of the process here. If you want more detail about how it works just let me know, and I’ll send you the longer version.

Remember, intractable is always a choice.


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