Guidance, Soft skills & personality
The conflict spiral: How to resolve conflicts quickly

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The conflict spiral: How to resolve conflicts quickly

There are conflicts everywhere – whether at work or in private life. I’m sure you’re familiar with this too: a conflict often upsets you terribly, costs you time and energy – but it doesn’t bring a solution. Sometimes it even leaves scorched earth behind. Other disputes develop well and bring about changes that are good for all parties. How is it that conflicts can take such different courses? How do you manage to transform an angry battle into a constructive solution?
The 8 steps of the conflict spiral help you to resolve or even avoid conflicts: they help you to recognize how conflicts arise, where the pitfalls are and how you can avoid them. And above all: you recognize how to get out of the spiral at every stage. Let’s take a look at how conflicts arise – and how they can escalate.

The dynamics of the conflict spiral

1. unfulfilled expectations

Even if we may not be aware of it: We go into most situations with an idea of how the situation should turn out. We have – more or less consciously – an idea of how everything should ideally work. – How others react to us, how they should behave, all of this is already in our minds. The classic starting point for conflicts is usually that such an expectation is not fulfilled by others.
Imagine the following example:
You have contact with another department within your company. You need to complete a task urgently and need an answer from the employee in the other department as quickly as possible. They wait for his e-mail, but there is no reply for two days. This puts them behind schedule – and in trouble. You had imagined things differently. They had expected the colleague to react immediately. You think: “Well – how can that be?”

2. disappointment

You probably know this feeling too: if our expectations are not met, we are disappointed. A negative feeling sets in – somewhere between “Oh dear” and “This can’t be true!”
To stay with our example: you had expected to receive the urgently needed reply e-mail within 3-4 hours. As it only arrives after two days, you are disappointed.

3. irritation

This is followed by the next step: you compare the behavior you expected with the behavior you actually exhibited. They are irritated. In your world, such behavior is not intended at all. “How must someone be wired to behave like that?” You were sure that everything would work out – and now you have problems. “How can it be that someone only answers after two days? That is simply not appropriate. You should react quickly and reliably!”. You check how you would have behaved in the same situation. Clearly, it would be different for you: if a colleague asks you about something, you don’t just leave them hanging. No, you answer quickly – as quickly as possible. But the other one obviously doesn’t do that. They are irritated.
We have a few more examples for you: If you have a date or an appointment and the person you are talking to is fifteen minutes late – don’t you expect them to let you know? Your partner has to work late and will be home much later. You expect them to let you know. Someone has accidentally bumped into you and you expect an apology. You think: “That’s quite normal. That’s how you behave.” – You don’t like the fact that the other person is not behaving accordingly.

4. negative thoughts, head cinema, attempts at explanation

And now? They are confused: “What was that now?” and want to get their bearings. They try to explain this strange behavior. Out of your world, of course. What could motivate you to behave the way your counterpart is doing? From your point of view, it would look like this: “If I don’t get back to an important email for two days, it’s only because I don’t care about the other person and I’m simply not interested in whether they’re up in the air and can’t continue working.”
We often don’t realize that we are only looking at things from our point of view – no, we think the world is actually like that.
When we have little information, we often find essentially negative attitudes and thoughts as an explanation for the other person’s behavior. This has evolutionary reasons: Imagine the world 10,000 years ago. If you met someone you didn’t know, it could be a disadvantage to approach the other person openly and positively. With a bit of bad luck, it could happen that the other person hit you in the head. So pessimism was definitely a good survival strategy. Assuming the worst – and bashing the other person’s head in to be on the safe side – may not be friendly, but it ensures your own survival. Even if the other person came with good intentions, it may have been advantageous to accuse him of the worst. On average, the people most likely to survive were those who were suspicious when they were unable to assess the intentions of others. So we are the descendants of pessimists. In evolutionary terms, mistrust of strangers was a healthy attitude. We still make use of this today: if we don’t know what is going on in others, we tend to interpret their intentions negatively.

5. worry, frustration…

You have negative thoughts in your head. The other person doesn’t seem to care about you. You start to extrapolate the behavior. “If he always does it this way – and never answers me quickly – how am I supposed to do my job well?”. Or: “This colleague makes me wait a really long time. How disrespectful! What kind of relationship do we have?” Your mind is running at full speed. You start to worry. “Where will it end if it goes on like this?” You generalize your worries until you’re really frustrated. “I feel totally powerless, I’m miserable. Now I have to put up with this stupid situation and I can’t change anything.” You have the impression that you have got into a situation that you can’t get out of through no fault of your own. In short: they feel like a victim.

6. aggression

None of us can stand being a victim for long. It’s just too unpleasant. To get things moving, the powerless, self-pitying victim feeling quickly turns into anger and aggression. And this is directed at the other person: “Not with me!”, “I won’t put up with it!”, “He probably thinks he can get away with it”, “I’ll show him!”, “Where are we going with this? “Where are we getting to?”. They are really in a rage.

7. apportioning blame

Once we are really angry, we know exactly who is to blame: the other person. We are doing badly, the other person is responsible. Why? Because he’s stupid. Or bad. “He’s at least a reckless a…! It’s as simple as that!” At this stage, no one needs to tell you: “We both have our share” or “We just have different points of view”. Pah! Not at all! – You haven’t done anything wrong, but the other person has. You don’t have a channel free for reason and relativization right now. If it has come to this, then we are temporarily unable to go to the meta-level and look at the situation from above. We have a bad image of others and evaluate their behavior – critically. And how.
We see the guilt and wickedness of the other as proven. Did you know that we receive around 11 million pieces of information with all our senses every moment? Our brain only selects 40 pieces of information. Exactly those that we need right now and that fit into our world view. You can certainly imagine that at such a moment our 1:300,000 filter acts in an enormously biased way and our truth becomes increasingly colored as a result.

8. personal attacks

Now is the time to articulate the blame. Out with it! Let the other person know what he has done – and that it doesn’t work that way! There are personal attacks. At best, we just act bitchy. In the worst-case scenario, we will attack the other person properly, for example by shouting or sending angry emails. It can be below the belt. We want to hurt the other person, after all, we are hurt too. An objective, constructive discussion is not in sight.

9. the circle starts all over again

Only now does the other person even find out about his happiness. Until now, he had no idea what was simmering inside us. It was only our negative behavior that made it clear to him that something was wrong. This is where the conflict spiral begins.
Back to our example: the employee in the other department has always had the workflow of answering queries within two days. Everything is fine in his world. He did everything right: he replied within two days. Just as it should be – in his world. He is pure of heart. He would have liked to reply sooner, but he has been really stressed recently and has just managed to deal with your request in his own 2-day timeframe. But not bad – you can expect a little understanding. Everyone gets stressed sometimes. When the e-mail with accusations and insinuations – that he is lazy, uncollegial and only thinks of himself – lands in his inbox, he is completely flabbergasted. He had expected something completely different; namely that he would have an unclouded working relationship and that a “thank you” would come from the recipient.

10 The conflict spiral picks up speed.

The unfulfilled expectations are now also disappointing him.” What kind of person reacts so bitchily and aggressively to a normal email?”, “I’m supposed to work with someone like that! – I’m not going to put up with that!” He will also blame the other person – and react violently.
Now comes circle number three in the conflict spiral: you had actually expected your colleague to apologize contritely after your rebuke; that he would ruefully admit that it wasn’t right to keep you waiting so long. In the end, they had difficulties as a result. But this expectation is disappointed. The colleague doesn’t show the slightest bit of understanding, in fact he reacts in a snotty manner. “Cheeky!” they say and strike back…
The spiral of conflict can go on for a while before it escalates with a big bang – the “big bang”: everyone is in their own trench. There is no end in sight. Let alone a happy ending. But each of the opponents knows one thing for sure: they are in the right – and the other is a terrible person. Approaching him – Absolutely not. – Nothing works anymore.

What can be done to prevent this from happening in the first place?

At every level of the conflict spiral, you have options to stop the spiral from continuing, options to get out. Here are some of them:

Communicate expectations

What can you do to avoid unfulfilled expectations? – You can comment on your expectations in advance. Then the other person knows what you want and can react accordingly.

Check expectations

Of course, it makes sense to subject your expectations to a thorough examination.
In our example, you might ask yourself: Is that really the case? Do all people have to reply to emails within 4 hours? Is that a realistic expectation? Or is that perhaps not necessary at all? Maybe it’s okay to answer after a day or two.


To avoid negative interpretations after disappointments and irritations, you can simply approach your counterpart and ask questions.” What’s going on? How come?”. Your attitude should be to want to understand the other person, to approach them. You really want to find out how this situation came about. Once you have all the information you need, you may be able to find a way together to improve things in the future.


If you notice that you are getting emotional and something is brewing inside you, it is advisable not to respond angrily straight away, but to take a break first. Just leave the matter for a while and take a step back. You can write an angry e-mail, but don’t send it! Wait 24 hours. A day later, the world usually looks completely different. Take your chance to think things over in peace. That is always better than lashing out at the other person out of anger. They are not in a position to give feedback with aggression anyway.

Let your anger fade away

There are many ways in which you can control your aggression. Jogging or doing another sport helps one person – sleeping or playing music helps another.

Listen to other opinions

Of course you can also talk to someone else. But be careful! It’s not about finding an ally. Your goal here should be to get another opinion.” What do you think? Am I perhaps on the wrong track?”.

Search for alternative explanations

Just give it a try – think of at least ten reasons that explain the other person’s behavior. In most cases, there are even more.

What other reasons are there why the other person only replied to you after two days? You think it’s because he doesn’t care about you at all? But maybe he was just sick. Maybe he was in a meeting that went on for two days. Who knows, he could have simply overlooked your e-mail. Perhaps two days is a completely normal processing time for him. Or he was stressed and didn’t have time. Find explanations that are more benevolent than the most negative ones.
The same applies here: Asking is a good idea!


Are you already in a state where you can no longer cope with the situation on your own? Then you can give feedback. However, proceed very carefully here! Your feedback should follow constructive rules:

  • What did you notice? (Describe behavior, do not interpret!)
  • How do you feel about that? (What are the consequences of this behavior? How do you feel about it?)
  • What do you want?
“It took two days to reply to my e-mail. This caused me difficulties because I was unable to continue working. I would like your response time not to exceed 4 hours. Would that be feasible for you?” This constructive type of feedback invites the other person to enter into a dialog with you instead of flattening them.


Perhaps the conflict is already so far advanced that you can no longer resolve it on your own. Both parties may even want to reach an agreement, but the number of injuries on both sides is already so high that you end up in the conflict loop again and again. They do not manage to maintain a constructive conversation. Or there is no level with the other person to talk about it.

In these situations, it can be helpful to invite someone to moderate the discussion – a mediator. This person makes sure that the discussion remains constructive, that everyone gets a chance to speak, that no one interrupts the other and that what has been said is summarized again. That way, the other person gets what was meant. It ensures that the parties involved stop putting each other down and instead develop a better understanding of each other. A mediator steers a conversation so that it is focused on solving the problem. After all, all parties want to get rid of the problem.

If you need a mediator, please contact us:

The authors

Oliver Grätsch
Michelle 550
Michelle Templin
Christian Grätsch
Matthias Beikert
Susanne Grätsch
Monika Bt 550x550
Monika Steininger
Kai Hübner
Philipp Andresen 500x550
Philipp Andresen
Dr. Claudia Schmidt
Inga Kühn
Kassandra Knebel
Claudia Lehmann
Anna Isabell Arendt
Komplettes Team

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