Conflict Management in Turbulent Times

Managing conflict is always a nuanced and complex issue. However, in today’s post-pandemic world, many practitioners are finding their work especially challenging. From adapting to working online to supporting people in conflict directly over covid-related issues (such as vaccination), to encountering clients experiencing additional stressors relating to covid that impact their capacity to manage other unrelated conflicts – turbulent times present new and uncharted challenges for conflict management practitioners.


The pandemic is an excellent and pertinent example of a turbulent time for all of us, but the same challenges could be brought about by any number of circumstances, from an economic downturn to company restructuring, to foreign conflict such as the war in Ukraine, to personal turbulence we each experience in our lives. These kinds of chaotic and disruptive events create a context in which we must manage conflict and support our clients differently. What’s more, practitioners must also be acutely aware of taking care of themselves in unsettling times.


Turbulent times add additional layers of stress and complication to managing conflict. The challenges include not being able to see people face-to-face (and learning to navigate how to work online) to dealing with heightened stress and uncertainty in ourselves, the people we work with, and our clients. And while none of us was prepared for the ways in which the pandemic would disrupt our lives, addressing this issue now can prepare us for the future. Having a toolbox of strategies for unpredicted turbulent times can help us all in being better positioned to manage conflict in different situations.


Turbulent times are like waves on the ocean: As the ocean ebbs and flows, we must be prepared not only for the wave we’re facing now, but for waves to come. Looking at the bigger picture means considering both the highs and lows of the tidal system, being prepared for all that we know is to come, and much that we don’t yet expect.


What do we mean by turbulent times? Broader versus personal turbulence


Although the turbulence that COVID-19 has brought into our lives affects us all – in very different ways – turbulence is not necessarily always something that is affecting everyone. Personal turbulence can have a profound effect on the way we handle and manage conflict. However, whether personal or broader, each of us will inevitably approach turbulence differently, depending on our personal circumstances, previous experiences, and disposition. When managing conflict, it is important to consider not only broader turbulence that is impacting the situation, but personal turmoil that is being faced by those we are working with. Broader turbulence (the pandemic, natural disasters, global conflict) can present challenges such as a charged political climate, economic downturn, loss of livelihoods, increased cost of living, increased instances of domestic violence, disruption to our social lives, potential for impact on mental health, food shortages, homelessness due to economic factors or even natural disaster, and more.


When it comes to personal turmoil, this too can affect the ways in which we and our clients approach conflict. From past trauma responses to grief and bereavement, to relationship breakdown, to someone’s social media experience (such as the echo chamber and confirmation bias it presents), to family and religious background, health issues, and more – each of these personal circumstances will impact a person’s approach to conflict, and yet, may be harder to recognise and empathise with than the broader turbulence affecting us all.


The questions we should be considering for those we work with in managing conflict should, however, take both broader and personal conflict into account. We should be asking:


  • Are their basic needs being met?
  • What state of mind are they in?
  • Are they currently seeing a therapist?
  • What support networks does this person have?
  • How are past traumas affecting their point of view and approach to conflict?
  • How is social media impacting their point of view?
  • How does their background (family, religion, upbringing) have an impact?
  • What is their level of physical activity and does this impact their stress, mental health, and more?


How do turbulent times impact on people in conflict?


Times of turmoil can both create new conflicts and impact upon and exacerbate existing ones. In managing conflict and preparing for future turbulent times, we must be aware of how these kinds of circumstances impact conflict. For example:


Our resilience is lower: During turbulent times (be they large-scale or personal), our resilience is lower due to new challenges and ongoing stressors. These turbulent times can also affect people’s capacity or willingness to manage conflict. This can create new conflict, exacerbate existing conflict, and make both harder to manage.


Turbulent times can impact our ability to manage conflict: With fewer opportunities to engage face-to-face and with an enhanced reliance on technology, the ways in which we engage with conflict and manage it are very different. New strategies and adaptations are required.


Turbulent times can be long gone and yet still have an impact: It is important to understand that although turbulent times can have an impact on conflict, those turbulent times don’t necessarily need to be current. Past experiences can impact upon a person’s reaction to future conflict by triggering a certain response or learned behaviour. Unfortunately, past turbulence can be particularly hard for other people to spot and to empathise with.


The relationship between turbulent times and change: Turbulence is typically represented by change, and generally, unwanted or unexpected change. It means having to quickly adapt to changing circumstances, often without warning. Interestingly, turbulent times can lead to necessary changes, however difficult these are, but can create or exacerbate conflict too.


Turbulent times can disrupt your values and sense of identity: For many, turbulent times will not affect, or may even enhance, their sense of identity and their core values. But for others, core values and identity can be deeply threatened by the eruption of turbulence. Needless to say, this can be distressing and enhance conflict. A great example of this is the trucking convoy responding to vaccine mandates on the Canadian border. Many of the people involved would not have considered themselves activists before the pandemic, and yet, the situation led many to become very vocal activists against the mandates – having an impact on the identity of those involved, stirring a very vocal response from those who disagree, and changing the perception of a nation’s people for those around the world.


Turbulent times can change social norms: Large-scale turbulence inevitably changes social norms and can have a profound impact on people’s sense of identity and belonging (for example, vaccinated versus unvaccinated), and create or enhance anxieties (such as social anxiety). In a more abstract way, mask-wearing means we have more difficultly reading people’s expressions and unspoken cues, and our methods of greeting (e.g. shaking hands) may need to change. As practitioners, we need to be prepared for shifting parameters and social norms as a result of these large-scale turbulent times.


Turbulent times can impact a broader range of people in diverse ways: Even those not involved directly in a conflict between individuals can be impacted in turbulent times. A great example of this is in workplaces where lack of vaccination has led to suspension or job loss. For those not involved in the conflict around vaccination and possible termination, enhanced workloads due to staff shortages can have a very real impact on their working (and in turn, personal) lives.


Example: In a remote medical centre with only two nurses, conflict arose between the employer and one nurse who refused to be vaccinated. The remaining nurse, who was not involved directly in the conflict, was then the sole nurse in the region and responsible 24/7 for managing community health in the area. This had a great impact on her personally, although she was not involved in the conflict. This had a flow-on effect for the rest of the community and its ability to respond to health concerns.


Turbulent times can magnify conflict: Turbulent times can make conflict more complex and more difficult to manage, involves more people (directly or indirectly) in the conflict, and can lead to a magnification of conflict.


The new environment can prevent conflict from being resolved or cause delays: One of the characteristics of turbulent times is that there is not always a solution and that methods we might usually use to resolve conflict are less effective or unable to be utilised due to the circumstances we find ourselves in. This can delay or even prevent conflict resolution, as well as enhance it.


What do conflict management practitioners need to be aware of when working with people in turbulent times?


Turbulence reminds us that conflict exists within broader systems and contexts and that these need specific consideration for effective conflict management. The way we work with people in conflict needs to adapt based on the turbulence being faced, and as conflict management practitioners, we must be aware of a number of things, including that:


  • People are under increased stress, with lower resilience and capacity to deal with conflict.
  • People have different priorities due to the turbulent circumstances, which can impact conflict resolution.
  • Existing mental health concerns can be exacerbated, while some people may ignore or neglect their mental health.
  • People may feel that they have less control over their lives and in turn, their ability to deal with conflict in turbulent times.
  • Emotions are heightened, which can not only create new conflict but aggravate existing conflict and make it more difficult to resolve.
  • The stakes feel higher for people who are dealing with turbulence as well as conflict, which impacts their feelings about conflict and their ability to deal with it.
  • People can feel additional pressures of victimhood due to managing both conflict and everything that is going on around them during turbulent times.
  • People will respond to turbulent times in very different ways at different times as turbulence ebbs and flows, which can make managing conflict difficult for practitioners.
  • Coaches may be managing overwhelm in their clients as well as conflict, due to turbulent times.
  • People are experiencing much more uncertainty and doubt, which can influence their behaviours, priorities, and beliefs – making them unsure about the future and their options for conflict resolution.
  • People may only be able to focus on the short term, no longer able to see the bigger picture, which impacts upon their ability to manage and resolve conflicts that arise.
  • People may dig in their heels and become entrenched in certain behaviours or ways of thinking.
  • People may disengage from their work, from the situation, or from conflict, as a self-care strategy.
  • People may overdo things or take on too much as a way of trying to cope with the turbulence in their lives.
  • People may downplay or feel guilty about their suffering compared with that of others, creating a hierarchy of suffering.
  • People may concentrate on smaller, more manageable tasks or work at a slower pace.
  • There can be benefits and risks in putting conflict management on hold during turbulent times. We must be conscious of not letting conflict fester but also be aware that as it ebbs, conflict may become less significant with perspective.


In taking each of these things into account, we can better prepare for turbulent times in the future and modify and adapt strategies for managing and resolving conflict for those we work with. While the turbulent times themselves may be hard to predict, by being aware of the changes in behaviour and beliefs we can expect in clients, we can be better positioned for managing conflict in such challenging circumstances.

What might conflict management practitioners need to do differently when working with people in turbulent times?


Being aware of the changes in behaviours, beliefs, priorities, and the ability to cope of the people we are working with makes us better prepared to work with them in turbulent times. These challenging circumstances also mean having to adapt our approach and strategies. Some of the ways we can do this include:


Putting more emphasis on intake conversations: When conducting intake conversations during turbulent times, practitioners should pay greater attention to people’s capacity and conduct a more thorough risk assessment, noting what kind of support they may need beyond ours. We may consider their family situation (risk of domestic violence, for example), their general ability and capacity to engage with the work we intend to do, and whether another intervention of some kind is needed first.


Go back to basics: As turbulent times can disrupt people’s ability to cope on many levels, it may be necessary to go back to the basics, for example, considering Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. This can be a powerful tool in assessing where someone sits in terms of their immediate needs and how suitable they may be for engaging in our work. From eating to sleeping, to how their home life situation is affecting them, the hierarchy of needs can help us to provide immediate advice on how to better take care of themselves and, in turn, better come to terms with conflict and resolution.


Pay careful attention to a client’s manner and any changes in behaviour: Paying close attention to someone’s behaviour and any changes that arise can help us to make an early detection of someone experiencing turbulence. With that information, we can make an informed decision about whether to raise the issue explicitly or simply tailor our approach with the potential turbulence in mind. Keeping in mind that it may be a sensitive topic for some people, our approach should navigate this with care.


Give people space to settle in: At the start of sessions, it is important to allow people space to settle in and get comfortable. We must be mindful that our client’s state of mind may not yet be conducive to the work we intend to do (maybe they’ve spent an hour in traffic, worrying that they may be late, or maybe it’s been some time since they’ve had face-to-face contact because of the pandemic). We can facilitate this by simply giving people a few moments to gather their thoughts and calm down, use breathing exercises to help them relax and prepare for the work ahead, or adopt a creative approach and take them on a ‘walk and talk’ session outdoors to help them ground their thoughts and calm their minds.


Be realistic about what is achievable: In turbulent times, it’s important to adjust our expectations and be realistic about what is achievable under the circumstances. We can do this by:

  • Breaking down work into smaller, more manageable actions, to avoid overwhelm.
  • Creating SMART goals (specific, measurable, actionable, relevant, and time-bound).
  • Focusing more on building just the ‘scaffolding’ or bare bones, if working on the whole project is too challenging.
  • Work at a slower pace and take more time in between sessions.
  • Rather than aspiring to artistry, let our clients aspire to something more modest which still creates a sense of achievement.
  • Consider whether conflict management can realistically happen concurrently with the current turbulence, or whether we need to allow time for the turbulence to settle before proceeding.


Focus on observation rather than questioning: In turbulent times, questioning someone on their thoughts and actions can add fuel to the already burning fire. To reduce pressure, we can approach the people we are working with from an observation perspective instead. Rather than asking ‘why are you quiet today?’, you might use an observation to allow your client to feel seen and heard, without feeling pressured to response unless they are ready. For example, you may observe ‘I notice you seem quite tired today’. By reducing the pressure on your client to answer, it may be possible to notice subtle changes in their behaviour or triggers that might be affecting their mood and behaviour; thus allowing you to engage more effectively with that client and ‘meet them where they’re at’ rather than forcing them to engage where and when they’re not ready.


Be aware of external or systemic factors creating turbulence: Conflict does not occur in a vacuum, and as practitioners, we know that external factors play a role. During times of conflict, it’s even more important to be continuously aware of external or systemic factors that are occurring, as these will impact upon the capacity of our clients for managing conflict.


Normalise the challenges of turbulent times: We’ve all heard the phrase, ‘It’s OK not to be OK’. This idea plays into conflict management just as it plays into mental health, and it is important to normalise the challenges we all face in turbulent times to create a safe space for clients to express themselves and avoid feeling added pressure to ‘be OK’.


Set clear boundaries and stick to them: As practitioners, it can be tempting to enter the realm of therapist when we empathise with and relate to our clients. However, for our own sake and theirs, it is important to set and maintain clear boundaries, stay within our competencies, and not take on roles that we are neither qualified nor equipped to manage – as this can do more harm than good.


Set up a good referrals network: In those situations where a client requires support that we cannot provide, having a strong referrals network is invaluable. Not only can it help clients to feel seen and supported, as well as normalising the challenges facing them, but it can also be beneficial in ensuring that as practitioners, we do not overstep our boundaries or take on too much for ourselves.


Consider whether other paths to conflict management are necessary: During turbulent times it is crucial to become comfortable asking whether conflict management is possible and advisable at the time. Is there a more urgent need for coaching around the turbulence itself? Can conflict management occur at the same time as coaching focused on turbulence? Or should we refer someone elsewhere, to manage turbulence-related matters while we concentrate on conflict? The current pandemic has raised these questions in ways that many of us have not considered before and it may be hard to determine who should make these decisions. However, these questions (and to whom the responsibility falls) are important to consider and may have an impact on our approach going forward.


What can conflict management practitioners do to support themselves in turbulent times?


As conflict management practitioners, it is in our nature to make our clients our top priority. After all, our role is to support them through some of the most challenging situations they will encounter. However, supporting ourselves is crucial to not only performing our roles effectively but also in ensuring we do not overwhelm ourselves and create greater turbulence and conflict in our own working and personal lives. This can be especially challenging in times of turbulence (whether it be our clients’ personal turbulence, large-scale turbulence such as that caused by the pandemic, or turbulence in our own lives). As the old adage goes, it is impossible to pour from an empty cup. And so, there are some things we can do to ensure we support ourselves as practitioners in times of turbulence, including:


Fit your own oxygen mask first: A cliché for a reason, this saying is especially relevant to us as conflict management practitioners. Just as you would advise your clients to make self-care a priority and ensure they are putting on their own oxygen mask first, so too must we.


Avoid taking on too much work: Turbulent times can create an additional need for your services as a conflict management practitioner. However, it is important to avoid taking on too much work, as tempting as it may be. Not only can this have a negative impact on your own life, but it can also leave you less able to effectively show up for your clients. To avoid burnout and ensure you’re able to put your best foot forward always, avoid the temptation of taking on more than you can manage. Ask yourself, ‘Am I the right person at the right time for this?’


Ensure you have good professional support: Good professional support is important even at the best of times. During turbulent times, it becomes critical. Professional support can include supervision, reflective practise groups, or other supportive environments where we can unload, debrief and recalibrate.


Good referrals networks and clear boundaries: As mentioned above, good referrals networks and clear boundaries are important for the people we work with. However, they are just as important for ourselves, as conflict management practitioners, to help us maintain professional boundaries, avoid overload and burnout, and ensure we can most effectively do our jobs.


The COVID-19 pandemic has raised many new challenges for conflict management practitioners, making the practice more complex, more nuanced, and more challenging than ever before. Faced with new and challenging circumstances brought about by the pandemic has given us a chance to reassess and evaluate our traditional conflict management practices and develop new strategies that, going forward, can better prepare us for the future. By considering how best to tackle turbulence – be it personal or large-scale in nature – we can better support the people we work with through these challenges, while ensuring we take care of ourselves.


This blog was prepared based on discussions that took place between our Conflict Leadership Program members in our February group sessions. I am grateful for their ongoing engagement and willingness to share ideas and experiences as we work towards a more peaceful future together.


Leave a Comment