2020 has been a year of unprecedented crisis. I was talking to a friend about this the other day. We were both shaking our heads at how quickly things seem to have spun out of control, starting with COVID-19 and then, most recently, widespread outrage over the string of senseless deaths of black Americans.
I spend much of my time studying the effects of psychological and emotional stress on mental health. I don’t think I can even explain how deeply passionate I feel about this work. And as I’ve watched the news over the past few months, I can’t help but remember how the stress research field got started.
See, originally, researchers in my field didn’t have a term to describe the strain they saw on physical and mental health as a result of the pressures of life. The only group of scientists that had noticed a similar phenomenon were structural engineers, who were well aware that an external force applied to a structure will cause internal stress and strain, sometimes causing the structure to buckle and fail.
This is how these terms entered our common lexicon. I can’t help but think how apt the terms are as I watch pressures mount in terms of public health concerns, polarization of political ideologies, and conflicts playing out in caustic words and violence.
As I told my friend the other day, the world seems full of lit matches right now…and many of us seem tinder dry.
I suppose that’s why, even though I originally had other content lined up for posting on my websites (this one and my executive coaching site), I felt compelled to write about how to diffuse conflict in times of crisis.
I know there are some issues we feel strongly about. And it seems that these issues have increasingly divided us. I’m not here to defend one ideology over another. My message is simply this: the day that we stop trying to reach over the divide, to listen and understand, to work together to find solutions, is the day that we will truly lose all hope.
The converse is also true. As long as we can still listen to each other and diffuse our conflicts – especially during times of crisis – hope remains.
Sometimes, God doesn’t send you into a battle to win it; he sends you to end it.
― Shannon L. Alder
The D.I.F.F.U.S.E. Model for Conflict
We’ve already discussed at length how NOT to try to talk things out during conflict. We owe a debt of gratitude to psychologists like John Gottman, whose work with couples and professionals has shown us the way.
In this post, I’m adapting another model originally used for married couples by author and pastor Chip Ingram. I love the comprehensive simplicity of this model, and the fact that the acronym – D.I.F.F.U.S.E. – is easy to remember.
And if you think that the conflict resolution principles that apply to couples are much different than that of other groups, think again. Among the first steps in conflict resolution for couples is a specialized form of listening called active listening. This is what the FBI uses to diffuse tensions and work toward a peaceful resolution in hostage situations.
Without further ado, here is Chip’s model:
D is for Defining and Documenting the Problem
A heart that understands what is right looks for knowledge.” Proverbs 15:14 NIRV
The first step is to figure out what’s going wrong.
We may be tempted to say, “Well, DUH. Of course, there’s something wrong. And by the way, it’s all his/her/their fault.”
But this step must be an introspective one as well. What’s going on inside of you or me that has led to anger and conflict? Here are some specific questions to ask:
- What’s bothering me about what’s going on?
- When did this start?
- What exactly am I feeling?
- What thoughts or beliefs might be stoking my anger? Am I sure that all of these are realistic? Please note: Some anger is justified when it’s based on real harms or trampled rights. The goal here is not to talk yourself out of being angry, but to make sure that 100% of your anger is based on real, as opposed to perceived, threat.
- What do I want in this situation?
- How can I get what I want while protecting this relationship?
I is for Initiating a Time to Talk
Suppose you are offering your gift at the altar. And you remember that your brother or sister has something against you. Leave your gift in front of the altar. First go and make peace with them. Then come back and offer your gift.” Matthew 5:23-24 NIRV
Initiate a time to talk about the conflict. Make sure it works for all parties involved, not just yourself.
You may not feel like doing it. You may be fighting the urge to duck and cover. That’s a natural response to conflict. Still, someone has to take the first step. Consider it a gesture of good will.
F is for feeling their pain as if it were your own.
Gracious words are a honeycomb, sweet to the soul and healing to the bones." Proverbs 16:24
In Chip Ingram’s model, this is actually the second “F.” I’ve switched the order because I firmly believe that most conflicts are instantly diminished (although maybe not completely diffused) if we know the other side understands and feels our pain. What do you think? Am I right or wrong?
I’d like to share a couple tricks my husband, Oleg, and I use in conflict. Don’t get me wrong – we are definitely not some perfect couple that has it all figured out. If I’m being honest, I’d have to admit that we’ve had a few fights so awful that I feared our marriage wouldn’t survive.
But we have survived, mainly because we’ve learned some crucial tips and tricks along the way.
The first is something Oleg has learned to do for me during a conflict. When I share a thought or feeling with him, his natural urge – being an analytical type – is to dissect the thought itself, weighing its reason and validity in all circumstances. And so, he used to immediately respond with, “That doesn’t make any sense. What about…” And he would proceed to tear my thought apart.
He didn’t understand that I first needed him to hear my heart, then my head. I needed him to acknowledge that sometimes my concerns are valid, even if they don’t apply in all contingencies or in all situations he can think of.
I hope the following analogy won’t be offensive to some. It’s the most recent example I can think of.
Some believe that the “Black Lives Matter” movement is irrelevant. As far as I can tell, their reasoning is, “That statement doesn’t make any sense. Picking only one color of people and saying their lives matter is wrong because ALL lives matter.”
Please stay with me here. Technically, but only technically, those critics are right. If we’re just using pure logic, then of course, all lives matter. What BLM opponents seem to be missing, however, is that this movement is not simply an appeal to society’s reason, but also to its heart.
Admittedly, I speak as an outsider. But the subtext I think I’m reading is, “We have been made to feel worthless for so long that we want to know that our concerns, our wounds, our struggles, our lives matter to you. But maybe we don’t matter to you. And if that’s the case, we will still insist that we matter to God and to this planet. If you will not say it, if your actions do not show it and sometimes prove the opposite, we will shout it ourselves before God and whoever will listen.”
What would we lose by simply acknowledging the pain of another? And what might we gain if instead we wade into their pain with them, trying to see and smell and hear and taste and touch it as if it were our own experience?
Now, here’s what I’ve learned to do for Oleg. Rather than have him state his case of grievances to me, I beat him to the punch. I state his case for him, and then he does the same for me. This goes something like, “Please correct me if I’m wrong, Honey, but here’s what I think I said or did that upset you. And here’s how I think you feel. And I understand your feelings, because I would probably feel the same way.”
But the wisdom from above is first of all pure. It is also peace loving, gentle at all times, and willing to yield to others. It is full of mercy and the fruit of good deeds. It shows no favoritism and is always sincere." James 3:17 NLT
Only after we have tried to feel each other’s pain do we try to move on to excuses or explanations. Only after the injury has been acknowledged can it start to heal.
F is for Focusing on the Problem Rather Than the Person
Two are better than one,
because they have a good return for their labor:
If either of them falls down,
one can help the other up.
But pity anyone who falls
and has no one to help them up.
Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm.
But how can one keep warm alone?
Though one may be overpowered,
two can defend themselves.
A cord of three strands is not quickly broken." Ecclesiastes 4:9-12
As much as possible, keep “you” messages and accusations out of it. Use “I” messages that describe how you feel about the problem and what you would like to see change.
Couples are often counseled to view a problem as an entity outside of either person. This perspective allows them to view each other as allies in fixing the problem rather than antagonistic enemies.
You may ask, “What if the other person starts making things personal? What if they start in with their name-calling, insults, and nasty remarks?”
Remember that the other person may be feeling hurt and angry, and they may even have legitimate cause to feel so. The higher the tension, the more both sides will be tempted to slip into personal insult and acrimony.
The aim of argument, or of discussion, should not be victory, but progress. Joseph Joubert
Let me suggest three ways of getting the conversation back on track. (I need to give credit where credit is due: these are adapted from Andrew Neitlich, founder of the Center for Executive Coaching).
- Appeal to their reason. Say something like, “I can certainly understand your anger toward me right now. I think it might be more helpful for us to focus on the problem rather than each other. I think this would be a productive use of our time and might make us feel like allies working toward the same goal. What do you think?”
- Appeal to their heart. Say something like, “It’s clear that you feel very angry and hurt, and I am very sorry for that. My goal in this conversation is to help mend that hurt and work together toward a solution to prevent further injury. I feel that the best way to do that is by focusing on the problem. How do you feel about doing that?”
- Appeal to their gut. By this, I mean a simple negotiation where you ask what they want from the conversation and commit to deliver what you reasonably can. In return, you ask that the conversation stay on civil and impersonal terms. If they slip into personal attacks again, politely remind them of this agreement. This is not my favorite of the three methods, but it can be helpful in situations where ideologies are so different that there is little hope of compromise or meeting the middle.
U is for Uncovering the root problem
If you listen to constructive criticism, you will be at home among the wise. If you reject discipline, you only harm yourself; but if you listen to correction, you grow in understanding." Proverbs 15:31-32 NLT
Why do you fight and argue among yourselves? Isn’t it because of your sinful desires? They fight within you. You want something, but you don’t have it. So you kill. You want what others have, but you can’t get what you want. So you argue and fight." James 4:1-2 NIRV
For every surface issue, there are usually root problems that need to be explored. For example, struggles over money or resources can actually represent differences in values, priorities, and/or power/control in the relationship.
Ask the other party their ideas on what the root problem might be. Don’t guess. Ask.
S is for Setting things right.
Own your share of the responsibility. Apologize and ask for forgiveness.
Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you." Ephesians 4:31-32
E is for Establishing a specific action plan to address the problem.
Make amends. Come up with an action plan for change. Write it down and share it with the other person. Ask them to hold you accountable.
Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due, when it is in your power to act." Proverbs 3:27
Bravery is the choice to show up and listen to another person, be it a loved one or perceived foe, even when it is uncomfortable, painful, or the last thing you want to do.
― Alaric Hutchinson
Recap of the D.I.F.F.U.S.E Method of Handling Conflict During Crisis:
Please visit Chip Ingram's excellent website, Living on the Edge, for more resources.
The D.I.F.F.U.S.E Model of Handling Conflict (adapted from Chip Ingram)
D - Define and Document the Problem.
Separate the problem from the person involved. Focus on behavior rather than personality or character. Ask, "What's bothering me right now? How am I feeling? What do I want and how can I get it in a healthy, constructive way?"
I - Initiate a Time to Talk.
Take the first step as an act of goodwill. Make sure the time you choose is convenient for all parties.
F - Feel the Other's Pain.
Try to understand how the other perosn is feeling and why.
F - Focus on the Problem, Not the Person.
Use "I" messages to explain how you are feeling. Avoid "you" messages that accuse or insult the other person. Think of the other person as an ally to help you solve the problem.
U - Uncover the root problem.
What might the root cause or causes of the surface problem?
S - Set things right.
Apologize and make things right. Own your share of responsibility.
E - Establish an Action Plan.
Write down a specific plan for making amends and improving things in the future. Commit to doing what you say you will do.
Dr. Pamela Coburn-Litvak has published research articles on exercise and stress in Neuroscience and Neurobiology of Learning and Behavior. Her latest book, Leaving the Shadowland of Stress, Anxiety, and Depression, was published in 2020.
After receiving a Ph.D. in Neurobiology and Behavior from the State University of New York at Stony Brook, she served as both Assistant Professor of Physiology & Pharmacology and Special Assistant to the Vice President for Research Affairs at Loma Linda University in Loma Linda, California. She then joined the Biology department at Andrews University and developed courses in human physiology as well as the neurobiology of mental illness. She also founded Rock @ Science LLC, a company that specializes in health and science education and web development. She co-developed the brain and body physiology segment of the Stress: Beyond Coping seminar with its creator, Dr. William “Skip” MacCarty, DMin.
Dr. Coburn-Litvak currently lives in California with her husband. Their two daughters are mostly grown and attending school elsewhere.
When she’s not studying or teaching about stress, she enjoys stress-relieving activities like puttering around the garden, taking nature walks with her family, knitting, cooking, and reading.