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Posted on March 2, 2020
Updated on October 8, 2020

Dealing with Conflict 

Whilst conflict does not necessarily mean being angry, the way we think about anger will have an effect on the way we experience conflict situations. If anger is viewed as something to be avoided, is negative, means you don’t care, needs to be met with anger, etc.,k then this will influence how we view conflict and whether or not we avoid it, become aggressive, or are assertive.

There are many schools of thought about the causes of anger, aggression and violence. Some say it is instinctive and others say it is learned. 

Whichever theory is favoured these feelings and actions need to be dealt with by us all at different times. How we respond today will depend on how we were encouraged to respond in childhood in our family of origin, our neighbourhood and in our culture.  For example, shyness and tenderness are often approved of in women, anger is not. Yet in many situations, anger or indignation is the most authentic response.

Whether male or female, if you have been taught to repress anger, then internalisation will occur. Internalised anger brings on depression and self-deprecation. 

Anger involves the mind, body and the behavioural habits that people have acquired due their life experiences. In order to resolve anger, people need to change not only their thinking, but also their pulse rates. Emotional release is insufficient as it is only half the problem. To shout at someone may be helpful, but it rarely is if it does nothing about the person who you feel has wronged you. Undertaking relaxation deep breathing is unlikely to be of assistance on its own if the person who is bothering you still has to be faced.

Successful anger management deals with thoughts - the attitudes, perceptions and interpretations that generate anger; the body - teaching relaxation and cooling-off techniques to help the person calm down; and behaviour - teaching new habits and skills.

Often anger is the cover for other feelings which people find it difficult to express:

I’m hurt. I'm worried. I don’t know how to talk to her about my feelings. No one will ever love me again if s/he leaves me. I don’t know how to get my way. No one listens to me. I can’t forgive.

In the here and now, conflict and anger can be creative and situations where conflict occurs need to be dealt with. However, anger is not a concrete phenomenon and therefore to express it as such creates the myth that everyone and anyone would become angry at the same thing, or the same situation. This is not the case. We need to work out what triggers our own angry feelings and whether we want to change this, or whether we are happy with the way we express or repress these feelings.

In effective anger management, both the individual and the relationship with others benefit. The spontaneous outpouring of angry feelings may help an individual in the short-term but may not resolve the problem. To think twice about anger is to enhance the long-term benefit of the relationship and is more likely to problem-solve.

If you are patient in one moment of anger, you will escape a hundred days of sorrow.  

(Fortune Cookie) 

Culture plays a part in how conflict is managed. For example, the white British culture is often portrayed as having a “stiff upper lip” mentality, holding on to their angry feelings.  Other cultures, such as the Greek culture tend to be more expressive of their feelings.

Group conflict may occur when individuals experience a threat to safe predictable situations.  Conflict also occurs when groups need to problem solve but the technical solutions are given precedence over process.  Where the solution is technically good, but the group are not committed this could lead to a poor outcome.  All group members need an eye to the process and need to stay in touch with how they feel about agreements and decisions. 

Conflict is often between groups, and departments may have come about because their goals are incompatible.  For example, stock control may not want so much capital lying around in stock, whilst maintenance may need surplus stock to ensure sufficient spares for machinery. Another goal which both can share may be necessary.  

Competition between groups and departments may be healthy or unhealthy.  This will depend upon the situation and the levels of competition.  It will also depend upon the levels of dependency they have with each other.

Problem-solving will depend upon what each party has to gain from the process.  There are many different types of problem-solving and these will depend upon the levels of trust each party has of the other:

  • Domination and coercion
  • Avoidance and withdrawal
  • Adaptation and over-adaptation
  • Competition - allowing the other to win, or the one with the most power wins
  • Co-operation and assertion - true negotiation
  • Mediation - a third party is called upon to aid the resolution
  • Arbitration - parties agree to accept the decision of the arbitrator
  • Adjudication - the adjudicator has the authority to impose the decision 


Conflict is: (material from George Kohlreiser)

The difference between two or more people, characterised by:

  • tension
  • emotionality
  • disagreement
  • polarisation
  • bonding being broken or lacking

Manifestations of Broken Bonding:

  • absenteeism
  • psychosomatic problems
  • sabotage
  • lack of loyalty
  • low motivation
  • human error
  • burn out
  • low productivity
  • lack of commitment
  • aggression and violence

Changes in attitude about anger involves learning that anger:

  • can be positive
  • needs to be heard
  • is about contact
  • can show you care
  • needs to be dealt with as the situation happens (after checking our internal process -  What are our assumptions?  What questions do we need to ask of the person?)
  • should lead to positive negotiation and options to complete and end the difficulty
  • does not need to be met with anger

Dealing with anger

  1. Do not mistake exuberance and high spirits for anger or violence
  2. Share feelings if appropriate and take control of the situation calmly
  3. Humour can sometimes diffuse situations
  4. Do not necessarily act according to the patterns of behaviour others may have come to expect.
  5. After an incident debriefing can be beneficial
  6. Make recordings of the event
  7. Be prepared to listen to the other person.  (Seek first to understand before being understood)
  8. Be aware that angry feelings may cover some other feeling.
  9. Be willing to take control and set boundaries when necessary.
  10. Stay in Integrating Adult ego state.
  11. Build a relationship.  Go for bonding.
  12. When appropriate ask the person what they really want.

Conflict Checklist:

  1. What are you feeling about the situation? 
  2. Is there another feeling under this feeling?
  3. Is it worth fighting about?
  4. Have you identified the real issue, or is this one covering something else?
  5. What do you want?
  6. What compromises are you prepared to make?



  • Develop a goal or goals which all parties find acceptable.   Share perceptions of each group and then each group withdraws to explore the discrepancies between their perceptions and look at how these may have come about.  This is high risk and needs careful facilitation.
  • Explore roles and relationships and the reciprocal demands and expectations on each and the possible conflict areas.  Then move to a resolution of these conflict areas once they have been fully explored.
  • Leaders meet and develop liaison and challenge their own perceptions.  Group members can also be exchanged so that stereotyping is broken down and greater understanding develops.

Stages of Negotiation:

  1. Create Bonding
  2. Separate Person from Problem
  3. Identify Needs and Wants of Self
  4. Identify Needs and Wants of Other
  5. Dialogue
  6. Create a goal
  7. Options and Proposals
  8. Mutual Gain
  9. Contract
  10. Relationship Continues or Ends on a Positive Note

Effective Communication

If we anticipate that someone will threaten us, or they have actually threatened us, then our behaviour will become defensive. In the workplace, any defensive behaviour takes up energy and detracts from the task in hand. Inevitably production will be hampered if we are giving mental time to how we might win, dominate, impress, avoid someone finding out something, or if we give substantial time to how we might avoid being attacked.

Energy taken up with winning, impressing etc. will affect the giving and receiving of messages, and instructions may go haywire. If our paranoid fantasies, or the actual difficult relationship is not dealt with, we are likely to become more and more defensive, this in turn, is likely to lead to increased difficulties in communication.

We need to create supportive climates to work in rather than defensive ones. When it looks like people are evaluating or judging us we are likely to go on our guard.  Gibb J.R. (2001), outlines the characteristics of defensive and supportive climates:

Defensive and Supportive Climates 2

We know that the same thing can be said in different ways. The content of what we say will be altered by the tone and inflection of our voice, the speed we say it and the audibility of it. In TA terms, the ego, mode and the life position will affect how we say something.  The country and the region we come from will also affect these aspects.

Language negotiates behaviour and therefore relationships.  This is one way in which we give ourselves and/or others status.  Research suggests (Research on Language and Social Interaction, Vol. 24 1990/91) that women are more likely to be cautious about how they give criticism when they are managing someone than if they say something to their manager. Tannen D. (2001, The Organizational Behaviour Reader) suggests that this is to do with the way females are socialised.

In TA we are taught that it is important to give and receive strokes (recognition). There are cultural expectations in giving and receiving strokes. When there is a mismatch in expectations we can be offended. For example, if it is natural and usual for us to give recognition to a colleague for doing a presentation then we are likely to be surprised and perhaps offended, if they don’t respond with a similar recognition when we do a presentation. Worse still, if we don’t receive a response and then ask our colleague what they thought of our presentation we might be even more offended if they tell us chapter and verse what they actually thought of it when we only expected or wanted “You were great”.

Tannen’s view is that when we are boys and girls we are socialised into learning what is important in relationships. For Tannen it is that boys are encouraged to think of status - who has the bigger toy; bike; best trainers etc, whilst girls are more focused on using language to negotiate how close they are.  

Your best friend is likely to be the one you tell all your secrets to. Girls tend to ostracise someone who acts superior. Boys tend to be in larger groups where members are not treated as equal. Leaders are expected to tell others what to do. Boys use language to negotiate status by displaying their abilities and challenging and resisting challenges.

Childhood playgroups are where we learn and rehearse our conversational style. This will affect how we are later as adults. For example, those who are second in command are more likely to be indirect in their comments and observations than those who are in command. This is particularly important when training such people as co-pilots as observations not made assertively can be minimised and therefore be the cause of disasters. 

The skill required for managers, consultants, etc. is to become aware of the linguistic differences for men and women as well as for different cultures. In this way, those who have something to say will be heard, even if they say it in a way that does not fit with the cultural norm of the workplace.

Responses to Difference

Managing a diverse workforce is a difficult task because of the differences we believe exist. These beliefs develop into stereotyping behaviours that are more pervasive than prejudice because they set standards by which people are judged. These different frames of reference were termed “assumptive worlds” by Frank (1974). In an attempt to create order and to make sense of the world we make assumptions.  White Westerners create assumptions about other races and cultures, men create assumptions about women and so on.

Beliefs and values affect our judgements and these become embedded in our institutions. For example, research by the Howard League for Penal Reform found that there was a rise in the number of young women aged 15-16 being given custodial sentences. Between 1992 and 1998 the number rose by 382% despite the rate of offending by the same group of young women falling by 25%. When interviewed a Clinical Psychologist expressed the view that this was because judges and magistrates thought that the behaviour was “unladylike”.

When observations are made about other groups the similarities between that group are exaggerated and the differences ignored. (“They are all the same anyway”). Furthermore we exaggerate the differences between different groups and minimise the similarities.

In structural ego state terms assumptions and prejudices involve Parent and Child contaminations of the Adult, and are experienced as Adult ego syntonic. These different observations, beliefs and values are handed down through the culture and as previously mentioned embedded in our institutions, which create the cultural script.

We need to find the space where we can meet each other.

Scott Peck (1987) talks about getting to the stage of community through dropping our prejudices and assumptions and seeing who is really in front of us.  Only then can we be conflict resolving rather than conflict avoiding as we are at the pseudo-community stage.  His stages are: Pseudo-community, Chaos, Emptiness, Community. 

Whilst Berne E. (1972), noted that “in order to say Hello you first get rid of all the trash which has accumulated in your head ever since you came home from the maternity ward, and then you recognize that this particular Hello will never happen again”.


The Oxford Dictionary defines a bully as:

“A person using strength or power to coerce others by fear.”

The Collins Concise English Dictionary defines bully as:

“A person who hurts, persecutes, or intimidates weaker people.”

There are many different types of bullying, therefore definitions of bullying at work need to be broad in order to allow interpretation. These notes will focus on bullying as a phenomenon within organisations rather than the psychopathology of bullying behaviour. However, in order to understand the process of bullying behaviour, it is appropriate to develop some understanding of those who bully.

In his TA Psychotherapy Masters thesis (unpublished) Sean Manning (Sydney 2001) talks about the "antisocial process", rather than the usual "antisocial personality". Manning’s experience suggests that an enduring pattern of antisocial behaviour can arise in a wide variety of personality styles. Therefore, the idea of an anti-social process may be more appropriate than the usual diagnostic category often used within psychotherapy.

Understanding Bullying Behaviour

As children, we need to be attuned to, and our feelings reflected and translated into conscious form, by the parent or caregiver.  When this fails and the response to the child is stereotyped, inconsistent, non-existent or even punitive, the child can become confused. 

Feelings that are not translated into conscious thought, and therefore have no name, can be experienced as bad. Where the child is rejected or experiences hostile threats and violence they have few choices about how they survive the experience. 

With limited life experience on which to make sense of the world, it is likely that they decide either to become a victim or a bully.  

Of course, they may switch between these two – at home the victim, and outside the home the bully. At least with the latter, they experience more power.  

As time goes on these children are likely to find others who are like them and therefore achieve a sense of belonging.  This will meet their need for relating to others and the bullying behaviour will be reinforced.
There are different stages to the development of bullying behaviour.  Sean Manning (Sydney 2001) uses graphics to show this process and uses different stages: The following drawings are my attempt at Manning’s work:

Stage 1:

The young person is a victim of the bully and experiences helplessness.

Stage 2:

The young person decides to fight back and resist the bullying.

Stage 3:

The young person finds others to fight the grown-ups with and experiences all adults as bullying and authoritarian. Finding others to fight with them creates excitement, which can seem to replace the fear so that they experience less pain. They also develop a sense of belonging with the group of peers they have found.  

Alternatively, they may decide to lead the group and keep others subservient in the way they experienced others bullying them.

Stage 4:

As they grow up they choose to move to the bullying position as a defence against the Victim position. (Of course, there are some people who do not move into the bullying position and stay as Victim on the Drama Triangle).

Who’s In Charge?

When working with people, we do not always know which ego state in structural terms, is in charge.  

It could the introjected Parent, or the Child ego state, being how they were as a child.  


There is likely to be fear underneath this aggressive action. Those who bully may well move into depression once they stop their bullying behaviour, something that they will also have been covering up. 

Different Faces of the Person Who Bullies

Thoughts/Beliefs - “I can’t have fun until……..”  - Be Perfect, Be Strong

Feelings:  triumph, righteousness, fear, envy.  Pushing own beliefs and crusades

Payoff:  Fires others as they believe they are untrainable or gets fired. Feels depressed, cornered, worthless and unloved.


Ø  overly suspicious

Ø  my opinion is the only right one

Ø  no promotion of able people

Ø  takes credit for other peoples good ideas

Ø  blames others when challenged or things go wrong

Ø  alters objectives to cause difficulty

Ø  when at their best they can be “charming manipulators”

Ø  they want and expect perfection of themselves and others

Ø  they do not like showing their vulnerability 

It is important to recognise that some people who manifest bullying behaviours may be doing so for the first time. This may be due to stress and pressure and may be the best they can do at the time. Remove the stress and the bullying behaviour may also cease. If this is the situation then once the pressure is removed they may then be in a position to learn the skills to deal with the situations they are in – with all levels of the hierarchy. It is here that coaching and mentoring has a role to play as well as de-pathologising the behaviour.


There are dangers in labelling someone a bully or a victim as this can, in itself, promote and maintain a system. By separating the behaviour from the personality we are more likely to find ways forward.  Having said that, there are different views about labelling someone a bully. Adams (1992) believed that labels are a helpful first step whereas others believe they cause further damage.

Labelling links with the TA concept of attributions. Another way of thinking about this is that when we have a negative experience we tend to attribute the cause to other people, whilst when we have a positive experience we tend to attribute the cause to ourselves. With bullying both parties blame the other and also blame external reasons. This is where mediation can be helpful.

Where the bullying behaviour has continued for some time the victim’s confidence and self-esteem are worn down and therefore it is much harder for them the take action. For many leaving the organisation is the only, and often the best, alternative. Taking the organisation to court is so costly in terms of time and emotion that few take this option.

Research (Hoel & Cooper 2000, quoted in Raynor, Hoel & Cooper 2002) suggests that when a victim of bullying behaviour deals with this quickly and confronts the bully, then a resolution is more likely. This links with stamp collecting in TA.

Power and Authority

Given the link with power, it is also appropriate to look at the definition of authority:

  1. The power or right to control, judge, or prohibit the actions of others or
  2. The ability to influence or control others.

Steiner (1987) considers power as “the capacity to produce change which flows from seven different sources: grounding, passion, control, love, communication, knowledge and transcendence”. If we are out of touch with these aspects then it is likely that we will become manipulative and develop scripts which entail us being either authoritarian or powerless. If we are out of touch with our own internal sense of power we are more likely to attempt to go for power over others as a vain attempt to get in touch with some sort of power.

The development of these scripts begins in childhood with one-up or one-down transactions from carers or significant others. The frame of reference within these scripts is that power equals control and that someone has to win. 

Where parents exercise authority and do it from physical strength then the child can become resentful and in this resentful state there is a sense of power albeit from a not-OK position. Where parents or carers feel threatened by children who are openly rebellious the child learns to become covert in their actions.

Clavier, Timm and Wilkens, (1978) note that when individuals find themselves in inequitable exchange with others they will attempt to reduce this feeling of inequity.

Five classes or responses are suggested by equity theory:

  1. simply endure the distress
  2. demand compensation or restitution
  3. retaliate against the perceived cause of the inequity
  4. psychologically justify or rationalise the inequity
  5. withdraw from the inequitable relationship

It can be seen that some of the above relate to life positions, to games and therefore to discounting.

Individual Responses to Those Who Bully

  • disarm anger
  • keep solution focused
  • change body position if appropriate – e.g. step back not forward, sit down until they have wound down, stand up if feeling too threatened.  Relax shoulders, chin in
  • shout/say their name
  • suggest they talk later
  • check back what they are saying i.e. hear them out, look for the grain of truth

In summary, stay with Accounting Adult mode executive then choose the appropriate intervention and action to take.  If the behaviour continues, get support.

Bullying and the Corporate Culture 

When someone is seen to “get away with” bullying behaviour beliefs develop and affect the culture of the organisation.  Johnson & Scholes’ (1997)  Culture Web outlines how the culture develops:

Stories:  These are one way in which control occurs. Past situations get passed on to others, they are often exaggerated over time and then these influence newer employees. They then adapt to what they believe is expected or allowed in the organisation.

As a way of dealing with someone who is bullying, a firm might pay-off someone instead of sacking them. This might seem the least costly option; however, employees lose trust and then shun any training workshops on bullying or stop reporting bullying at all. These stories get passed on to other employees.  This then entails greater costs than any court case might have brought.

Another way in which stories affect the culture is through what one hears whilst waiting in reception. What is repeated in the organisation gossip – the achievements or the horror?

Routines and RitualsSome organisations create rituals about who does what, or how something is done. An editor of one newspaper used to ridicule journalists who had not pleased him by putting their desk in the centre of the room. The other journalists would then not talk to this colleague for a week and just hope they did not get to be the person in the “hot seat” the next week. This was an accepted bullying ritual.

Control systems: One way of dealing with bullying is to ignore it. Good monitoring and control systems within an organisation can help pick up problems. For example, in one organisation two people of long-standing left within a four-month period.  This was picked up and enquiries made. A new manager was found to be bullying, he was sacked and the other people invited back.

On the other hand, too heavy-handed control systems can support bullying - for example, in highly competitive sales teams. Sometimes those who do less well in terms of sales, experience pressure and humiliation.

StructureThe organisational structure needs to enable the low-level or informal raising of issues, such as bullying. Where the lines of communication only enable formal complaints to be made at a high-level, employees are likely to avoid dealing with issues.

Power:  The structure assigns responsibility and distortions can occur in how this responsibility is carried out. For example, a Sales manager might bully his staff and have high staff turnover. However, the senior managers might look at the figures and be really pleased that they are achieving their targets.

Sometimes staff can invent power dynamics that are not there. For example, they may believe that because people are related or are friends that they cannot complain about their bullying behaviour. They then do nothing about it, nor do they check out their assumptions about the feasibility of complaining and the outcome.

Symbols:  Whether doors are open, departments are geographically isolated from the main organisation, “witty” messages above a desk and so on, can all be off-putting. What if the person you experiencing as bullying you has a sign above their desk saying “Don’t come with the problem, come with the solution”.

The Paradigm: The central area of the cultural web is called the “paradigm”. 

The Web model works by the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. The ways employees behave and are condoned become part of the culture. Therefore, interventions need to be wide-ranging across the culture web.

Bullying is usually a symptom of deeper organisational problems. Deal with these and reverberations are likely to be felt throughout the system including the level of bullying behaviour.

There are different norms within different organisations. Some organisations develop a “tough” culture, which runs the danger of being a bullying culture under another name. This discounts the level of damage being done. Organisations need to remember that they have a legal “duty of care”, let alone a moral imperative to honour and respect their employees.

A keyword when dealing with bullying behaviour is “responsibility”. We need to ensure we don’t bully others and that we maintain respectful boundaries. Those who bully fail to check out the impact of their behaviour. The difficulty of doing this in a “tough” culture is that admissions of guilt can develop negative perceptions, such as we are weak for feeling bad about our behaviour.

It is also important not to blame the victims, as they did not start the process. Bullying hooks the Child ego state and therefore it is difficult to stand up for oneself. This is where witnesses to bullying behaviour can be helpful, even though they cannot Rescue the victim. Life is therefore much easier when Senior Managers and Directors are prepared to take affirmative action to prevent bullying and harassment. 

The Royal Mail had a bullying culture. They then brought in a woman to combat the problem. Previously they apparently focused on the symptoms of bullying rather than deal with the causes. Unrealistic workloads, coupled with a command-and-control management structure sustained an environment where bullying was tolerated.

Now they are training all 10,000 managers to use their new harassment procedure and how to spot problems at an early stage. Managers are seen as leaders in diversity and are empowered to deal with people issues. They are also expected to display the right behaviours. They have also appointed 10 diversity champions whose job it is to drive diversity and strategy. They also undertake regular employee surveys about this issue.

In TA literature, Alan Jacobs (1987) described a process in autocratic systems (see below). Among the population at large (the 'followers') "Not OK" elements of the self are eliminated by a process Jacobs calls 'extrusion' and projected onto a marginalised group. The grandiose leadership projects "Not OK" elements of the internalised other onto the same group. At the same time, "OK" elements in the followers' image of the other, and in the leadership's self, are projected onto the new order, the state, a 'symbiotic' creation.



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