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How to Manage COVID and Conflict in Our Homes and Workplaces

by Peter T. Coleman and Anthea Chan |May 26, 2020

Today, the state of the planet is anxious. Across the globe, we Sapiens are facing an unknown pathogen – a novel coronavirus – that is threatening us and our loved ones, and derailing our most basic economic, social and cultural structures and expectations beyond imagination. During this onslaught, we are all either a) forced or encouraged to stay home in what feels like increasingly close quarters, b) forced to go out into this new unpredictable atmosphere in masks and gloves to perform the essential functions of our societies, or c) homeless – the worst of all. Even the best of these conditions quickly adds up to one simple experience: anxiety!

Anxiety, of course, is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it is a normal and healthy physical-emotional reaction to stressful or otherwise worrisome events. In fact, moderate amounts of anxiety have been shown to improve performance on some tasks by elevating arousal sufficiently to focus attention – a finding established empirically in 1908 in the Yerkes-Dodson law. But prolonged states of anxiety of the likes we are experiencing today, particularly when coupled with an underlying anxiety disorder, can have quite serious consequences. Chief among them are the deleterious effects they can have on our close relationships – specifically with those we are shut-in with and are therefore so in need of our social support.

The scenario goes like this. Experiencing higher levels of tension and anxiety makes us more inclined to experience or instigate conflict. Being engaged in conflict, in turn, tends to make most of us feel even more anxious. At this point, our research has shown that many of us will respond to our conflicts in more extreme and negatively consequential ways. This, of course, stresses our closer relationships – those things we are so much more dependent on today for our sanity. Bad conflictual encounters also lower our self-esteem and increase our blood-pressure, thereby making us even more anxious. And then off we go into a vicious cycle of escalating anxiety, conflict and regret.

And that’s not all. In the 1970s, an esteemed social psychologist, conflict specialist and psychoanalytically trained therapist, Morton Deutsch, began to notice a curious set of dynamics in his practice with romantic partners. First, he noticed that most of the individuals in the couples he observed responded to the anxiety triggered by their conflicts in one or more of the following directions:

  • Chronically avoiding conflict or obsessively seeking out conflict
  • Becoming hard and unyielding or becoming mushy and unassertive
  • Overintellectualizing and rationalizing or becoming overwhelmingly saturated in emotion
  • Standing rigid and controlling or falling into a state of loose disorganization
  • Skyrocketing into escalation or shrinking into minimization of problems
  • Compulsively revealing everything or stonewalling and concealing everything

Of course, moderate tendencies along these dimensions were quite normal and often adaptive. At times, we can all lose it or shut down. However, the more anxious the disputant, the more chronic and extreme their responses, and the more problematic it is for their relationships.

But Deutsch also noted a second dynamic within couples that at times proved to be troublesome. He observed that many couples evidenced the tendency to move off in the opposite direction of their partner on these dimensions – perhaps an artifact of the truism that opposites attract. So, if my significant other becomes highly emotional, escalatory and revealing in a conflict, I will tend to move into my head (intellectualize), minimize and hold my tongue. Whereas if I tend to become more rigid and controlling when quarreling, my partner will tend to become more loose, spontaneous and laissez-faire.

Similar to the individual conflict-anxiety responses, moderately opposing reactions like these in couples are often functional – with contrasting responses introducing checks-and-balances and complementarities into the couples’ conflict dynamics, which could keep them from getting out of hand. However, when either member of the duo goes too far out on any dimension, they will tend to trigger more severe responses from the other – which often results in them feeling like they are speaking two entirely different conflict languages, making it harder to address the problem.

Over the past few years, we have been studying the consequences of tendencies to show more extreme responses to conflict anxiety for our mental health and wellbeing. What we have found in our studies is that the more extremely people tend to react on these dimensions, the more they a) feel negatively about themselves and their relationships, b) experience lower levels of wellbeing in their lives, and c) feel more anxious! Which, of course, just increases the odds of more of the same.

However, research has also found that just becoming aware of how you tend to respond in conflict can help. This is a robust finding in research on cognitive-behavioral therapy – that identifying and understanding our response tendencies increases the odds that we can keep them in check.

So, to help with this, our center at Columbia University – The Morton Deutsch International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution – has developed a new survey we call CARS (the Conflict Anxiety Response Scale), to assist in increasing awareness and reducing more troublesome conflict in these stressful times. Recently, we launched a free online version of the CARS for the public through this website. It takes about 15 minutes to complete, and afterward you can print out an individualized feedback profile, which presents your scores on the six “derailer” dimensions outlined above, in comparison to the average responses of others who have taken the survey. This data can offer you some new insight into your general conflict response tendencies. (We will not publish this data, although we may analyze and explore it for insights anonymously in the aggregate.)

Furthermore, we recommend that you consider sharing the link with people that you happen to be cohabitating with during these times of particularly high-anxiety – your romantic partners, family members or other roommates – although we suggest NOT sharing the link in the midst of a tense conflict. Wait until you both calm down enough to be able to learn from the feedback. Doing so can help you start a conversation about the findings, and the possible implications for you both, your relationships and the climate of your home/workplace today.

Peter T. Coleman is a professor of psychology and education and director of the Morton Deutsch International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution (MD-ICCCR)at Columbia University. His next book, titled The Way Out: How to Overcome Toxic Polarization, will be released in 2021. 

Anthea Chan is a research associate at the MD-ICCCR at Columbia University. She has a background in clinical psychology, measurement and statistics.

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