Monday, May 10, 2010


In my most recent post, I referred to the upcoming election of directors at Morningside gardens, the housing coop where I live, and to the existence of two parties, or factions, which I have somewhat facetiously dubbed the Big-endians and the Little-endians. Joking aside, there is genuine conflict here at Morningside, and it has reached an alarming point.

In January I did a post in which I mentioned reading an article by Canon C. K. Robertson in the December 2009 issue of Anglican and Episcopal History. I wrote:
Canon Robertson refers to the concept of "a spiral of unmanaged conflict" discussed by Susan Carpenter and William Kennedy in their 1988 book Managing Public Disputes. "Their premise," he writes, "is that any given divisive issue left unresolved will reappear again and again in slightly different guises, so that the passage of time, far from bringing healing, instead creates an ever-increasing intensity of opposition." I had never heard of the spiral of unmanaged conflict and was particularly struck by the idea, not for its applicability to the conflict in the Anglican Communion over sexuality but for its applicability to conflicts in the housing cooperative where I live and am a board member.
That was an incomplete post and I had intended to return to it earlier but here we are. In a footnote to that article, Canon Robertson refers to another of his articles -- this one appeared in the Fall 2007 issue of The Anglican Theological Review and is entitled "Courtroom Drama; A Pauline Alternative for Conflict Management." In that article, Canon Robertson lays out more fully his presentation of Carpenter and Kennedy's "model of the spiral of unmanaged conflict":
[T]heir underlying premise is that people in relationship with one another --- whether they are couples, groups, organizations, communities, or nations --- experience a relatively small number of issues that cause conflict, albeit in thousands of subtly distinct guises. Common themes manifest themselves at different points in the relationship in different ways and behind different masks. Thus, conflicting issue X, if left unresolved, will appear at a later point in the relationship but in a slightly different form, what we can call X2. If the parties involved again leave the issue unresolved and unmanaged, then later it will reappear in in still another appearance as X3, and so on. What is intriguing --- and disquieting --- is that with each new manifestation of the unresolved issue X over time, the intensity of anxiety, frustration, anger, and hostility that the parties bring to it increases dramatically. Carpenter and Kennedy elucidate this process in several steps:
X1 -- Presenting issue / problem arises
X2 -- Sides form along the lines of the issue (I am for issue X; you are against issue X)
X3 -- Positions harden (I see myself as pro-X; I see you as anti-X)
X4 -- Communication between parties breaks down; any meaningful dialogue between us ceases
X5 -- Resources are committed to the cause (I invest time, energy, even money in X)
X6 -- Conflict spills outside the parties (I talk to others about you, instead of to you)
X7 -- Perceptions of reality become distorted (I see you only as the Enemy, not as a person with whom I happen to disagree on issue X)
X8 -- A sense of crisis emerges, and the result can be litigation, dissolution, or war
It is not at all difficult to see how each stage in the spiral leads to the next. To reach the point of crisis where litigation appears inevitable, it is necessary for one or both parties to move relationally from fellowship to enmity. Disagreement alone cannot do this. Rather, it is the shifting of importance from a common bond between parties to agreement between parties that breaks down any sense of connectedness. Indeed, the relationship of those involved is viewed and subsequently re-determined in light of the presenting problem instead of the problem being viewed in the context of of the pre-existing relationship. Thus, any potential solutions that might work at a lower level of the spiral are useless at a higher lever. Indeed, any solutions grounded in the common relationship instead of common agreement will prove ineffectual altogether, as long as one party focuses on the existence and importance of disagreement.
I have quoted extensively from this article - I hope not too extensively - because I have not been able to locate a website that sets forth this model in any detail -- in fact the only links I have found are to pdfs of PowerPoint presentations (here and here) by Canon Robertson but without his accompanying explanations or comments.

To be continued,

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