Maybe Not the Devil; Maybe Your Past Understanding the Nature of Protracted, Catabolic Conflict

Maybe Not the Devil; Maybe Your Past

Understanding the Nature of Protracted, Catabolic Conflict


By Ken Johnson


Growing up in America’s Bible Belt, I am sensitive to certain things. Over the years, I’ve noticed how a rather peculiar notion has developed where any calamity in one’s life is usually attributed to the person “doing good” and therefore “the Devil is out to get them.” While I find it odd how an all-powerful deity would allow an inferior spirit to cause calamity to His followers, I must say it seems to be a deeply held belief by many people. I’ve even run across in the field.

Albeit a quaint notion, a study of culture and conflict reveals the reasons for most issues of social discord happens as a result of unresolved issues from the past – not the Devil. Indeed, it would seem, to quote the 1970’s comic strip Pogo, “We have seen the enemy and he is us!”

Whether it is an interpersonal relationship, a religious institution, a business, a social/professional club, a school, nonprofit, government agency, or any other socio-economic interpersonal relationship; issues of conflict are bound to happen. Sometimes, the conflict is anabolic  – acting as a catalyst for potential growth and development. However, as happens most times, the conflict we commonly see is the result of catabolic conflict  – working like weeds in a garden to sap away the strength and vigor of a group. As I note in both my book, Unbroken Circles SM for Schools, as well as a later piece titled “The Good and Bad of Conflict,” both types of conflict behave in drastically different ways.

For instance, anabolic conflict is very overt and engaging. A need is seen and therefore a fix is proposed. Sometimes, there isn’t so much a need seen as a problem identified – even though a solution may not be presented. This is the conflict Fortune 500 companies use to make their businesses grow when others are failing. The problem is most people are not trained in recognizing and molding such conflict. Therefore, the initial gut response is to quash it by any means necessary – thus, unintentionally destroying chances for growth, removal of “slack,” and bringing resolution to potentially long term and critical problems.

Catabolic conflict is a different animal. It is like termites in that it is very covert. Most times, managers and people in leadership will have the primary source of conflict staring them in the face and they cannot see it. Catabolic conflict usually starts off as a seed of core unresolved issue(s). As time grows on, layers of feelings and history pile on, with each layer obfuscating the primary issue(s) at hand. Because most leaders quash anabolic conflict’s endeavors to ameliorate these situations, catabolic conflict is allowed to go through five distinct stages before it metastasizes to cycle over somewhere else within, or even outside of, the group.

This cycling of conflict, much like an avalanche building, usually creates a fundamental change in the group culture which manifests itself in predictable patterns and behaviors proportionate to the length of time the protracted conflict has occurred as well as the number of times the conflict has cycled.  In Unbroken Circles SM for Schools, I identified nine stages related to issues of catabolic cycling over and over, to wit: Storming, Villifying, Army Building, Entrapment, Dragon Slaying, Champion Finding, Burnout, Retreating, and Leaving.

Like cancer, catabolic conflict also has its own unique sets of traits to it allowing for trained conflict specialists to ferret out the root cause(s) of the conflict(s). When consulting with organizations, I commonly use a cheat sheet to illustrate the “void” to the client. However, even without the chart, it is really simple to understand because it is based on correlations.

In all, I utilize six fundamental correlations in my conflict assessments which involve the core concepts of vision, values, communication, skills/acumen, resources, and action plans. Thus, no matter the number of cyclings of conflict, I can more easily walk into a setting, as a neutral third party, and see for instance how issues of anxiety or insecurity may be due to a lack of skills, or acumen, in the organization. Meanwhile, employees and volunteers reporting back to me “false starts,” “erratic changes,” or “switching to fads” tells me there may not be a sound action plan in place. Issues of confusion or chaos may be caused by a lack of vision while frustrations expressed may be caused from a lack of resources. Misunderstandings are usually created by a breakdown in communication while routine conflict and apathy is usually an issue involving a breakdown in core values.

In this way, a competent conflict specialist can seek out the core issues of conflict and offer up suggestions be it either in a consultant capacity or in one-on-one mediations. Being a Restorative Justice facilitator, this technique can also help drive discussions in circle sessions and other restorative practices.

Kenneth Johnson, a famous and well-accomplished science fiction screenwriter, director, and producer, once suggested to me there are no real monsters in the world other than man. He brought up Hitler and Pol Pot as prime examples for me to contemplate his words. To that, I would also suggest most of the demons, devils, and other gremlins in our lives are caused by our own previous actions.  Knowing how these issues behave, we can then move forward to either engage in the healthful harnessing of the challenges created by anabolic conflict or we can begin rooting out the source causes of catabolic conflict.

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