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When a previous conflict made a current conflict worse

I recently mediated a case between the founder/director of a nonprofit and a former member of its board. To preserve confidentiality, I can only tell you that it involved a (failed) attempt to transfer the founder’s business duties to a managing director; a lawsuit and the resignation of the board member followed. But that’s enough to tell you that they didn’t want to have anything to do with each other ever again.

Yet, unfortunately, the founder and the former board member found themselves in another conflict. Both told me adamantly that they didn’t want to discuss the past, yet I could tell that the past was causing at least 95% of the current conflict.

The mediation went nowhere for an hour and a half. Both parties were ready to quit.

Only when I met privately with each of them and helped them acknowledge the effects of the past on their current conflict, were they able to resolve it. Within five minutes, they came to a good resolution, signed an agreement, and went their separate ways.

Past conflict may affect current conflict

You may find yourself in a similar situation; you might’ve been in a similar situation already. You may have to work with people despite previous conflict with them.

This is especially true for executives, the C-suite, and the board. People in positions of great responsibility have commensurate skills and experience in working with people after a badly ended conflict. But you’re still human, and with great power comes great passion and commitment, and from that can come great conflict.

Three tips to minimize the effect of past conflict


There are many things you can do to minimize the effect of a past conflict on your working relationship with someone in the present. Here are three things that are especially helpful.

1) Give yourself a laurel wreath

Commend yourself for working on resolving your current conflict with the other person. No matter who you are, past conflict can make it difficult. Acknowledge that, and you’ll eliminate a source of discomfort, and make the conflict easier to resolve.

2) Play a mental trick on yourself

Imagine that the person you’re in conflict with is someone else, a colleague with whom you get along well. Ask yourself how you would resolve the conflict in that case. Doing this gives you a better perspective on what is appropriate for the situation in and of itself, and mitigates the damaging effects of the previous conflict.

3) Use your time machine

Remember that the resolution you come up with today must ensure the best possible future working relationship with the other person. Doing this will help you craft a resolution that resolves the conflict while not setting the stage for future conflict.

Leave past conflict in the past, and move on to the future

Next time you’re in a conflict with someone, with whom you have a history that makes resolving the conflict difficult, make sure that effects of the previous conflict don’t lead you to a bad resolution of the current one. Give yourself a laurel wreath, play a mental trick on yourself, and use your time machine. Leave the previous conflict in the past, and help yourself get the best resolution to the current conflict.

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