International Center for Ethics in the Sciences and Humanities (IZEW)

Constructive handling of conflicts in times of Corona

Tools and impulses for a successful conflict transformation

von Cora Bieß

04 April 2020 · Both individually and collectively constructive handling of conflicts becomes particularly important in times of crisis.  Depending on the type of housing, in times of Corona we suddenly and unexpectedly spend a lot of time with our fellow residents due to imposed lockdown. In addition to roommates and partners, parents also spend more time with their children - some of which are parents who would otherwise never raise their children together, and who now have to consider joint arrangements for childcare due to the closure of schools and daycare centres. Adult children who have moved out of the parental home for years and are now returning out of concern for the health of their parents to care for them (together with their siblings) and provide for them are also to be mentioned here. The current situation due to Corona puts many in tension and unfamiliar situations.

This article provides tools for constructive conflict management in one's own "four walls" and offers impulses for a successful conflict transformation in three steps:

  1. Understand which phases a conflict goes through until it escalates and how the conflict state can be changed
  2. Applying six steps for a constructive handling of conflicts
  3. Read up on what science says about conflict transformation

1. a conflict occurs when the parties involved pursue mutually incompatible goals. At the core of a conflict are differences in values, interests, goals or desires. It is important to stress that conflicts are not negative per se, but that a constructive conflict transformation gives the opportunity for new relationships and modes of behaviour. Conflicts are natural and an unavoidable part of living together. However, due to the restriction of social contacts, many people sometimes lack an outlet or a regulating exchange with people outside their "own four walls", which would resolve normal interpersonal tensions or differences of opinion in everyday life. In the current situation, neutral third parties cannot accompany private conflicts that arise within one's own four walls. This increases the susceptibility to conflict in the current situation. For a constructive handling of the conflict it is important to create opportunities for self-responsible action - this prerequisite can only be implemented to a limited extent in the case of partial lockdown. Therefore, in the current situation it becomes particularly important to deal with emerging conflicts constructively and to deal with aggression and emotions such as anger, disappointment, hopelessness and insecurity without violence. In the current situation of partial lockdown, it is particularly important to reflect on emerging conflicts, to articulate one's own feelings, to empathize with others and to communicate in dialogue with the counterpart in order to maintain a good culture of dialogue despite the tension and uncertainty. Dialogues can broaden one's own perspective and gain a deeper understanding of the interlocutors with their views and behaviour. Non-violent handling of conflicts can be promoted if one is aware of how conflicts arise.

Conflicts are often dynamic and can be subdivided into different phases on the basis of different levels of escalation. In order to illustrate how conflicts arise and intensify, these stages of conflict escalation can be helpful when applying the visualisation of a conflict analysis.

Visualization of the phases of conflict escalation:

Using the following cartoons, you can visualize together which conflict phases you are in, and transfer your concrete conflict in its specific course schematically to the individual phases.

When conflicts arise within one' s own four walls, we often have different perspectives on the conflict triggers. The course of the conflict is also often perceived differently from one person to another. For one person, the trigger may be felt early on, while the other perceives tension in a different way and reacts to other triggers. In order to understand each other's point of view, you can use the following instructions to carry out a joint conflict analysis. The goal of this conflict analysis using the cartoons is that in the end all participants have developed a common understanding of the common object of conflict and how the conflict has developed.

2. the following stages, serve an ethical approach to a specific conflict:

(1) personal description of the problem: In the first step, the cartoons can be used for self-reflection by asking yourself the following questions: (each can take individual notes if necessary)

  • From your point of view, how did the conflict begin?
  • Are there any deeper causes of the conflict that preceded it, which were not addressed at first sight? 
  • Is there agreement between you and your counterpart about the points in dispute? 
  • How do you distinguish between the specific points?
  • Are there possibly different conflicts that have ended in one big conflict, but which are better handled separately? 
  • What interests do you have/what do you suppose the interests of your counterpart are? 

(2) Mutual situation analysis: In the second step, you tell your counterpart chronologically your own perspective on the conflict, which you have reflected on in the first step (problem description). In order to visualize your perception of the conflict, the cartoons can serve as a support. Specific conflict phases can be clarified and separated from each other. Four aspects are important for a successful dialogue in crises: listening, respecting, articulating and slowing down.  Especially the aspect of slowing down can be achieved so effectively through the cartoons. It is important here to let each other finish and listen to the other's point of view without commenting or judging. Only after your counterpart has described their own perception to you, you may ask questions in the form of understanding questions. Here you can fall back on the basics of non-violent communication, whereby care is taken to send "I" messages. So not: "You never listen to me" but: "I do not feel that you hear/understand/see me" or "I have the impression that ...".

Afterwards, your counterpart will tell you his or her own view of the course of the conflict in chronological order using the same procedure.

By thematizing and naming feelings, we become more aware of the specific situation and its effects, and can explain to each other in more detail what makes us feel violated in our privacy or sense of security. 

You can consider the following questions when describing your point of view: 

  • Which laws, obligations and expectations must be observed for you in the current situation? 
  • Does the mutual description of the situation and one' s own perception enable a description that all parties involved can agree on? 

(3) Value evaluation: Conflicts are often emotionalized because we feel violated in our specific values and norms. Here it is important for you to reflect both individually and in the group:

  • Which moral values and norms are particularly important to us? 
  • Which values and norms have been violated by the course of the conflict and have thus negatively influenced our living together?

(4) Option for action: In the further course of the process, it is important for you to clarify how the current state of conflict can be approached constructively so that all those involved feel that the specific situation is being dealt with fairly. The following questions can provide you with orientation: 

  • Which feasible options for action are there in the current situation? 
  • Which options can be realized under which conditions?
  • What consequences would this have for all of you?
  • Do the consequences fit the different values involved? 

(5) Decision: Only when all those involved feel heard and understood can you make a decision on a common basis on how to deal with the present conflict situation. Which values are in the foreground for you in living together? Which values are particularly important for your counterpart? Taking into account the situation and the various values involved, you can jointly determine a hierarchy of values. When the consequences of the action have been articulated by everyone, you can formulate and justify a hierarchical list of possible actions.

(6) Verification: Since conflicts are usually dynamic and rarely linear, it is important that you observe and reflect on the effects and consequences of the conflict. All those involved are jointly responsible for this by actively shaping their environment.  Together you can ask yourself: from which phase of the conflict can individual and preventive action be taken in the future to counteract further escalation? Can this be visualized by means of the cartoons? 

  • Is there an individual early warning system that could prevent the escalation of a conflict in the future? 
  • Can you jointly formulate a schedule that will be used as an early warning system for conflicts between you in the future? 
  • When and where do you need external help? In the current situation, due to the partial lockdown, are there nevertheless people who you can call in by telephone or video conferences and who can influence the course of the conflict as mediators?

The following impulses can serve your individual evaluation and a verification in the group: 

  • Can you actually implement the chosen options for action? 
  • Is the reasoning plausible for you and your counterpart? 
  • Have all factors been taken into account by you? Even the initially hidden and underlying causes of conflict? 
  • Are no illegitimate interests of you or your counterpart involved?  


The application steps listed here serve as an offer for thought and give a first insight into the basic elements of workshop formats in dealing constructively with conflicts. It is important to understand which values and interests underlie the conflicts, which can be dealt with constructively through active listening, communicating feelings and listening to each other.

Even if there are currently no conflicts overshadowing the living together, this contribution can perhaps offer an impulse to consciously exchange individual values in dealing with each other together with your fellow residents. The current situation at home could be seen as an opportunity to actively take time for conflict prevention, even when there is no acute conflict.

3. Transformation in common parlance means to transform, reshape or reform. Conflict transformation can thus be understood as a comprehensive approach that attempts to bring about a change in the underlying conditions that have led to violence and may lead to it again. In the context of conflict transformation, violence involves much more than the use of physical force by individuals. The goal is a "positive peace" which is only achieved through the absence of physical, cultural and structural violence (Galtung). Conflict transformation is a complex process in which relationships, attitudes, behaviour, interests and discourses in violent conflict situations are changed constructively[1]. Successful conflict transformation is seen as a profound and holistic conceptualisation of the constructive changes needed to create a lasting peace that is perceived as fair by all actors involved. In this understanding, a transformative approach attempts to address the ills of a society and to promote a transformation of structural inequalities with the aim of promoting social justice and sustainable peace (Cochrane-Buchmüller). Successful conflict transformation is therefore also about counteracting structural and cultural violence in order to change or break up existing power relations. 


[1] Constructive in general describes a characteristic serving a specific development. In other words, this work is about a meaningful structure and a supportive way of dealing with remembered experiences of violence. Violent in this understanding means harmful behaviour of a physical, structural or cultural nature that prevents a person from developing their full potential (Galtung 1996).

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