Changing Tide or Tsunami? How to Accurately Assess the Intensity of a Conflict

It’s easy to get “fired up” or emotional about conflict.

We arrive at most conflicting situations with our own set of facts, assumptions, feelings, and emotions. Thus, it’s common to over-estimate the intensity.

According to Runde and Flanagan, authors of the book Becoming a Conflict Competent Leader, there are five levels of intensity to consider before approaching or resolving a conflict. Research shows almost all conflicts (no matter how strongly we may feel), are categorized levels 1-3. Interestingly, when asked to describe a conflict, people tend to identify higher levels of intensity (levels 3-5) based on their feelings about the conflict or person(s) involved.


We’ve taken Runde and Flanagan’s model and added the analogy of the ocean’s movement toillustrate each level of intensity. For example, a level-one conflict is characterized by “low intensity” similar to the ocean changing tides (from high to low over time). A level-four conflict, however, is high intensity with potentially destructive effects (like a tidal wave that’s been approaching quickly and forcefully). Tsunamis (or level-five conflicts) rarely hit land, but have disastrous effects.


  • Consider a conflict you (or someone else) are facing.
  • Without much deliberation (use your gut sense), scan the conflict-level chart and identify the initial level of conflict.
  • Next, grab a piece of paper and draw two columns. In the first column, record the facts of the situation. In the next column list your assumptions about these facts.
  • Create a list of “hot buttons” or emotional triggers associated with the conflict or situation. Indicate your attitudes or feelings about the person(s) involved.
  • Once completed, review your notes. What have you learned? What has become clear? What questions do you need to ask to clarify facts, change your attitude, or correct assumptions?
  • Finally, look at the chart again. Accurately identify the true level of the conflict this time. Take a moment to reflect on how you might resolve this conflict differently based on the information you have gathered.

Tidal Stages Image

Level 1: Changing Tide (Differences)

  • Typically low intensity.
  • Different views on an issue or situation.
  • Parities articulate reasons for differing opinions and can back them up with actions.
  • There is little “heat” in the conversation.

Level 2: Tidal Shift (Misunderstandings)

  • Typically moderate intensity.
  • There is a clear misunderstanding of the facts.
  • Parties usually recognize the misunderstandings after the fact.
  • If left unresolved, it has the potential for increased (or high) intensity.

Level 3: Super Tide (Disagreements)

  • Typically high intensity.
  • “Differences with an attitude.”
  • Parties see the situation differently. Regardless of how well they understand one another, there is discomfort.
  • Escalate quicker than differences or misunderstandings.
  • Parties look for disagreement patterns in people.

Level 4: Tidal Wave (Discord)

  • Usually very high intensity.
  • Deteriorating relationship between parties.
  • Significant discomfort is felt during conflicting situations and most other interactions.
  • The relationship suffers greatly; serious damage can result.

Level 5: Tsunami (Polarization)

  • Extremely high intensity.
  • Parties begin recruiting others to join their cause.
  • Parties work hard to defend positions or causes.
  • Parties typically refuse to engage in constructive behavior.
  • Inability or unwillingness to see the other person’s side of the situation.

If we move into action based on the assumption that a conflict is at a higher level than true, we risk escalating a situation that could have been diffused.

When helping others resolve conflict, it’s important to stay neutral and encourage them to be objective. This often is easier said than done (especially when we are emotionally charged).

To coach someone through conflict, ask them to first complete the above exercise and come to the session with their lists. Ask open-ended questions about their perceived facts and assumptions. Help them reflect upon the true conflict-level intensity. Brainstorm options for addressing the conflict in style. A great resource is the blog, The ZOUD and Five Steps to Tackling Difficult Conversations with Grace.

It’s a lot easier to address and resolve misunderstandings or disagreements, before a conflict reaches the level of discord.

Frequent conversations and check-ins prevent situation from escalating and disguising themselves as higher-level conflicts.