Community-Enabled Escalation

DJ2Darin Jones is a marketing and communications expert, helping international organizations and non-profits educate and inspire their global audiences. The views expressed are his own.

The shootings of three young people in Chapel Hill, NC have sparked outrage. Some see it as a hate crime, others as a result of an unbalanced mind. The alleged killer, Craig Stephen Hicks, is condemned while the victims are mourned. However, a February 12th New York Times article  has me thinking about the role of the community in this event, and the contributions it made to the situation that unfolded.

The article quotes neighbors who described Mr. Hicks as an angry man. ““I have seen and heard him be very unfriendly to a lot of people in this community,” said [resident] Samantha Maness. She said that Mr. Hicks had displayed “equal opportunity anger” and that “he kind of made everyone feel uncomfortable and unsafe”” (para. 4). It is mentioned that he would bring weapons when confronting others. There is clearly a conflict in place. So what did the community do about this? They held a meeting about him in 2014 – without him there. Police say a complaint was never filed with them regarding his behavior, and I would guess the apartment management company didn’t receive one either.

Steven A. Beebe and John T. Masterson in their book on group communication describe five conflict management methods: collaboration (all agree on a mutually beneficial solution), compromise (all agree on an acceptable solution), competition (one idea wins over another, but all are not satisfied), accommodation (one yields to another’s idea to keep things moving but does not agree) and avoidance (conflict continues but is ignored in hopes that it will resolve itself). The community chose an avoidance strategy with Mr. Hicks, to not deal with what was clearly a problem in their midst, and in doing so became a contributing factor in the results.

By allowing conflict to fester, it intensifies and deepens. The individual becomes more empowered in seeing the results of their competition and escalates further. Yet community members turn their head, whether out of fear or a desire to not draw attention. What if the community had sought mediation, working with police or the management team to sit down with Mr. Hicks and discuss how they perceived his behaviors? What about inviting him to the meeting they had so he could offer his views? Either of these would have at least offered an opportunity for de-escalation and steps towards conflict resolution.

In my team communication course we discuss the role of the “bad apple” in the work environment, the member who does not align with community expectations and creates issues with others. These individuals have the capability over time to destroy any cohesive group, but are often not addressed until something significant takes place. While the Chapel Hill event is night and day compared to a workplace issue, the underlying concepts are the same. Conflict that is not addressed does not go away. Whether in the workplace or in the broader society, communities must recognize that they have responsibilities to deal with conflicts, no matter how small, in a collaborative manner that allows for true resolution. Otherwise these stories repeat again.

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