What is gray zone conflict, and how do we deal with it?

Have you ever walked away from a conversation that felt vaguely confrontational, confused about what just happened? If you've experienced that, then you know that sometimes it's hard even to tell whether there's conflict. Let alone know how to respond appropriately.

This is what the military calls gray zone conflict.

How do you recognize a gray zone conflict?

Gray zone conflicts have a few features that make them distinct:

1. Ambiguity: Grey zone conflicts involve actions that make it difficult to know who's responsible. This can include misinformation and gossip.

2. Low intensity: Gray zone conflicts involve actions that are lower in intensity than what we'd recognize as overt conflict. This could include gaslighting, micro-aggressions, political machinations, and other forms of subversion.

3. Plausible deniability: The perpetrators of gray zone conflicts often try to maintain plausible deniability, making it harder to call them out.

4. Subversion and manipulation: Gray zone conflicts frequently involve attempts to spread or exploit pre-existing resentment and divisions.

5. Use of proxies: The individuals may coerce somebody else to act on their behalf.

6. Long-term nature: These conflicts can last a long time and may involve persistent and evolving hostile behaviors.

7. Challenge existing norms: Gray zone conflicts exist in a space that's not well-defined by existing norms, making it challenging to know how to address them.

Overall, gray zone conflicts require nuanced approaches.

Why ignoring gray zone conflicts is dangerous?

Gray zone conflicts regularly go unnoticed and unaddressed for a long time.

In part because they are ambiguous and low intensity—just below the threshold of what we'd immediately recognize as conflict and feel compelled to address.

And in part because our natural tendency is to ignore low-intensity hostility, to avoid being seen as too sensitive or overreacting.

But despite the low intensity, gray zone conflicts are more damaging than overt conflicts. If left unchecked, they destroy trust in the entire organization, not just between the people directly involved.

They also tend to gradually escalate while conditioning us to tolerate the ever-increasing levels of hostility and abuse. Eventually, it spreads and makes the entire organization toxic and inhospitable.

How to respond to gray zone conflicts?

Gray zone conflicts thrive in ambiguous and low-intensity environments. Because of that, the best way to deal with them is to escalate out of the gray zone.

I use the word "escalate" because that's how it might feel to you—uncomfortable, possibly even unreasonable. But I want to point out that, unlike the military, we do not deal with hostile powers in the workplace that must be defeated at all costs.

In the workplace, we escalate conflict by making it as transparent and explicit as possible. The more transparent you are, the less chance somebody could suspect an ulterior motive on your part.

And that brings me to the first challenge you'll face when dealing with gray zone conflicts.

Workplace conflicts often arise out of misunderstanding or misalignment. It will be challenging to shine the light on questionable behavior while continuing to treat your fellow humans with positive regard.

Remember what you learned from traditional conflict resolution methods and lead with curiosity. Ask questions. Could you have misunderstood them? What might you not know that would explain the misalignment? Could they have misunderstood you?

If you'd like to brush up on traditional conflict resolution techniques, I recommend Marshall Rosenberg's excellent book Nonviolent Communication.

The second challenge you'll face is related to the nature of the gray zone conflict. The individuals who choose to stay in the gray zone are typically afraid of overt conflict. They will likely deny any wrongdoing if you point it out.

What's more, if they were successful at maintaining plausible deniability, you might appear over-reacting and causing conflict yourself.

It's vitally important to maintain composure!

A helpful perspective might be to see this as troubleshooting the systems and communication patterns that might have led to misalignment. And avoid making it about individuals' character.