Last Saturday I attended the St. Louis Blues / Dallas Stars game. It was an exciting game that had the fans of both teams on the edge of their seats. At one point during the game, a St. Louis Blues player lost control of his hockey stick, and it was projected out of the rink. Unlike a fly baseball which is typically caught only by one person, the hockey stick, given its size, was caught by several people. An intense three-person round of tug-of-war ensued.

I watched in amazement as three adults attempted to out power the other by literally yanking the hardest on the stick. I was in awe that in a matter of seconds all three of them surrendered to their aggressive nature, leaning into the physical altercation rather than stepping back from it. It was, after all, only a hockey stick.

Since then, this scene has had me thinking about the nature of aggression

What Is Aggression?

Aggression refers to a range of behaviors that can result in both physical and psychological harm to oneself, others or objects in the environment. The expression of aggression can occur in a number of ways, including verbal, mental and physical. Aggression serves a number of different purposes:

  • To express anger or hostility
  • To assert dominance
  • To intimidate or threaten
  • To achieve a goal
  • To express possession
  • A response to fear
  • A reaction to pain
  • To compete with others

In the case of the hockey stick, one might make the case all of the above purposes were at play.

Causes of Aggression

Research suggests that individuals who engage in affective aggression, defined as aggression that is unplanned and uncontrolled (i.e., the hockey stick scenario) tend to have lower IQs than people who display predatory aggression, which is defined as aggression that is controlled, planned and goal-oriented.

  1. External Inputs to Aggression. There are certainly environmental factors that can increase the potential for aggressive behavior.
    1. Crowding can influence aggressive behavior.
    2. Violence in media can desensitize people, especially those who are predisposed to aggression.
    3. A culture of victimization can increase aggression.
    4. Hierarchy and power have an oppressive effect on people, which can increase aggressive behavior.
  2. Internal Inputs to Aggression. In addition to the external factors, there are numerous internal factors associated with aggression.
    1. The stress hormone cortisol increases aggression and influences the “fight or flight” effect within the amygdala, causing aggression.
    2. Pain can increase aggressive behavior.
    3. Filtered and unfiltered sensory information such as loud noises, loud music, unexpected noises, quick and unexpected movements can all increase aggression.
    4. Hormones such as testosterone, estrogen and progesterone can play a role in aggressive behavior.
    5. Some people have a genetic predisposition to aggression.
  3. Fear. As our current political climate demonstrates, fear plays a significant role in aggression and is often the underlying emotion of anger.

Five Common Responses to Conflict

Aggression may win you a hockey stick, but it won’t win you any congeniality contests. And while I would bet that the individuals involved in last week’s hockey-stick-tug-of-war could care less what their opponents think of them, they demonstrated to their friends, and more importantly to themselves, that their concern for self outranked their concern for others.

Our responses to conflict reflect how we feel about ourselves, the individuals we are engaged in conflict with, as well as the conflict itself. How we choose to respond to a conflict can have a lasting ripple effect in each of these three areas — positively and negatively.

The five most common responses to conflict focus either subjectively on the people involved in a dispute or objectively on the result of the dispute.

  1. Avoidance
  2. Accommodation
  3. Aggression
  4. Compromise
  5. Collaboration

The Thomas and Kilman chart reveals the relationship between these conflict responses by differentiating them according to whether the concern for people is stronger or weaker than the concern for results.

Thomas and Kilman chart

As the Thomas Kilman chart reflects, conflict offers each of us continuous opportunities for choosing peace. Every day, in big ways and small ways, we experience choice points that allow us to decide who we want to be, how we want to show up in the world and what contributions we want to make. And while many people may have a default response to conflict, we are not prisoners to that conflict style. We all have the power of choice.

Robyn Short is a mediator with expertise in transformative mediation and restorative justice models for dispute resolution. Whether in a corporate, nonprofit, academic or home environment, Robyn assists parties in discovering the root causes of their conflicts, so they may transform their relationships and create new and productive paths forward individually and as teams. Robyn helps organizations through mediation, facilitation, onsite conflict training seminars, leadership training and dialogue circles. Learn more at