9.1: Understanding Conflict
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- Jason S. Wrench, Narissra M. Punyanunt-Carter & Katherine S. Thweatt
- SUNY New Paltz & SUNY Oswego via OpenSUNY
- Differentiate between the terms conflict, disagreement, and argument.
- Explain two perspectives about the existence of conflict.
- Define and explain the term “interpersonal conflict.”
For our purposes, it is necessary to differentiate a conflict from a disagreement.1 A disagreement is a difference of opinion and often occurs during an argument, or a verbal exchange between two or more people who have differing opinions on a given subject or subjects. It’s important to realize that arguments are not conflicts, but if they become verbally aggressive, they can quickly turn into conflicts. One factor that ultimately can help determine if an argument will escalate into a conflict is an individual’s tolerance for disagreement. James McCroskey, along with his colleagues, initially defined tolerance for disagreement as whether an individual can openly discuss differing opinions without feeling personally attacked or confronted.2,3 People that have a high tolerance for disagreement can easily discuss opinions with pretty much anyone and realize that arguing is perfectly normal and, for some, even entertaining. People that have a low tolerance for disagreement feel personally attacked any time someone is perceived as devaluing their opinion. From an interpersonal perspective, understanding someone’s tolerance for disagreement can help in deciding if arguments will be perceived as the other as attacks that could lead to verbally aggressive conflicts. However, not all conflict is necessarily verbally aggressive nor destructive.
The term “conflict” is actually very difficult to pin down. We could have an entire chapter where we just examined various definitions of the term. Simplistically, conflict is an interactive process occurring when conscious beings (individuals or groups) have opposing or incompatible actions, beliefs, goals, ideas, motives, needs, objectives, obligations resources and/or values. First, conflict is interactive and inherently communicative. Second, two or more people or even groups of people who can think must be involved. Lastly, there are a whole range of different areas where people can have opposing or incompatible opinions. For this generic definition, we provided a laundry list of different types of incompatibility that can exist between two or more individuals or groups. Is this list completely exhaustive? No. But we provided this list as a way of thinking about the more common types of issues that are raised when people engage in conflict. From this perspective, everything from a minor disagreement to a knock-down, drag-out fight would classify as a conflict
The rest of this section is going to explore the nature of conflict and its importance in communication. To do this, we’ll discuss two different perspectives on conflict (disruption vs. normalcy). Then we’ll explore interpersonal conflict more closely. Lastly, we’ll discuss the positive and negative functions of conflict.
Two Perspectives on Conflict
As with most areas of interpersonal communication, no single perspective exists in the field related to interpersonal conflict. There are generally two very different perspectives that one can take. Herbert W. Simmons was one of the first to realize that there were two very different perspectives on conflict.4 On the one hand, you had scholars who see conflict as a disruption in a normal working system, which should be avoided. On the other hand, some scholars view conflict as a normal part of human relationships. Let’s look at each of these in this section.
Disruptions in Normal Workings of a System
The first major perspective of conflict was proposed by James C. McCroskey and Lawrence R. Wheeless.5 McCroskey and Wheeless described conflict as a negative phenomenon in interpersonal relationships:
Conflict between people can be viewed as the opposite or antithesis of affinity. In this sense, interpersonal conflict is the breaking down of attraction and the development of repulsion, the dissolution of perceived homophily (similarity) and the increased perception of incompatible differences, the loss of perceptions of credibility and the development of disrespect. 6
From this perspective, conflict is something inherently destructive. McCroskey and Virginia P. Richmond went further and argued that conflict is characterized by antagonism, distrust, hostility, and suspicion.7
This more negative view of conflict differentiates itself from a separate term, disagreement, which is simply a difference of opinion between two or more people or groups of people. Richmond and McCroskey note that there are two types of disagreements: substantive and procedural.8 A substantive disagreement is a disagreement that people have about a specific topic or issue. Basically, if you and your best friend want to go eat at two different restaurants for dinner, then you’re engaging in a substantive disagreement. On the other hand, procedural disagreements are “concerned with procedure, how a decision should be reached or how a policy should be implemented.”9 So, if your disagreement about restaurant choice switches to a disagreement on how to make a choice (flipping a coin vs. rock-paper-scissors), then you’ve switched into a procedural disagreement.
A conflict then is a disagreement plus negative affect, or when you disagree with someone else and you don’t like the other person. It’s the combination of a disagreement and dislike that causes a mere disagreement to turn into a conflict. Ultimately, conflict is a product of how one communicates this dislike of another person during the disagreement. People in some relationships end up saying very nasty things to one another during a disagreement because their affinity for the other person has diminished. When conflict is allowed to continue and escalate, it “can be likened to an ugly, putrid, decaying, pusfilled sore.”10
From this perspective, conflicts are ultimately only manageable; whereas, disagreements can be solved. Although a disagreement is the cornerstone of all conflicts, most disagreements don’t turn into conflicts because there is an affinity between the two people engaged in the disagreement.
Normal Part of Human Communication
The second perspective of the concept of conflict is very different from the first one. As described by Dudley D. Cahn and Ruth Anna Abigail, conflict is a normal, inevitable part of life.11 Cahn and Abigail argue that conflict is one of the foundational building blocks of interpersonal relationships. One can even ask if it’s possible to grow in a relationship without conflict. Managing and overcoming conflict makes a relationship stronger and healthier. Ideally, when interpersonal couples engage in conflict management (or conflict resolution), they will reach a solution that is mutually beneficial for both parties. In this manner, conflict can help people seek better, healthier outcomes within their interactions.
Ultimately, conflict is neither good nor bad, but it’s a tool that can be used for constructive or destructive purposes. Conflict can be very beneficial and healthy for a relationship. Let’s look at how conflict is beneficial for individuals and relationships:
- Conflict helps people find common ground.
- Conflict helps people learn how to manage conflict more effectively for the future.
- Conflict provides the opportunity to learn about the other person(s).
- Conflict can lead to creative solutions to problems.
- Confronting conflict allows people to engage in an open and honest discussion, which can build relationship trust.
- Conflict encourages people to grow both as humans and in their communication skills.
- Conflict can help people become more assertive and less aggressive.
- Conflict can strengthen individuals’ ability to manage their emotions.
- Conflict lets individuals set limits in relationships.
- Conflict lets us practice our communication skills.
When one approaches conflict from this vantage point, conflict can be seen as an amazing resource in interpersonal relationships. However, both parties must agree to engage in prosocial conflict management strategies for this to work effectively (more on that later in this chapter).
Now that we’ve examined the basic idea of conflict, let’s switch gears and examine conflict in a more interpersonal manner.
According to Cahn and Abigail, interpersonal conflict requires four factors to be present:
- the conflict parties are interdependent,
- they have the perception that they seek incompatible goals or outcomes or they favor incompatible means to the same ends,
- the perceived incompatibility has the potential to adversely affect the relationship leaving emotional residues if not addressed, and
- there is a sense of urgency about the need to resolve the difference. 12
Let’s look at each of these parts of interpersonal conflict separately.
People are Interdependent
According to Cahn and Abigail, “interdependence occurs when those involved in a relationship characterize it as continuous and important, making it worth the effort to maintain.”13 From this perspective, interpersonal conflict occurs when we are in some kind of relationship with another person. For example, it could be a relationship with a parent/guardian, a child, a coworker, a boss, a spouse, etc. In each of these interpersonal relationships, we generally see ourselves as having long-term relationships with these people that we want to succeed. Notice, though, that if you’re arguing with a random person on a subway, that will not fall into this definition because of the interdependence factor. We may have disagreements and arguments with all kinds of strangers, but those don’t rise to the level of interpersonal conflicts.
People Perceive Differing Goals/Outcomes of Means to the Same Ends
An incompatible goal occurs when two people want different things. For example, imagine you and your best friend are thinking about going to the movies. They want to see a big-budget superhero film, and you’re more in the mood for an independent artsy film. In this case, you have pretty incompatible goals (movie choices). You can also have incompatible means to reach the same end. Incompatible means, in this case, “occur when we want to achieve the same goal but differ in how we should do so.”14 For example, you and your best friend agree on going to the same movie, but not about at which theatre you should see the film.
Conflict Can Negatively Affect the Relationship if Not Addressed
Next, interpersonal conflicts can lead to very negative outcomes if the conflicts are not managed effectively. Here are some examples of conflicts that are not managed effectively:
- One partner dominates the conflict, and the other partner caves-in.
- One partner yells or belittles the other partner.
- One partner uses half-truths or lies to get her/his/their way during the conflict.
- Both partners only want to get their way at all costs.
- One partner refuses to engage in conflict.
Again, this is a sample laundry list of some of the ways where conflict can be mismanaged. When conflict is mismanaged, one or both partners can start to have less affinity for the other partner, which can lead to a decreasing in liking, decreased caring about the relational partner, increased desire to exit the relationship, increased relational apathy, increased revenge-seeking behavior, etc. All of these negative outcomes could ultimately lead to conflicts becoming increasingly more aggressive (both active and passive) or just outright conflict avoidance. We’ll look at both of these later in the chapter.
Some Sense of Urgency to Resolve Conflict
Lastly, there must be some sense of urgency to resolve the conflict within the relationship. The conflict gets to the point where it must receive attention, and a decision must be made or an outcome decided upon, or else. If a conflict reaches the point where it’s not solved, then the conflict could become more problematic and negative if it’s not dealt with urgently.
Now, some people let conflicts stir and rise over many years that can eventually boil over, but these types of conflicts when they arise generally have some other kind of underlying conflict that is causing the sudden explosion. For example, imagine your spouse has a particularly quirky habit. For the most part, you ignore this habit and may even make a joke about the habit. Finally, one day you just explode and demand the habit must change. Now, it’s possible that you let this conflict build for so long that it finally explodes. It’s kind of like a geyser. According to Yellowstone National Park, here’s how a geyser works:
The looping chambers trap steam from the hot water. Escaped bubbles from trapped steam heat the water column to the boiling point. When the pressure from the trapped steam builds enough, it blasts, releasing the pressure. As the entire water column boils out of the ground, more than half the volume is this steam. The eruption stops when the water cools below the boiling point.15
In the same way, sometimes people let irritations or underlying conflict percolate inside of them until they reach a boiling point, which leads to the eventual release of pressure in the form of a sudden, out of nowhere conflict. In this case, even though the conflict has been building for some time, the eventual desire to make this conflict known to the other person does cause an immediate sense of urgency for the conflict to be solved.
- The terms disagreement and argument are often confused with one another. For our purposes, the terms refer to unique concepts. A disagreement is a difference of opinion between two or more people or groups of people; whereas, an argument is a verbal exchange between two or more people who have differing opinions on a given subject or subjects.
- There are two general perspectives regarding the nature of conflict. The first perspective sees conflict as a disruption to normal working systems, so conflict is inherently something that is dangerous to relationships and should be avoided. The second perspective sees conflict as a normal, inevitable part of any relationship. From this perspective, conflict is a tool that can either be used constructively or destructively in relationships.
- According to Cahn and Abigail, interpersonal conflict consists of four unique parts: 1) interdependence between or among the conflict parties, (2) incompatible goals/ means, (3) conflict can adversely affect a relationship if not handled effectively, and (4) there is a sense of urgency to resolve the conflict.
- On a sheet of paper, write out what you believe are the pros and cons of both major perspectives about conflict. Which one do you think describes your own understanding of conflict? Do you think they are both applicable to interpersonal conflict?
- Think of a time when you’ve engaged in conflict with a relational partner of some kind (parent/guardian, child, sibling, spouse, friend, romantic partner, etc.). Using Cahn and Abigail’s four parts of interpersonal conflict, dissect the conflict and explain why it would qualify as an interpersonal conflict.
- We know that different people have different levels of tolerance for disagreement in life. How do you think an individual’s tolerance for disagreement impacts her/ his/their ability to interact with others interpersonally?