- Define interpersonal conflict.
- Compare and contrast the five styles of interpersonal conflict management.
- List strategies for effectively managing conflict through collaboration.
To whom do you have the most conflict right now? If you still live at home with a parent or parents, you may have daily conflicts with your family as you try to balance your autonomy, or desire for independence, with the practicalities of living under your family’s roof. If you’ve recently moved into an apartment or house, you may be negotiating roommate conflicts as you adjust to living with someone you may not know very well. You probably also have experiences with conflict in romantic relationships, in the workplace, and maybe even at school. So think back and ask yourself, “How well do I handle conflict?” As with all areas of communication, we can improve if we have the background knowledge and the motivation to reflect on and enhance our communication skills.
Examining Interpersonal Conflict
Interpersonal conflict occurs in interactions where there are real or perceived incompatible goals or opposing viewpoints. Interpersonal conflict may be expressed verbally or nonverbally along a continuum ranging from mild nonverbal silent treatment to a very loud shouting match. Interpersonal conflict is, however, distinct from interpersonal violence, which escalates beyond communication to include abuse. Domestic violence is a serious issue that goes beyond the conflict we will discuss.
While conflict may be uncomfortable and challenging, it doesn’t have to be negative. In fact, it is inevitable. Since conflict is present in our personal and professional lives, the ability to manage conflict and negotiate desirable outcomes can help us be more successful at both. Whether you and your partner are trying to decide what brand of flat-screen television to buy or discussing the upcoming political election with your mother, the potential for conflict is present. In professional settings, the ability to engage in conflict management, sometimes called conflict resolution, is a necessary and valued skill.
Using strategies for managing conflict situations can make life more pleasant than letting a situation stagnate or escalate. The negative effects of poorly handled conflict could range from an awkward last few weeks of the semester with a college roommate to being fired from your job. There is no absolute right or wrong way to handle a conflict. Remember that being a competent communicator doesn’t mean that you follow a set of absolute rules. Rather, a competent communicator assesses multiple contexts and applies or adapts communication tools and skills to fit the situation.
Strategies for Managing Conflict
When we ask others what they want to do when they experience conflict, most of the time they say “resolve it.” While this is understandable, also important to understand is that conflict is ongoing in all relationships, and our approach to conflict sometimes should be to “manage it” instead of always trying to “resolve it.”
One way to understand options for managing conflict is by knowing five major strategies people may use for managing conflict. As you read about each of these, you will see that some are likely to be more successful than others.
When people select the competing or the win-lose approach, they exhibit high concern for the self and low concern for the other person. The goal here is to win the conflict. This approach is often characterized by loud, forceful, and interrupting communication. Again, this is analogous to sports. Too often, we avoid conflict because we believe the only other alternative is to try to dominate the other person. In relationships where we care about others or in conflicts at work, it’s no wonder this strategy can seem unappealing. Competing sometimes leads to aggression, although not always. Aggressive communication may involve insults, profanity, and yelling, or threats of punishment if you do not get your way.
When people avoid a conflict they may suppress feelings of frustration or walk away from a situation. This style of conflict management often indicates a low concern for self and a low concern for the other, and no direct communication about the conflict takes place. This is not always the case, however. In fact, there may be times when this is the best strategy. Take, for example, a heated argument between D'Shaun and Pat. Pat is about to make a hurtful remark out of frustration. Instead, she decides that she needs to avoid this argument right now until she and D'Shaun can come back and discuss things in a calmer fashion. Or we may decide to avoid conflict for other reasons. If you view the conflict as having little importance to you, it may be better to ignore it. If the person you’re having conflict with will only be working in your office for a week, you may perceive a conflict to be temporary and choose to avoid it. In general, avoiding doesn’t work. For one thing, you can not communicate. Even when we try to avoid conflict, we may intentionally or unintentionally give our feelings away through our verbal and nonverbal communication, such as rolling our eyes or sighing. Consistent conflict avoidance over the long term generally has negative consequences for a relationship because neither person is willing to participate in the conflict management process.
The accommodating conflict management style indicates a moderate degree of concern for self and others. Sometimes, this style is viewed as passive or submissive, in that someone complies with or obliges another without providing personal input. However, it could be that the person involved in the conflict values the relationship more than the issue. The context for and motivation behind accommodating play an important role in whether or not it is an appropriate strategy. For example, if there is little chance that your own goals can be attained, or if the relationship might be damaged if you insist on your own way, accommodating could be appropriate. On the other hand, if you constantly accommodate with little reciprocation by your partner, this style can be personally damaging.
The compromising style is evident when both parties are willing to give up something in order to gain something else. It shows a moderate concern for self and the other. When environmental activist, Julia Butterfly Hill agreed to end her two-year-long tree-sit in Luna as a protest against the logging practices of Pacific Lumber Company (PALCO), and pay them $50,000 in exchange for their promise to protect Luna and not cut within a 20-foot buffer zone, she and PALCO reached a compromise. If one of the parties feels the compromise is unequal they may be less likely to stick to it long term. When conflict is unavoidable, many times people will opt for a compromise. One of the problems with compromise is that neither party fully gets their needs met. If you want Mexican food and your friend wants pizza, you might agree to compromise and go someplace that serves Mexican pizza. While this may seem like a good idea, you may have really been craving a burrito and your friend may have really been craving a pepperoni pizza. In this case, while the compromise brought together two food genres, neither person got their desire met. Compromising may be a good strategy when there are time limitations or when prolonging a conflict may lead to relationship deterioration. Compromise may also be good when both parties have equal power or when other resolution strategies have not worked (Macintosh & Stevens, 2008).
Finally, collaborating demonstrates a high level of concern for both self and others. Using this strategy, individuals agree to share information, feelings, and creativity to try to reach a mutually acceptable solution that meets both of their needs. In our food example above, one strategy would be for both people to get the food they want, then take it on a picnic in the park. This way, both people are getting their needs met fully, and in a way that extends beyond original notions of win-lose approaches for managing the conflict. The downside to this strategy is that it is very time-consuming and requires high levels of trust.
Tips for Managing Interpersonal Conflict
- Do not view the conflict as a contest you are trying to win.
- Distinguish the person or people from the problem. (Don’t make it personal and don't engage in blaming and name-calling.)
- Determine what underlying needs may be driving the other person’s demands (sometimes needs can still be met in a different way).
- Identify areas of common ground or shared interests that you can work from to develop solutions.
- Ask questions to allow them to clarify and to help you understand their perspective.
- Listen carefully and provide verbal and nonverbal feedback.
- Remain flexible and realize there may be solutions yet to be discovered.
Interpersonal conflict is an inevitable part of relationships that, although not always negative, can take an emotional toll on relational partners unless they develop skills and strategies for managing it. Although there is no absolute right or wrong way to handle a conflict, there are five predominant styles of conflict management, which are competing, avoiding, accommodating, compromising, and collaborating.
Interpersonal communication is communication between two or more individuals engaged in a personal relationship. Quite often, interpersonal communication occurs in pairs, but a small family unit could also engage in interpersonal communication. In order for a close relationship to develop, participants must engage in self-disclosure.
As we navigate our interpersonal relationships, we create communication climates, which are the overall feelings and moods people have for one another and the relationship. When we engage in disconfirming messages, we produce a negative relational climate, while confirming messages can help build a positive relational climate by recognizing the uniqueness and importance of another person.
The three primary types of interpersonal relationships we engage in are friendships, romantic relationships, and family relationships. Each of these relationships develops through a series of stages. Friendships and romantic relationships differ from family relationships in that they are relationships of choice. We manage our relationships by negotiating dialectical tensions, which are opposing needs in interpersonal relationships.
Finally, all relationships experience conflict. Conflict is often perceived as an indicator that there is a problem in a relationship. However, conflict is a natural and ongoing part of all relationships. The goal for conflict is not to eliminate it, but to manage it. There are five primary approaches to managing conflict which include competing, accommodating, compromising, avoiding, and collaborating.
- arranged marriages
- avoiding (as a means of managing conflict)
- confirming climate
- disconfirming climate
- interpersonal communication
- interpersonal conflict
- Johari Window: open, hidden, blind, and unknown panes
- relationship dialectics
- romantic relationships
- waning stage of friendship
- Select an important person in your life and pay attention to your communication climate. How do you and this other person demonstrate recognition, acknowledgment, and endorsement?
- Reflect on one of your important friendships and trace its development through Rawlins’ six stages. Discuss whether or how was affected by important transitions in your life, sexual attraction, and diversity?
- Reflect on a current or past romantic relationship. How did you communicate attraction or needs for connection and separateness?
- Does the definition of family in this textbook fit your own definition? Why? Why not?
- Interview one or both of your parents about how their communication has changed as they have moved along the family life cycle. How did their relational culture change? How did they manage relational dialectics?
- How was conflict managed in your family while growing up? Was it viewed as positive or negative? How did those early messages and lessons about conflict shape your current attitudes?
- Of the five conflict management strategies, is there one that you use more often than others? Why or why not? Do you think people are predisposed to one style over the others based on their personality or other characteristics? If so, what personality traits do you think would lead a person to each style?
Topics for Further Research
- Conflict and power in interpersonal communication
- De-escalating conflict in the workplace
- Interpersonal Conflict Communication in Japanese Cultural Contexts
Hargie, O., Skilled Interpersonal Interaction: Research, Theory, and Practice (London: Routledge, 2011), 406–7, 430.
Survey of Communication Study. Authored by: Scott T Paynton and Linda K Hahn. Provided by: Humboldt State University. Located at: https://en.wikibooks.org/wiki/Survey_of_Communication_Study. License: CC BY-SA: Attribution-ShareAlike