Conflict, or more specifically, interpersonal conflict, is a fact of life, and particularly of organisational life. It often emerges more when people are stressed, for example, when there are changes on the horizon, or when everyone is under pressure because of a looming deadline.
However, conflict can also arise in relationships and situations outside work.
Handling conflict in ways that lead to increased stress can be detrimental to your health. Poor conflict management can lead to higher production of the stress hormone cortisol, and also cause hardening of the arteries, leading to increased risk of heart attacks, and high blood pressure.
Learning to deal with conflict in a positive and constructive way, without excessive stress, is therefore an important way to improve your well-being as well as your relationships.
What is Conflict?
Interpersonal conflict has been defined as:
“An expressed struggle between at least two interdependent parties who perceive incompatible goals, scarce resources, and interference from the other party in achieving their goals”.
Unpicking this a little, it means that for a disagreement to become a conflict, there needs to be:
- Some element of communication: a shared understanding that there is a disagreement;
- The well-being of the people involved need to depend on each other in some way. This doesn’t mean that they have to have equal power: a manager and subordinate can be equally as interdependent as a married couple;
- The people involved perceive that their goals are incompatible, meaning that they cannot both be met;
- They are competing for resources; and
- Each perceives the other as interfering with the achievement of their goals.
Conflict is not always a bad thing
Conflict can be destructive, leading people to develop negative feelings for each other and spend energy on conflict that could be better spent elsewhere. It can also deepen differences, and lead groups to polarise into either/or positions.
However, well-managed conflict can also be constructive, helping to ‘clear the air’, releasing emotion and stress, and resolving tension, especially if those involved use it as an opportunity to increase understanding and find a way forward together out of the conflict situation.
Types of Conflict
There are three types of conflict, Personal or relational conflicts, instrumental conflicts and conflicts of interest:
- Personal or relational conflicts are usually about identity or self-image, or important aspects of a relationship such as loyalty, breach of confidence, perceived betrayal or lack of respect.
- Instrumental conflicts are about goals, structures, procedures and means: something fairly tangible and structural within the organisation or for an individual.
- Conflicts of interest concern the ways in which the means of achieving goals are distributed, such as time, money, space and staff. They may also be about factors related to these, such as relative importance, or knowledge and expertise. An example would be a couple disagreeing over whether to spend a bonus on a holiday or to repair the roof.
Before you can resolve a conflict, or even decide on a strategy for resolving it, you need to identify its source and therefore its type.
It’s important to emphasise that dealing with conflict early is usually easier, because positions are not so entrenched, others are less likely to have started to take sides, and the negative emotions are not so extreme. The best way to address a conflict in its early stages is through negotiation between the participants.
Later on, those in conflict are likely to need the support of mediation, or even arbitration or a court judgement, so it’s much better to resolve things early.
There are five main strategies for dealing with conflicts, all of which can be considered in terms of who wins and who loses.
As our page Transactional Analysis makes clear, a win-win situation is always going to be better for everyone.
5 Strategies for Dealing with Conflict
1) Compete or Fight
This is the classic win/lose situation, where the strength and power of one person wins the conflict.
It has its place, but anyone using it needs to be aware that it will create a loser and if that loser has no outlet for expressing their concerns, then it will lead to bad feeling.
This is the ideal outcome: a win/win situation.
However, it requires input of time from those involved to work through the difficulties, and find a way to solve the problem that is agreeable to all.
3) Compromise or Negotiation
This is likely to result in a better result than win/lose, but it’s not quite win/win.
Both parties give up something, in favour of an agreed mid-point solution. It takes less time than collaboration, but is likely to result in less commitment to the outcome.
4) Denial or Avoidance
This is where everyone pretends there is no problem.
It’s helpful if those in conflict need time to ‘cool down’ before any discussion or if the conflict is unimportant, but cannot be used if the conflict won’t just die down. It will create a lose/lose situation, since there will still be bad feeling, but no clearing the air through discussion, and results, in Transactional Analysis terms, in ‘I’m not OK, you’re not OK’.
5) Smoothing Over the Problem
On the surface, harmony is maintained, but underneath, there is still conflict.
It’s similar to the situation above, except that one person is probably OK with this smoothing, while the other remains in conflict, creating a win/lose situation again. It can work where preserving a relationship is more important than dealing with the conflict right now, but is not useful if others feel the need to deal with the situation.
These five behaviours can be shown in terms of a balance between concern for self and concern for others:
Essential Skills for Handling Conflict
There are a wide range of useful skills for handling conflict. Possibly the most important is assertiveness.
You need to be able to express your views clearly and firmly, but without aggression. One model to use is ‘Describe the situation, Express your feelings and Specify what you want done’, but for more information, and ideas for developing your assertiveness, see our our Assertiveness pages.
You also need to practise active listening, to ensure that you fully understand the position of those involved in the conflict, whether you are an active participant, or a potential mediator. Check out our page on Active Listening for more information.
It’s also helpful to understand and recognise emotion in both yourself and others.
Emotions are never good or bad, but simply appropriate or inappropriate, and it’s useful in managing conflict to help others recognise when emotions are inappropriate, and when it’s fine to express them. For more, look at our pages on Emotional Intelligence and Understanding Others.
You will also find it helpful to be able to put yourself in other people’s shoes, and support those involved to do the same. This skill is called Empathy.
Further Reading from Skills You Need
Learn more about how to effectively resolve conflict and mediate personal relationships at home, at work and socially.
Our eBooks are ideal for anyone who wants to learn about or develop their interpersonal skills and are full of easy-to-follow, practical information.
In handling conflict both as a direct participant and as a potential mediator, it is important to know your limitations.
If you reach a point where you don’t feel confident that your intervention is going to help, then it’s OK to step back and ask for help. Sometimes you might need to involve someone else, such as a trained mediator, and that’s fine. It’s better to ask for help than to step in and make matters worse.