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Why the study of conflict is important

Key elements of conflict

The nature of conflict

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Why the study of conflict is important

Conflicts arise naturally in every arena of daily life.
Conflict management is a key skill for all successful long-term relationships
.
There are good reasons for employing conflict management skills
.
There are advantages to conflict
.

Conflicts arise naturally in every arena of daily life.

It happens on the job, between groups in our society, within families, and right in the middle of our most personal relationships. Conflict is ever present and both fascinating and maddening. The challenges of dealing with differences have rarely been greater.

When a person arises in the morning at home and greets family or roommates, conflict potential abounds.  In educational contexts, differences occur about goals, procedures, or activities. As customers, our hopes and desires sometimes diverge from the stated policies of the stores we visit. As employees, daily work with clients, customers, co-workers, or bosses can be a struggle.

While scholars study conflict management in a variety of contexts (intimacy, work, education, romance, mixed and same sex friendship, intercultural, organizational, war and peace), the basic elements or variables of conflict remain stable across contexts.

This Web site presents a general overview of interpersonal conflict management rather than an in-depth focus on any particular context.

Some qualifiers and limitations:

On the global scale, nations struggle with one another, both diplomatically and militarily.  And with the increased globalization of the world's economy, we are all becoming more interdependent with one another (Brown 1992). War, international negotiation, and ethnic/racial conflict also are important arenas of study. This site focuses on interpersonal conflict.  Exclusion of other areas of study in no way implies they are not important or valuable.

This site also discusses interpersonal conflict primarily from a North American viewpoint, with its supporting theory and research drawn mostly from European-American traditions.

Conflict is a fact of organizational life. On the job, "conflict is a stubborn fact of organizational life" (Kolb and Putnam 1992, 311). Rather than seeing conflict as abnormal, Pondy (1992) suggests we view organizations as "arenas for staging conflicts, and managers as both fight promoters who organize bouts and as referees who regulate them" (259). Furthermore, Pondy asserts that in the company, agency, or small business, conflict may be the very essence of what the organization is about, and if "conflict isn't happening then the organization has no reason for being." One study surveyed workers and found that almost 85 percent reported conflicts at work (Volkema and Bergmann 1989). And with an increasing awareness of cultural diversity and gender equity issues, it is imperative that we become familiar with issues surrounding promotions and harassment. In fact, one can see training in organizations as a form of preventive conflict management (Hathaway 1995). The recognition of the prevalence of conflict at work has led to books on mediating conflict in the workplace (Yarbrough and Wilmot 1995), showing how managers can learn conflict management skills to intervene in disputes in their organization.

Ongoing, unresolved workplace conflict also has negative impacts that reach far beyond the principal parties. In an electronics plant, for example, if the director of engineering and the director of production are unable to reach agreement about quality controls, the staffs of both engineering and production actively complain about one another, subverting both groups' goals. The continual avoidance of the problem seeps throughout the organization, affecting everyone who has direct contact with the directors. If the executive director of a nonprofit agency and her board cannot get along, employees tend to take sides, fear for their jobs, and, like those above them, wage a campaign discrediting the other group. Ignoring workplace conflict sets destructive forces in motion that decrease productivity, spread the conflict to others, and lead to lessened morale and productivity. In one organization one of us recently entered, the president and CEO was on the verge of reorganizing the structure, affecting 600 people so that two vice presidents would not have to talk to one another!

Conflict is a fact of personal life. In your personal relationships, the study of conflict also can pay big dividends. If you are an adolescent or parent of an adolescent, it will come as no surprise to you that it takes about ten years for parents and children to renegotiate roles closer to equality than their earlier parent-child relationship (Comstock 1994), and at the heart of this renegotiation is the conflict process. The study of conflict can assist in this renegotiation process, letting you see which styles backfire, which ones work best, and how much productive power you have available.

We all know that romantic relationships provide a rigorous test of our skills. Siegert and Stamp (1994) studied the effects of the "First Big Fight" in dating relationships, noting that some couples survive and prosper, whereas others break up. These communication researchers tell us quite clearly that "the big difference between the non-survivors and survivors was the way they perceived and handled conflict" (357). As Wilmot (1995) wrote, "What determines the course of a relationship . . . is in a large measure determined by how successfully the participants move through conflict episodes" (95).

One of the ultimate testing grounds for romantic relationships is marriage. Almost all spouses report "occasional marital disagreement" (Bolger et al. 1989; Metz, Rosser, and Strapko 1994). For many spouses the disagreements may be only once or twice a month, yet for others they may continue over many days (Bolger et al. 1989). It is common and normal for partners to have conflicts or disagreements, and in fact, managing conflict is one of the central tasks of maintaining a marriage (Gottman 1994). As you might guess, learning to constructively resolve conflict is clearly and directly linked to marital satisfaction. "Findings regarding the link between conflict resolution styles and marital satisfaction have been consistent in indicating that each spouse's marital satisfaction is positively related to the frequency with which each spouse uses constructive strategies to resolve conflict" (Kurdek 1995, 153).

Reprinted with permission of the publisher.
William W. Wilmot and Joyce L. Hocker, Interpersonal Conflict, 5th edition (copyright 1998 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.). McGraw-Hill and the CIOS site author make no representations or warranties as to the accuracy of any information contained in the McGraw-Hill Material, including any warranties of merchantability or fitness for a particular purpose. In no event shall McGraw-Hill have any liability to any party for special, incidental, tort, or consequential damages arising out of or in connection with the McGraw-Hill Material, even if McGraw-Hill has been advised of the possibility of such damages.

 
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