Conflict Management Conflict Management

Why the study of conflict is important

Key elements of conflict

The nature of conflict

Variables in the study of conflict

Skills for conflict managers

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Key Elements of Conflict

Conflict and interdependence
Perceived incompatible goals

Perceived scarce resources


Conflict and Interdependence

Early social science definitions of conflict. All interpersonal conflicts, whether they occur between family members, students and teachers, employees and supervisors, or groups, have certain elements in common. One of the popular definitions of conflict, offered by Coser (1967, 8), asserts that conflict is "a struggle over values and claims to scarce status, power, and resources, in which the aims of the opponents are to neutralize, injure, or eliminate the rivals." Notice that this definition grew out of the cold war, when conflict between the United States and the former U.S.S.R. dominated Western approaches to conflict. Conflict was definitely viewed as a win-lose situation. In 1973, Deutsch maintained that "conflict exists whenever incompatible activities occur . . . an action which prevents, obstructs, interferes with, injures, or in some way makes it less likely or less effective" (156). Mack and Snyder (1973) suggested that two parties must be present, along with "position scarcity" or "resource scarcity," in addition to behaviors that "destroy, injure, thwart, or otherwise control another party or parties, . . . one in which the parties can gain (relatively) only at each other's expense" (36). All of these early social science definitions help us distinguish conflict from simple "strain," "disagreement" or "controversy" (Simons 1972; Schmidt and Kochan 1972).

Contemporary social science definitions of conflict. Contemporary definitions of conflict focus largely on interdependence, instead of unalterable opposition. Donohue and Kolt (1992, 3) define conflict as "a situation in which interdependent people express (manifest or latent) differences in satisfying their individual needs and interests, and they experience interference from each other in accomplishing these goals." Jordan (1990, 4) writes that "conflict arises when a difference between two (or more) people necessitates change in at least one person in order for their engagement to continue and develop. The differences cannot coexist without some adjustment." Parties are presented as inherently interdependent. Additionally, at least one person may need to change his or her perception of the situation. Conflict is sometimes, but not always, accompanied by anger or strong emotion.

Conflict is also characterized as varying in intensity and range. At least two continua have been advanced to describe the intensity of conflict. In one, it may be seen as a (1) mild difference, (2) disagreement, (3) dispute, (4) campaign, (5) litigation, or (6) fight or war (Keltner 1987). Another continuum (Moore 1996) shows conflict ranging from avoidance [through informal discussion and problem solving to negotiation to mediation to Administrative decision to arbitration to Judicial Decision to Legislative decision to Nonviolent direct action to violence] […] Our conflict management choices range from low coercion to increased coercion of the other party; they also reflect who is making the decisions:  the parties themselves or an external authority.

Conflict and communication. An interpersonal approach to conflict management focuses on the communicative exchanges that make up the conflict episode. Intrapersonal conflict – internal strain that creates a state of ambivalence, conflicting internal dialogue or lack of resolution in one's thinking and feeling – accompanies interpersonal conflict. One may endure intrapersonal conflict for a while before such a struggle is expressed. If you are upset with your father yet do not write him, or phone him less often, and avoid expressing your concern, do you have a conflict?

People involved in conflict have perceptions about their own thoughts and feelings, and they have perceptions about the other's thoughts and feelings. Conflict is present when there are joint communicative representations of it. The verbal or nonverbal communication may be subtle--a slight shift in body placement by Jill and a hurried greeting by Susan--but it must be present for the activity to be considered interpersonal conflict. Therefore, although other conditions must also exist before an interaction is labeled "conflict," Jandt (1973, 2) asserts, "Conflict exists when the parties involved agree in some way that the behaviors associated with their relationship are labeled as 'conflict' behavior." Often, the communicative behavior is easily identified with conflict, such as when one party openly disagrees with the other. Other times, however, an interpersonal conflict may be operating at a more tacit level. Two friends, for instance, may be consciously avoiding each other because both think, "I don't want to see him for a few days because of what he did." The interpersonal struggle is expressed by the avoidance. Intrapersonal perceptions are the bedrock upon which conflict is built, but only when there are communicative manifestations of these perceptions will an "interpersonal conflict" emerge.

Most expressed struggles become activated by a triggering event.  A staff member of a counseling agency is fired, setting off a series of meetings culminating in the staff's demand to the board that the director be fired. Or, in a roommate situation, Carl comes home one night and the locks are changed on the door. The triggering event brings the conflict to everyone's attention – it is the lightning rod of recognition.

Communication is the central element in interpersonal conflict.  Communication and conflict are related in the following ways:

  • Communication creates conflict.
  • Communication reflects conflict.
  • Communication is the vehicle for the destructive or productive management of conflict.

Thus, communication and conflict are inextricably tied. For example, the most distinguishing characteristic of happily married couples is their ability to reach consensus on conflictual issues (Mettetal and Gottman 1980). How one communicates in a conflictual situation has profound implications for the residual impact of that conflict. If two work associates are vying for the same position, they can handle the competition in a variety of ways. They may engage in repetitive, damaging rounds with one another, or they may successfully manage the conflict. Communication can be used to exacerbate the conflict or lead to its productive management.

Cooperation and competition. Conflict parties engage in an expressed struggle and interfere with one another because they are interdependent. "A person who is not dependent upon another – that is, who has no special interest in what the other does – has no conflict with that other person" (Braiker and Kelley 1979, 137). Each person's choices affect the other because conflict is a mutual activity. People are seldom totally opposed to each other. Even two people who are having an "intellectual conflict" over whether a community should limit its growth are to some extent cooperating with each other. They have, in effect, said, "Look, we are going to have this verbal argument, and we aren't going to hit each other, and both of us will get certain rewards for participating in this flexing of our intellectual muscles. We'll play by the rules, which we both understand." Schelling (1960) calls strategic conflict (conflict in which parties have choices as opposed to conflict in which the power is so disparate that there are virtually no choices) a "theory of precarious partnership" or "incomplete antagonism." In other words, even these informal debaters concerned with a city's growth cannot formulate their verbal tactics until they know the "moves" made by the other party.

Parties in strategic conflict, therefore, are never totally antagonistic and must have mutual interests, even if the interest is only in keeping the conflict going. Without openly saying so, they often are thinking, "How can we have this conflict in a way that increases the benefit to me?" These decisions are complex, with parties reacting not in a linear, cause-effect manner but with a series of interdependent decisions. Bateson (1972) presents an "ecological" view of patterns in relationships. As in the natural environment, in which a decision to eliminate coyotes because they are a menace to sheep affects the overall balance of animals and plants, no one party in a conflict can make a decision that is totally separate – each decision affects the other conflict participants. In all conflicts, therefore, interdependence carries elements of cooperation and elements of competition.

Mutual influence. A basic question in any conflict is, "How much are we willing to allow each other to influence our choices?"  Persons who understand themselves as interdependent must determine who they are as a unit after they decide individually how much influence they want the other person to have over them. (Sometimes, these choices are not available.) They must decide, tacitly or overtly, which rules bind them, how they will communicate, where "beltlines" are (Bach and Wyden 1968), and dozens of other relationship issues that define them as a conflict unit proceeding toward mutual and individual goals. People who see themselves as relatively independent are primarily concerned with acting issues – where will I go, what will I get, or how can I win? But those who view themselves as highly interdependent must, in addition, decide being issues – who are we, and how will this relationship be defined? For instance, two persons in competition for a job are more interested in maximizing their own gains than the gains of the ephemeral relationship. One year later, after both individuals have been hired by the company, they perceive themselves as highly interdependent when asked to work together. While still in competition with each other for promotions, they must also define for themselves a workable relationship that enhances desired goals for them both.

Negotiating interdependence. Even though conflict parties are always interdependent to some extent, how they perceive their mutuality affects their later choices. Parties may choose interdependence – “we are in this together," – or independence, believing that "just doing my own thing" is possible and desirable.

A couple had been divorced for three years and came to a mediator to decide what to do about changing visitation agreements as their three children grew older. In the first session, the former husband wanted a higher degree of interdependence than did the former wife. He wanted to communicate frequently by phone, adopting flexible arrangements based on the children's wishes and his travel schedule. She wanted a monthly schedule set up in advance, communicated in writing. After talking through their common interest in their children; their own complicated personal, work, and travel lives; and the children's school and sports commitments, they worked out a solution that suited them all. Realizing that they were unavoidably interdependent, they agreed to lessen their verbal and in-person communication while agreeing to maintain written communication. They worked out an acceptable level of interdependence.

Balancing interdependence and independence. Sometimes parties are locked into a position of mutual interdependence whether they want to be or not.  Not all interdependent units choose to be interdependent but are so for other compelling reasons.  Most relationships move back and forth between degrees of independence and interdependence. At times there will be an emphasis on "me"--what I want--and on separateness, whereas at other times "we"--our nature as a unit--becomes the focus. These are natural rhythmic swings in relationships (Frentz and Rushing 1980; Galvin and Brommel 1982; Olson, Sprenkle, and Russell 1979; Baxter 1982; Bochner 1982; Stewart 1978). Just as we all need both stability and change, conflict parties have to balance their independence and dependence needs.

The previous discussion suggests, for clarity's sake, that relationships and interdependence issues precede other issues in the conflict. Actually, these negotiations over interdependence permeate most conflicts throughout the course of the relationship, never becoming completely settled. A helpful practice is to address the interdependence issue openly in ongoing, highly important relationships. In more transient and less salient relationships, the interdependence may be primarily tacit or understood.

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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