Scholars and professionals have been studying conflict management intensely since about the mid-20th century, and they’ve generated some new thoughts based on research that can help us understand what’s going on in a conflict, elements that we may be juggling as we deal with conflict, and what specific things we can do to get better results from conflicts. Note, however, that there is no easy recipe for managing conflict.
What is “conflict”? A comprehensive phrase reads as follows: “a depicted battle involving no less than two interdependent individuals or groups who view incompatible objectives, limited resources, and interference from other individuals in attaining their goals.” A shorter definition of conflict might be that it is a “discomforting difference.” The five elements that are always present in a conflict are: (1) interdependence (meaning that the behavior of one party has an effect on the other), (2) difference, (3) opposition, (4) expression, and (5) emotion.
Why do we need to handle conflict better than we do? First, we want to avoid the harms that can come from conflict, and second, we want to reach the benefits that can come from it. To avoid the harms that stem from conflict, we have to face the “Four Awful Truths”: (1) Conflict will occur; it is inherent in human interaction; (2) conflict always involves some risks and costs; (3) the damage that occurs in conflict results not so much from the conflict itself but from the dysfunctional strategies that we use to deal with it; and (4) some of the damage that occurs in conflict is irreversible.
Of course, there is also a positive side to conflict. It brings to the surface problems that we didn’t see before, which can be especially useful in organizations. Going through conflict deepens our understanding of one another and enables us to improve our relationships.
Keep in mind that there is also a positive side to conflict. It brings to the surface problems that we didn’t see before, which can be especially useful in organizations. Success in handling conflict is through research. In fact, conflict management is a major area of research in psychology, sociology, communication, and organizational management. Some of the questions that have been explored include the following: In order for one party to win in a conflict, does the other party have to lose, or do the two parties have to compromise to keep one from losing? What are we really after when we engage in conflict? If we want to reach a good resolution, what should we focus on in negotiating?
It’s important to note that when we try to change the way we think about or behave in a conflict, we’re not writing on a blank slate. The fact is that we started learning to manage conflict early, and those lessons do not just go away because we’ve done some research or listened to a lecture. We learn to deal with conflict from our culture, from our families, and from organizations. Probably your first lesson in managing conflict came from your family, when you were in your “terrible twos” and you decided to try out saying “no” for the first time. You’ve been learning to manage conflict ever since.
Some of what we have learned from our families, our culture, and our organizations works well, but some of our ideas about conflict and the ways we deal with it are misguided. For example, it’s not true that if you’re in a love relationship, you shouldn’t have conflict, or that the person you’re having a conflict with is your enemy; conflict most commonly occurs among couples, family members, friends, or colleagues. Some people think that “winning” a conflict requires having more power than the other party. But the only power two parties need in a conflict is a sufficient degree of interdependence to make it worth each person’s while to work things out. Finally, it’s not true that conflicts are just communication problems. Communication is almost always essential in resolving conflicts, but it’s rarely a solution in itself.