Saturday, April 23, 2016

Conflict: It's Not Always What You Think It Is

Many people believe interpersonal conflict is automatically a bad thing. Like many other concepts, the negativity of conflict stems mostly from a person's interpretation of it. As usual, let us begin by formally defining the term.

Interpersonal conflict: a situation in which two or more people disagree

As you can see, there does not have to be anything world-shattering in conflict. You feel that pizza is the best dinner choice and someone else feels like burgers are better. This is a conflict. One person thinks Ben Afleck was the best Batman, another believes it was Adam West. This is an interpersonal conflict. Misunderstandings, incompatible goals, differing values and beliefs, and unaligned attitudes can all lead to some kind of conflict between individuals, sometimes groups.

There are many types of conflict, each of which may determine not only how we deal with the particular disagreement, but also how potentially negative or positive it may be.

  • Pseudoconflict: a false conflict from game playing or joking. The key is being able to recognize whether or not it is a "game" and not allowing yourself to be drawn in or baited, especially if you have no desire to argue over non-substantial things.
  • Fact-based conflict: a disagreement about factual issues, such as who was the prime minister of Canada in 1973 or the life-time batting average of Babe Ruth. To reduce the negativity surrounding this kind of conflict, check the facts and do not dwell on who was right or who was wrong.
  • Policy conflict: a disagreement about how to handle a situation. This is a type of conflict that has the potential to get very personal, very quickly. Success in handling this conflict depends on finding a solution that addresses the problem itself while keeping in mind the feelings of the parties involved.
  • Value-based conflict: a disagreement that occurs when people hold opposing values on things such as religion, politics, social and aesthetic issues. These types of conflict are very personal because sometimes the argument is about something that is core to a person's identity. If the issues cannot be resolved, if the argument is not a philosophical one but one that involves the necessity of action (e.g. passing a law that might infringe on personal freedoms in order to increase public safety), the situation has the potential to become particularly heated. In your own personal life, you can maintain your relationship with an individual with whom you have a value-based conflict by taking turns obliging each other's views and beliefs. In general, we tend to form relationships with people who have similar values as ourselves in order to minimize the possibility of encountering these conflicts.
  • Ego-based conflict: a disagreement in which the emphasis is on winning over resolving the actual conflict. This may have started as one of the previously mentioned types of conflict above, but one or both of the parties view the outcome as a measure of self-worth. They feel as if they are putting their reputation on the line. At that point winning becomes more important than the issue itself. It is important to recognize early on when any disagreement becomes ego-based. Moving it back to a content level may help diffuse the personal nature of the conflict so that the parties involved do not take winning or losing as a personal attack.

Interpersonal conflict does not have to be a negative event, nor does it necessarily have to lead to the end of a relationship. If we consistently view conflict negatively, then we will have a tendency to avoid dealing with disagreements. If the relationship is unimportant or the cost of confrontation is too high, then this might be an acceptable option. However, if this is an important relationship, then dealing constructively with conflict can actually generate beneficial outcomes. Issues that are aired out and resolved remove psychological burdens and anxieties. A problem is nearly impossible to solve if it is not actually addressed. Dealing with a disagreement can also end chronic sources of discontent in a relationship. If something is bothering you, then talking about it with the individual will shed light on the situation that they may not even know existed until you said something. A conflict can also bring new insights by highlight divergent viewpoints, allowing you to see the issue at hand from a fresh perspective.

The best way to deal constructively with interpersonal conflict is to communicate openly and honestly and focus on specific details rather than general statements about the other person. Avoid the use of loaded, or trigger, words and use tact and grace. Approach the disagreement positively, as an opportunity to see differences with a goal to resolving the issue in a way that will allow all parties to keep their egos intact. My next post will take a look at conflict management styles that may or may not be successful, depending upon the type of conflict and one's personal preference for dealing with disagreements.