1.1 Conflict Defined

There are many different definitions of conflict existing in the literature. For our purposes,

Conflict occurs in interactions in which there are real or perceived incompatible goals, scare resources, or opposing viewpoints.

Conflict can vary in severity from mild to severe and can be expressed verbally or nonverbally along a continuum ranging from a nearly imperceptible cold shoulder to a very obvious blowout.

Elements of Conflict

There are six elements to a conflict described by Rice (2006). The are:

  1. Conflict is inevitable. Unless there is a way that we could be cloned or exactly the same as everyone else, there WILL be disagreements.
  2. Conflict by itself is neither good nor bad; it is what happens that has good or bad outcomes. In Chinese writing, the characters for the word conflict are actually the characters for two other words–danger and opportunity. In essence, the danger of unresolved or ineffectively resolved conflict can lead to bad outcomes, and the opportunity of working through a conflict can lead to good outcomes.
  3. Conflict is a process (rather than a moment in time). We each make choices every time we respond to the other person in a conflict, and those choices dictate what happens next.
  4. Conflict consumes energy, but so does NOT dealing with conflict. Most of us are familiar with that knot-in-the-stomach feeling that goes along with avoiding someone with whom one has an unresolved conflict.
  5. Conflict has elements of both content and feeling/relationships. A conflict is rarely just about what it is about (content); it usually has more to do with the feelings and state of the relationship underneath. For example, if two people repetitively argue about who takes out the trash, the argument is probably really about feeling respected and validated, rather than the garbage!
  6. Finally, one has a choice in conflict to be proactive or reactive—and the more non-violent one chooses to be, the more proactive a person will become. The participant will learn to act when he/she senses conflict, so that it can be resolved before it festers and grows.

Other Key Terms

Some people use the terms conflict, competition, dispute, and violence interchangeably. While these concepts are similar, they aren’t exactly the same. We will define each of these terms to ensure that we have a shared understanding of how they will be used in this book:

Dispute is a term for a disagreement between parties. Typically, a dispute is adversarial in nature. While conflict can be hostile, it isn’t always . Dispute also sometimes carries with it a legal connotation. We will briefly discuss labour relations later in this book.

Competition is a rivalry between two groups or two individuals over an outcome that they both seek. In a competition there is a winner and a loser. Parties involved in a conflict may or may not view the situation as a competition for resources. Ideally, parties in a conflict will work together rather than compete.

The term interpersonal violence is also not synonymous with conflict. Although some conflict situations escalate to include acts of aggression and hostility, interpersonal violence involves acts of aggression such as an intent to harm or actual physical or psychological harm to another or their property. Ideally, conflict will be productive, respectful, and non-violent.

All of these terms – conflict, dispute, competition, and violence – are all distinct and have important role to play in framing our discussion of conflict.

Let’s Review

Review the following scenarios and decided whether it’s an example of a dispute, a competition or interpersonal virulence.

Three Views of Workplace Conflict

There has been plenty of conflict over how conflict is viewed in the workplace over the years. In this section, we will discuss the traditional view, the human relations view, and the interactionist view.

Traditional View

Early in our pursuit of management study, conflict was thought to be a dysfunctional outcome, a result of poor communication and lack of trust between co-workers. Conflict was associated with words like violence and destruction, and people were encouraged to avoid it at all costs.

This was the case all the way up until the 1940s, and, if you think about it, it goes right along with what we thought we knew about what motivated people, how they worked together and the structure and supervision we thought we needed to provide to ensure productivity. Because we viewed all conflict as bad, we looked to eradicate it, usually by addressing it with the person causing it. Once addressed, group and organization would become more productive again. While many of us still take the traditional view that conflict is bad and we need to get rid of it, evidence today tells us that’s not the case.

The Human Relations View

Since the late 1940s, our studies of organizational behavior have indicated that conflict isn’t so thoroughly bad. We came to view it as a natural occurrence in groups, teams and organizations. The human relations view suggested that, because conflict was inevitable, we should learn to embrace it. But they were just starting to realize, with this point of view, that conflict might benefit a group’s performance. These views of dominated conflict theory from the late 1940s through the mid-1970s.

The Interactionist View

In the interactionist view of conflict, we went from accepting that conflict would exist and dealing with it to an understanding that a work group that was completely harmonious and cooperative was prone to becoming static and non-responsive to needs for change and innovation. This view encourages managers to maintain a minimal level of conflict, a level that was enough to keep the group creative and moving forward. The interactionist view is still viable today, so it’s the view we’re going to take from here on as we discuss conflict. We know that all conflict is both good and bad, appropriate and inappropriate, and how we rate conflict is going to depend on the type of conflict.

Adapted Works

Introduction” in Making Conflict Suck Less: The Basics by Ashley Orme Nichols is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Non-Violent Conflict Management: Conflict Resolution, Dealing with Anger, and Negotiation, and Mediation by Susan Rice, University of California at Berkeley, California Social Work Education Center is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 License, except where otherwise noted.

What Is Conflict?” by Freedom Learning Group, Lumen Learning is licenced under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.


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Conflict Management Copyright © 2022 by Laura Westmaas, BA, MSc is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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