Principles of Conflict

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by William Donohue



Conflict Defined

Conflicts are Stressful

Opportunities Created by Conflict

Forms of Conflict Outcomes

Constructive vs. Destructive Conflict

Conflict Communication Style

Stages of Conflict





Conflicts are particularly challenging, largely because they are emotionally draining and very stressful.  Most people tend to avoid conflict.  This avoidance often results in parties sidestepping important issues that are critical to discuss for the health of their relationship.   In other words, conflict is about change, or a shift in direction.  That shift can be troublesome and threatening, but it can also be an opportunity for growth.

Let’s look at three conflicts and explore both their dangers and opportunities:

The Sniper Scenario.  When intimate couples fight, they’re often not very good at it.  One of the least productive exchanges is called “Sniping.”  It involves one person trying to pick a fight with an intimate partner.  Perhaps she is really upset about something.  She walks into the room where he’s watching TV and she yells as loudly as possible, “You bastard!”  Then she stomps out of the room.  He might sit there and just respond with, “What?”  The idea is that she takes a shot to “kill” her target with a remark and then quickly exits.

The danger in sniping is that it risks irreversibly damaging the relationship.  The opportunity presented by her sniper attack is an opening to address key issues dividing them.  This opportunity will only be realized if she stays in the room and tries to work through her concerns. 

The Job Review Scenario.  Imagine that you are a veteran employee of a company.  You just got called into the boss’ office for your annual job review.  You anticipate that it will be tense since you and the boss have not been getting along very well.  As you walk in to her office the boss seems upset.  She begins the conversation by saying, “What the hell do you think you’re doing?  Don’t you know that we’re in trouble here and all you do is keep sending me bad information about what’s going on in the field?  That doesn’t do me any good.  You better straighten up and do your job!”

The danger in yelling at the employee is that she risks alienating him from working there while also threatening a positive working relationship.  The opportunity created by her outburst is raising some important issues about his performance and the goals of the organization.  As in the Sniper scenario, these opportunities will only surface if she calms down and shifts the discussion to the specific issues causing her outburst.     

The Diplomat Scenario.  In 2010, Vice President Joe Biden traveled to Israel for a diplomatic mission aimed at stimulating peace talks between Palestinians and Israelis.  One of the big issues that appeared to be hindering talks is the development of Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem, which Palestinians claim as their capitol.  The day Vice President Biden arrived, the Israeli Prime Minister announced more government-supported settlements in East Jerusalem, which U.S. officials took as a slap in the face to the Vice President’s peace mission. 

A few weeks later, the Israeli Prime Minister visited Washington and President Obama did not have dinner with him, which the Israeli press interpreted as a rude diplomatic slight, or insult.  Normally the President would have a state dinner with the Israel Prime Minister, but President Obama chose not to.  Was he trying to send a message by not inviting him?

The danger presented by President Obama’s diplomatic slight is a less cooperative relationship with Israel.  The opportunity presented by the slight is increased motivation to help each country decide what kind of relationship they want to help bring peace to the Middle East.  To take advantage of that opportunity they would need to address the issue directly and not run from it. 



Conflict Defined

To understand these three scenarios let’s first see how they qualify as conflicts.  According to an earlier book of mine (Donohue & Kolt, 1992), there are five elements that define an exchange as a conflict:

  • An Expressed Struggle.  Each of these scenarios reveals a struggle that all parties recognize.  We are not talking about conflicts that only one person acknowledges.  These conflicts are out in the open.  All parties involved must see that a conflict has emerged and have a stake in its outcome.
  • Between Interdependent Parties.  Notice that in each of the examples, individuals are highly involved with one another, either as relational partners, employer/employee, or as individuals involved in a diplomatic exchange.  One of the factors that feeds conflict escalation is the difficulty of walking away.  The more interdependent parties are, the more they can impact one another personally and even economically.
  • With Perceived Incompatible Needs and Interests.  All conflicts involve issues related to both social identity needs and material interests.  Let’s first explore the social identity component since it is the most challenging to address.  People build an identity (or set of beliefs about themselves) to enable them to satisfy their social needs for inclusion (being respected by the group), control (getting people to listen) and affection (getting people to be nice).  Every time we interpret a message, we evaluate the extent to which it supports or threatens these three needs. 

Would you feel disrespected and personally offended if your boss yelled at you like in a job review talk?  If so, then you would feel that she attacked your social identity because she denied your needs for inclusion and affection.  Needs-based conflicts like this one become very emotional quickly because people feel personally attacked.  Your positive and negative face needs have been denied and you may try to strike back to restore them.  This attack-defend cycle is what makes conflict escalate.     

Also notice that in the job review scenario the boss raises the material interest issue of how the employee is communicating with her.  She complains about not getting sufficient information.  If she had raised that interest without first attacking the employee’s social identity, they could have talked about it more calmly and constructively.  Instead, she chose to yell.  In conflict, satisfying our social identity needs is mandatory.  These needs are not negotiable.  We must satisfy and defend them. 

Material interests are different.  These issues are negotiable since there are many ways to resolve them.  All conflicts contain issues related to social identities and material interests, and therefore have the potential to get out of control if parties only focus on identities.  The key is to keep the conflict focused on the material interests and away from social identities.

  • And Perceived Interference.  Not only do parties perceive that they have incompatible identity needs and material interests, they also perceive the other is actively interfering and standing in the way of satisfying these needs and interests.  After all, if you perceive that the other is showing disrespect, then that person is interfering with your right to be addressed in a respectful, honest, and pleasant manner.

Perceived interference was a big factor in the Diplomatic scenario.  By announcing settlements in East Jerusalem, the U.S. perceived that the Israelis were actively interfering with the peace process.  The Israelis refuted this perception by claiming the announcement was purely coincidental with the Vice President’s visit.  Whatever the case, perceived interference played a big part in the dispute.

Problem Solving vs. Conflict.  It is important to note the difference between problem solving and conflict.  Problem solving involves the first three parts of the conflict definition just given.  We have a problem when we have an expressed struggle between interdependent parties who perceive incompatible needs and interests.  In problem solving, there is no perceived interference since both parties are trying to help each other resolve the differences. 

However, a situation escalates to conflict when the perception of interference becomes clear and obvious. Most interference appears in the form of social identity attacks.  Showing disrespect, not listening or being rude is a sign that the other is less interested in helping you address your material interests and more interested in attacking your positive and negative face



Conflicts are Stressful

Social Identity Protection.  One of my favorite perspectives about conflict issues is reflected in Felson and Tedeschi’s (1992) book focusing on aggression and violence.  Dr. Richard Felson makes the point that social identity is at the heart of intense conflict.  On the one hand, people often run from conflicts because they are personally threatening.  This sense of personal threat is created by the sense of perceived interference.  When the interference becomes apparent and a social need is violated, the identity threat becomes real.  Many feel it’s best to just avoid that problem and look the other way. 

On the other hand then when conflict can’t be avoided, the strategy for managing conflict is aimed at restoring identity.  Take a look at the conflict scenarios described at the beginning of this chapter.  All of them involve someone “yelling” at someone else.  In each case, this yelling (metaphorical yelling in the case of the Diplomatic Slight Scenario) is viewed as a personal attack.  In the Sniping scenario, the woman attacks her boyfriend, probably in response to something that he did that she perceived as an attack on her social identity.  In the job review scenario, the boss yells at the employee and in the diplomatic scenario, the Israeli Prime Minister perceived that President Obama disrespected him.  When social identity needs are violated it’s like telling someone that he or she is not a good person.

To protect our social identity we often strike back to restore positive and negative face needs.  We want to look good and we don’t want to be controlled.  

Disputants can reduce stress by simply granting positive and negative face needs and focusing on material interests.  This is not a simple task because face issues are always present in communication and they are particularly important when parties perceive any interference from one another.  Later in this chapter we will talk about using constructive conflict strategies for taking advantage of the opportunities presented by the conflict. 

Surprise.  Conflicts often arise from some triggering event that was completely unintentional.   Although it may seem that we have done nothing to provoke a dispute, people in conflict with us can usually point to an incident that set them off.  We are perceived to have done something that was unacceptable.  As in the diplomatic scenario, the offending event was a statement about settlements in East Jerusalem.  This announcement caught the U.S. Vice President by surprise without any warning that such an announcement might be coming. 

Scarce Rewards.   People often become emotional when they are afraid.  Fear becomes a factor when people really want something and they can’t get it.  Or when people try to protect something they already own they become afraid.  You can imagine that the boss’s yelling in the job review scenario could have been driven because she was afraid of losing an important contract.  That fear probably caused her to get emotional and attack the employee.  Conflict can also emerge from being denied resources others have which people feel they need or deserve.  When people believe they have been deprived relative to others, they can respond aggressively. Those who have resources will likely defend their right of ownership and resist giving them up without compensation.

Personal Values.  Values are a person’s thoughts about what should be.  In a sense, values are goals that we want to achieve and we often expect others to pursue them as well. This means that when another’s behavior is perceived to be inconsistent with our value system, conflict can occur.  If you think about it, our values are very personal.  We often integrate them into our self-concept and they become a part of our identity.  Anyone who attacks your values attacks you personally. 

In the sniper scenario, the woman probably yelled at her boyfriend because he violated some key value that she held strongly and she took the violation as a personal attack.  Conflicts over values are difficult to manage because people often view values as non-negotiable.  Moreover, we often imagine that individuals who hold different values from our own are extremist and biased.  

Strongly-held Beliefs.  Beliefs are perceptions of what’s true or not true about someone or something.  Where values are focused on what should be, beliefs concern what is.”  People become attached to their beliefs, and will often only look at things that are consistent with those beliefs.  So, when others challenge strongly-held beliefs, individuals become very emotional.  Again, it is almost perceived as a personal attack.  The U.S. believes that settlements in East Jerusalem will hurt the peace process.  Thus, any announcement like the one delivered by the Israelis is filtered through that belief.  Combined with the fact that it was a surprise announcement caused a great deal of emotion.        

Relationship Differences.  When individuals display a communication style that implies a different definition of the relationship than was expected, conflict can become emotional.  For example, in the Sniper Scenario, the woman clearly was upset about something.  The most common conflict in intimate relationships is the issue of commitment.  One party is perceived to be more committed than the other party.  In this case, she may have been more committed than she perceived he was, causing her to snipe him in a cursing fashion.

Relationships are very personal because we give so much of ourselves.  Interdependence grows and grows as people become more involved socially and intimately.  As a result, any conflicts about relationships can be emotional.  There is so much at stake personally, socially and even economically.   



Opportunities Created by Conflict

It is difficult to grasp that conflict stirs up about as many opportunities as dangers.  One of the classic books that focuses on how conflict creates opportunities is Professor Lewis Coser’s (1956) book focusing on the functions of social conflict.  He noted that most people can’t see these opportunities simply because it requires them to look past conflict that is personally threatening.  It takes a great deal of courage and skill to see the opportunities instead of the conflicts.  Let’s look at several opportunities that the three conflict scenarios present to the disputants.  

Face Important Problems.  Perhaps the most important opportunity created by conflict is that it often forces individuals to become aware of their problems and respond to them.  It is a force for change.  Just as pain makes us aware that we need to take care of our bodies, conflict signals that something is wrong in our social world.  It alerts us to take action before things worsen.  

Can you hear the pain the woman playing the sniper scenario is expressing?  Her style is very negative and forceful.  The opportunities she presents include redefining their intimate relationship and perhaps strengthening it.  Her partner may or may not choose to play the scenario, and take advantage of her caustically-stated offer.  If he does respond by asking her about the problem using a positive, low-power style he will keep the issue focused on the material interests and less on face needs. 

Provide a Tension Release.  Second, conflict can serve as a release for tension.  The sniper also releases some tension by engaging in the sniping scenario.  The issue she was facing was probably causing her a great deal of emotional distress.  Getting it out in the open helps relieve her tension, while also giving her an opportunity to face the issue directly rather than stew about it.   

Expose Problem-Solving Alternatives.  Third, conflict can make us aware of alternative ways of doing things.  The Diplomatic Slight Scenario provides a key opportunity for each of the significant parties in the Palestinian-Israeli dispute to address the issue of settlements.  Since this is such a key material issue in building peace, the perceived slight presents an opportunity to take on this issue directly.  The parties may consider some options to both manage the settlement issue while still working toward building a Palestinian homeland, a goal articulated by all sides in the conflict.    Expressing diverse and often conflicting viewpoints is a necessary ingredient for effective decision-making.

Strengthen Relationships.  Finally, conflict has the potential to strengthen relationships.  The willingness to confront a problem signals a commitment to the relationship.  The job review scenario played by the boss could certainly freak out the employee.  Being confronted in that manner violates a number of social identity needs for respect, and threatens both positive and negative face.  Yet the opportunity she presents is a commitment to address vital material interests related to the business.  The boss could have avoided the talk, but she cared enough about the employee and the relationship to try, even though the attempt was somewhat clumsy and potentially de-motivating.

This is an important point.  People who don’t care about a relationship are unwilling to expend the energy necessary to solve a problem.  They would rather avoid the issue until a better alternative comes along.  Such neglectful behavior can be the prelude to the end of a relationship.  In the job review scenario, the employee needed to have the courage to face his boss and say he didn’t appreciate the tone of her accusation, but that he did want to know what she was talking about.  That’s a constructive beginning to a dialogue that will deal with the base issues.

Capitalizing on opportunities presented by conflict involves taking advantage of the energy and commitment people have invested in the situation.  Realize that confronting a conflict often involves three steps:

1)    Manage,

2)    Resolve and

3)    Transform the conflict.

Let’s look closer at these different forms of conflict outcomes.  



Forms of Conflict Outcomes

Conflict Management. My book (Donohue & Kolt, 1992) that focuses on managing Interpersonal conflict begins with the assumption that in many cases disputes are rarely resolved.  To be resolved implies that the issue is no longer meaningful or relevant to the parties.  In reality, many conflicts do not come to such a neat conclusion.  Frequently the end result is simply a standoff.  People get tired and just stop fighting.  Or the conflict is just too complex and people agree to confront it later.

In effect, conflict management is focused on the ways in which individuals try to control their disputes—to keep them from getting worse or holding them off until another time.  The diplomatic scenario was never resolved in any meaningful way.  The parties simply acknowledged their frustrations and concerns about the issue of settlements in East Jerusalem, but there was no attempt to formally address it and certainly no formal resolution.

Conflict Resolution.  On other hand, when parties are ready and motivated to address issues they enter into a discussion that specifically focuses on the dispute with the intention of resolving the issues.  The process might involve a third-party mediator or someone to help define the issues and develop strategies for dealing with them.  This is the point at which conflict resolution begins.  Both parties have taken ownership of the conflict and agree to develop a plan address it.

When she communicated as the boss in the job review scenario, the boss certainly expressed her frustration.  If the employee simply walked away, he would have avoided potentially escalating the conflict.  This would have managed the conflict for him.  If he stayed and started and talked about the material interests with the intention of identifying and dealing with her concerns, then he would be engaging in conflict resolution. 

Conflict Transformation.  Disputants might be satisfied with resolving the issues and walking away from a dispute with some specific agreements for doing things differently.  For example, the employee might agree to change his approach to the job and the boss might agree to change her style of communication and her task demands on the employee.  Those actions would simply resolve the conflict.  They would not have transformed their attitudes about one another or used the conflict to restructure the workplace to make it more productive.  When people use the conflict and take advantage of the opportunities it presents, the conflict can be very transformative.  The parties can confront both their social identities and material-based issues to create an entirely better outcome. 

Of course, this is very difficult to achieve.  During much of its post-colonial history the country of South Africa lived under a system of apartheid, or legal segregation, in which the Afrikaner National Party Government, ruled by whites, forced blacks (people from sub-Saharan Africa or of Indian descent), to live separately in extreme poverty.  During this period there were horrific crimes against the black population.  When apartheid ended in 1994, the new National Unity Government had to decide whether or not to prosecute those who committed crimes against the blacks during this period. 

Nelson Mandela, the newly-elected president, decided not to prosecute because the country would have been bogged down for decades focusing on the past.  Instead of having his country suffer under the burden of conflict resolution, Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu decided to create the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and work toward conflict transformation.  The Commission allowed people to go free if they openly confessed their crimes in public and asked for forgiveness.

The effect of the Commission was to transform the society because they confronted the past head-on and decided to build new relationships among citizens that would allow their country to grow and prosper.  You can read Dr. Tutu’s amazing story in his book, No Future without Forgiveness (Tutu, 1999).   



Constructive vs. Destructive Conflict

This discussion about the dangers and opportunities of conflict and the possibility of transformation suggests that conflict is not necessarily something to be avoided.  It is something to be embraced and ultimately channeled into a constructive opportunity.  When is conflict constructive and when is it destructive? 

Destructive Conflict.  Conflict is more likely to be destructive to the disputants’ relationships and their ability to resolve or even manage it when the parties approach a dispute using a negative frame of reference.  A negative frame of reference is an attitude that says, “I want to protect what I have at all costs; I want to do what it takes to win the conflict and prove that I am right and can’t be pushed around.” 

A destructive conflict is not about standing up for your rights which is certainly appropriate; it’s about trying to defeat the other person as a means of saving face or looking tough.  Sniping with no intention of following up, is a destructive conflict aimed at making the other person look bad.  It is an attempt to get even and restore positive face by standing up to the other person.

A positive frame of reference takes a different approach.  Whereas a negative frame focuses on conflict dangers and tries to minimize them by striking back at the other person, a positive frame focuses on opportunities.  It says, “Hey, I might as well focus on what I can gain from the situation and look ahead to a better future, rather than trying to protect the past.”  As we shall see later, this is the foundation of constructive conflict.

Now that you know about what drives destructive conflict, what does it look like?  Sniping is one of the best examples of destructive conflict brought on by a negative frame.  It is one of several negative conflict management scenarios that can trap people into a negative downward spiral.  In addition to sniping, here are several other cycles that research tells us will negatively impact a relationship:

  • Skirting is avoiding controversial topics.  Avoiders and accommodators often ignore or try to get around tough issues by changing the topic or blowing off a comment with humor.  It’s quite possible that when President Obama met with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu after the diplomatic slight that both men skirted the real issues that led up to the slight.
  • Personalizing involves accusing the other person of causing the conflict with some negative personality trait such as being inconsiderate, insensitive, or uncaring.  This is destructive because it assumes the person can’t change and shoves 100 percent of the blame in his or her direction.  When we call someone a name, it’s like saying that, “You can’t change; you’ll always be a loser!”
  • Complaining involves repeating old problems again and again with no attempt to get to the underlying issues and resolve the problem.  It is similar to sniping, but at least it brings up some specific concern, whereas sniping is simply throwing insults to cause emotional pain.
  • Aggressing means attacking the other person either physically or psychologically so the aggressor can bolster his or her positive face or even repair negative face.  Attacking someone usually involves accusing them of lying, cheating or possessing some other character flaws.

Constructive Conflict.  I recently edited a book with two other professors focusing on how conflicts can be constructive (Donohue, Rogan & Kaufman, 2011).  Several chapters in the book make the point that constructive conflict is focused on at least resolving the conflict and possibly using it to transform the relationship or some other important outcome associated with the parties’ interdependence.  It begins with a positive frame, or an attitude that looks at conflict opportunities as a potential force for change. 

One of the most influential books on conflict resolution contends that substantive issues in conflicts are best resolved when parties first learn to transform their relationship (Bush & Folger, 1994).  There are two major elements associated with achieving this transformation to more constructive conflict. The first is recognition.  For conflict to be constructive it begins by recognizing the impact the conflict has had on the other person both materially and emotionally.  This begins to pull the focus away from the individual and his or her wants and fears, and instead looking at the other person and what he or she is going through.

This recognition sets up the ability to collaborate.  The process of collaboration involves each person recognizing the other’s goals in the conflict and helping work toward achieving them.  It means building creative solutions that can get both parties what they need from the conflict and possibly transform the conflict into really satisfying outcomes for both parties.  It begins by not only having a commitment to learn from the other person, but understanding the important problem driving the dispute that must solved to transform the conflict.

As you look at the job review scenario, what is the boss’s main problem?  Perhaps she is simply frustrated with the lack of progress in the business and she’s taking it out on the employee.  It might be that the boss feels disrespected on some issue.  The employee’s job is to figure out what is really troubling the boss and to address that issue.  Notice how much that involves recognizing the conflict from the boss’ perspective. 

Put yourself in this situation.  It’s not easy to probe an issue like that with a boss.  Most people would just take the scolding and keep quiet.  Plus, because the boss was emotional, perhaps she was not ready to talk about what’s really on her mind.  In that situation it would probably be best to take up the issue later when the boss is more composed and able to have a constructive conversation.  

The second element of constructive conflict is empowerment.  When we are empowered we have the skill and courage to take on the conflict.  I feel I can talk about my issues and stick with the discussion to resolve and possibly transform the conflict.  Some key communication skills necessary for effectively dealing with the conflict are:

  • Listening to the other’s position;
  • Speaking respectfully by talking about your views on issues and keeping away from personal attacks;
  • Being able to generate creative solutions to both parties’ problems; and
  • Working through a specific process for structuring the discussion so it does not get off track. 

Generally when people begin a conflict like the sniper scenario or the job review scenario, they begin by identifying their differences.  They talk about how they see things differently and how they want different things.  That’s constructive.  Parties need to understand their differences.  Once those discussions have taken place, they can begin to address the future and what brings them together. 

This process of integration or coming together is about identifying issues and generating options to address them.  Don’t become concerned if you are beginning a conflict and you are focusing on differences.  That’s to be expected.  But once those differences have emerged, then the issue is:  How can you integrate your interests and come up with creative solutions to build value that both of you can use to create positive change?

In fact, constructive conflict is all about building value.  Value is perception in your mind consisting of two elements: a) how well was I able to solve my problem, and b) what is the cost of the solution.  If both parties were really happy about how they jointly solved a problem and hassles were minimal, then they created value.  Building value takes a commitment to spend the time necessary to create these win-win solutions.



Conflict Communication Style

This discussion lays out a path toward dealing with conflicts constructively.  Personally, to take advantage of conflicts, you must first be willing to a) confront the conflict and, b) use a communication style that allows you to listen attentively and work through the issues.  These are the key elements of empowerment. 

Directions.  Below is a short survey of your conflict communication style.    For each question give yourself a score of 1 to 5 using the scale provided:

1 = Strongly Disagree, 2 = Disagree, 3 = No Opinion, 4 = Agree, 5 = Strongly Agree

Conflict Communication Style Questions


  1. I try to act in a friendly manner when confronted by a conflict.


  1. When in a conflict I try to repeat back key points the other person says.


  1. I seldom interrupt the other person during a conflict.


  1. I am extremely attentive to the other person’s ideas.


  1. I am an open communicator when communicating during conflict.


  1. I make sure to be well prepared on the issues before I discuss them.


  1. In most conflict situations I explore the full range of issues.


  1. I usually give many good reasons why the other person should accept my ideas for dealing with the conflict.


  1. I try not to rush to a conclusion before the issues have been explored.


10. I make a conscious effort to understand the other party’s most important problems and issues.


Results.  If you scored under 20, you are not confident in your communication style in handling conflict.  If you scored above 40 you are confident.  If you scored between 20 and 40 you are unsure about your conflict communication style. 

These ten items assess your ability to manage relational and material issues in conflict.  The first five items of this survey focus on building relationships by being friendly, attentive and open as a communicator.  If you can achieve these objectives, you’re more likely to create a more collaborative climate in which to deal with the conflict.  It also means you’re probably able to manage your emotions and concentrate on the material issues.

The second five items address your ability to understand the issues in the context of the other’s most important problem.  Are you generally prepared when entering a conflict?   Can you explore the full range of issues, develop them and creatively ensure they solve both parties’ main concerns? 

If you scored well on this survey then you are probably somewhat capable of confronting constructively.  The first step in achieving this goal is being able to move through the stages of conflict constructively.  Let’s take a look at these stages and see what the process looks like.     



Stages of Conflict

Another book that has made significant contributions to our understanding of conflict is from Folger, Poole, and Stutman (2008).  I have known Dr. Joe Folger and Dr. Scott Poole for some time, and I’ve always been impressed with their insights about how conflicts progress.  One of the more interesting parts of their book focuses on how conflicts evolve.  It turns out that conflict communication talk scenarios often take a fairly predictable path from some kind of triggering event to the final outcome.

Stage 1: Pre-Confrontation.  The pre-confrontation stage constitutes the time between first discovering an event that might have triggered the conflict and initially confronting the other person about it. In some cases, this stage is very short. You see a person do something and you immediately tell him or her about it.  A quick response often occurs when you are in charge of someone else’s behavior.  A dad might when he sees his child doing something wrong or dangerous.  “Hey, Samantha, don’t play on the man-eating tiger.  It’s dangerous.” 

Impulsiveness may also cause a person to react quickly. Sometimes another person makes you so frightened, angry or irritated that you play a talk communication without hesitating or thinking. When boss shouted at her employee in the job review scenario, she may have done so impulsively. 

If you can, it is generally best to take some time to delay confronting a conflict to give you a chance to plan.  It allows you to prepare and makes you feel more empowered.  What is the checklist that is useful to have in deciding how to confront a conflict; what do you plan for?  Consider this list of items that will help develop the conflict more constructively.

Checklist for Confronting Conflict

  • What are your goals for the conflict, both materially and relationally?  When it’s over what would you like to get from it?  Prioritize your goals from the most to the least important, and concentrate on maybe three or four or your most important goals.
  • What are the main issues in dispute?  What are the issues you are most concerned about, both related to your material needs and your relational needs? 
  • What data can be gathered about the issues?  What do we know about each issue to better assess the problems that need to be solved?  Have these issues been a problem in the past?  To what extent have prior solutions worked? 
  • How should you work through the issues?  Generally it’s best to start with some easy issues and then progress to the more difficult ones.  The key is not to mix them up.  Work through one at a time.  It’s important to show some progress and show that both parties can work as a team and get something done.  That is the key to building value. 
  • What are some options for addressing each issue?  For each issue it’s important to create several options and to determine which ones are most likely to be effective.  Disputants should also be ready to develop criteria about which options would be more useful than others.  Otherwise, all options look the same.  Why are some better than others?     
  • What is the best time to deal with these issues?  Determine when to talk about the issues and make sure to pick a time that allows sufficient time to talk about the issues and negotiate outcomes.  It might also be useful to have an agenda so you can provide some structure to solving the problems.  Some conflicts must be handled on the spot; others benefit by picking a date in the future. 

Stage 2: Confrontation.  A confrontation is the initial statement by a person that something is wrong, or there’s an issue to address.  It might be the statement that kicks off the discussion and defines the communication scenario as some kind of conflict episode.  In the job review scenario the employee comes in and gets blasted by his boss!  This is a fairly typical confrontation.  Most are brief and end in a matter of minutes.

In many cases, a person says something, the other responds, and it’s over.  This brief encounter might just manage the conflict without resolving it.  Planning might help prolong the episode so the conflict can be moved from managed to resolved.

Although they are usually brief, a confrontation is a sequence that moves from an opening statement through extended responses to a closing statement. The opening of a confrontation typically involves a statement about what you wish the other to do or stop doing.  The phrasing of the opening statement is critical because it sets the tone for the rest of the confrontation.  Starting a confrontation with an insult, command or accusation, attacks the positive image that most people have of themselves and can prompt defensiveness.

The boss’s outburst in the job review session is a good example.  Rather than start with this destructive approach, she should have used a much friendlier opener to put the employee at ease and solicit his help in solving the main material interests.  Part of the planning process ought to involve thinking about this opening confrontation.

Stage 3: Reaction.  Once the differences have been expressed, both parties then react to one another’s statements. In some cases, an explanation is provided for the negative behavior.  In effect, the person gets the opportunity to explain his or her side of the story.  However, there may also be defensive reactions.  A person may respond to the opening statement by denying that anything happened, stating that he or she was not responsible for anything that might have happened, or by blaming the person who is complaining. 

Even more destructive, the person may counter-complain by stating that the confronter has engaged in other actions that are equally bad.  In effect, the tables are turned on the confronter.  Equally upsetting, the person may simply ignore the confronter’s complaint.  Generally, confrontations are more productive when individuals acknowledge rather than ignore complaintsand when they provide information about the problem, rather than trade accusations.

Stage 4: Resolution.  At some point, people in a confrontation must bring it to a close.  One or both parties may admit some degree of guilt and apologize, promising never to repeat the action.  In other cases, the two individuals may agree to drop the topic until some other time, or may even agree to never talk about it again.  They may simply “agree to disagree” and leave it at that.  Often, parties simply stop talking and leave the interaction hurt, confused or angry.  Simply because the initial confrontation has ended does not mean that the conflict is over.  The goal in achieving conflict resolution or transformation is to extend the resolution stage long enough to work through the issues and the options for solving the problems.

Stage 5: Post-Resolution.  Even though a confrontation may be very short, the effects can be long-lasting.  Individuals carry with them memories of what was said that they replay later.  They can dwell on perceived insults and become angry.  They can think of things they should have said or done and plan their attacks for the next confrontation.  Furthermore, conflict may cause individuals to actively question the viability of their relationship.  When the confrontation has not gone well, this mulling makes matters worse.

If, however, the confrontation ended with the possibility of a resolution, the post-confrontation stage may be positive and even transformative.  If you played out the job review scenario over time there are two possible resolutions.  The employee might return an insult, or he might try to constructively work through the issues.  Of course, he would not have had time to plan, but he could try to work through the issues on the spot.  Since the boss created some relationship problems by insulting the employee, they would need to repair their damaged relationship and work to prevent any future blow-ups.  Or, they may simply quit thinking about it. The issue is over.



Chapter Summary

  • Conflict is a struggle about social identity needs and material interests.  The key achieving positive outcomes in conflict is to keep the discussion focused on material interests while granting one another’s needs for inclusion, control, and affection. 
  • Conflict is about danger and opportunity.  Each conflict presents both dangers and opportunities to disputants.  If they look at a conflict with a negative frame and focus only on what they can lose, they will focus on dangers.  If they approach the conflict with a positive frame and focus on what they can gain, they will start to see the opportunities. 
  • Conflicts are stressful.  The stress can be relieved by not attacking one another’s social identity.  Such attacks only cause parties to lash out in an effort to restore positive and negative face. 
  • Conflict presents many opportunities.  These opportunities include facing important problems, tension release, exploring creative solutions to problems and strengthening relationships. 
  • Conflict outcomes range from avoidance to transformation.  Disputants can give in to the danger approach and avoid conflicts to manage their own stress.  Or they can try to resolve the conflict and create specific solutions to address their main problems.  They can transform the conflict into a much larger solution that is effective and enduring. 
  • Destructive conflict is relationship-focused whereas constructive conflict is focused on resolving material interests.  Avoiding destructive conflicts involves not getting stupid.  Getting stupid means becoming totally emotional and resorting to attacks in the form of skirting, personalizing complaining and sniping.  
  • Constructive conflict is about recognition and empowerment.  Recognition involves understanding the conflict from each party’s perspective.  Empowerment means that each party possesses the skills and abilities to work through the conflict constructively. 
  • Your conflict communication style is a key element in empowerment.  If you are confident in your style then you are better able to work through the issues that are vital in taking advantage of the opportunities the conflict presents. 
  • Conflict evolves in stages.  The more we try to follow this structure the more likely it is that we will work through the conflict constructively.      



Bush, R.A.B., & Folger, J.P. (1994).  The promise of mediation.  San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. 

Coser, L. (1956).  The functions of social conflict.  New York: The Free Press. 

Donohue, W.A., & Kolt, R. (1992).  Managing interpersonal conflict. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc.

Donohue, W.A., Rogan, R., & Kaufman, S. (2011).  Framing matters.  London: Peter Lang Publishers

Felson, R.B., & Tedeschi, T. (1992).  Aggression and violence: Social interactionist perspectives.  Washington, DC: American Psychological Association. 

Tutu, D. (1999).  No future without forgiveness.  New York: Doubleday.