The Role of Conflict in Communication

When we mention conflict, many people might become tense or anxious at the thought, preferring to avoid it. It is necessary to recognize that conflict is a completely natural, normal, and even healthy, component of any relationship. Conflict is the expression of our own needs, and can help the relationship grow and improve when both parties' needs are clear.

Conflict defined

Before we begin our discussion of conflict, we need to have a good working definition. Conflict has been defined as "an expressed struggle between interdependent parties who perceive incompatible goals, scarce resources, and interference." In order for conflict to be considered present, there must be an expressed struggle. This is more than a mere disagreement. It is a behavior. Sometimes our disagreements are expressed verbally, and sometimes through a mean look or a harsh tone of voice. Conflict occurs between interdependent parties, or people who depend on each other in some way. That is, if the actions of one person affect the well-being of the other, interdependence exists. As you've noticed, conflict is particularly common in relationships with high degrees of interdependence, such as close friends, family members, and co-workers. If two people are not dependent upon each other, even if there is disagreement, this is not considered interpersonal conflict. Conflict exists with incompatible goals. More than a mere disagreement or difference in goals, incompatible goals means both cannot be satisfied. You want to watch baseball, but your roommate wants to watch Survivor. Note that the definition includes a perception of goal incompatibility. Sometimes both can, in fact, be achieved. Conflict arises in the perception that resources are scarce. If you have an abundance, there is no need to fight about something. Commonly perceived scarce resources are money, time, power, and space. Conflict also includes interference. Even if you disagree and have opposing goals about something, you only have genuine conflict when you act in ways that prevent each other from achieving your goals. If your spouse drinks more than you wish, you might disapprove, but you only have conflict when you step in and provide interference. This can come in the form of complaining about his habit to him, or hiding the alcohol from him. In these cases, you are interfering with his ability to achieve his goal.

Characteristics of conflict

In addition to conflict being natural, as discussed above, conflict has additional characteristics worth consideration. It can be direct or indirect, harmful or beneficial. Many people deal with their conflict directly through verbal expression. When there is disagreement, it comes out, usually in argument form. It can also come out indirectly, or passive-aggressively, through vengeful or hurtful behaviors toward the other. Sue is angry with her roommate for smoking, so she refuses to clean the house. Addressing conflict directly can lead to emotional escalation and an increase in seriousness of the conflict, while it can also lead to a quicker resolution. On the other hand, indirect expressions of conflict may be easier and more comfortable, but can also leave the conflict unresolved for a longer time. Which approach is better will depend on the situation, your goals, the person with whom you're having conflict, and the importance of the desired outcome to you.

It is no surprise that conflict isn't usually a pleasant experience. Therefore, it should also not be surprising to learn that conflict can have adverse effects on your well-being when it's not managed properly. Research finds that husbands who were overly controlling, and wives who were overly hostile during marital conflict experienced more hardening of the arteries than couples who didn't engage in these conflict behaviors. Further, engaging in conflict can cause the body to produce a stress response and can cause wounds to heal more slowly, especially with hostile, negative conflict behaviors. Clearly, conflict is especially harmful when it escalates to aggression and violence. In these relationships that include aggression and violence, aggression is often the result of one person's efforts to dominate the argument, and, by extension, to dominate the other person. Certain situations seem to contribute more to aggression within conflict than others, such as when one of the partners is intoxicated.

Features of conflict are easy to recognize. However, appropriate conflict management can actually produce benefits. When people work through their conflict in a positive, constructive manner, they can learn more about each other and their relationship. Conflict can also lead them to find a more satisfactory resolution to the problem at hand than either of them could have come up with on their own. Constructive conflict management can also help prevent small problems from becoming large ones. Simply addressing the situation when it first arises can alleviate frustration early on, rather than allowing it to build. Over time, handling conflicts positively and constructively may give people increased confidence in their communication skills, and the strength of their relationships. Research shows that when married couples engage in constructive conflict behaviors, rather than aggressive and hostile ones, they are happier with their relationships and more satisfied with the outcome of their conflicts than couples who don't.

Researchers have examined the most common sources of conflict in married couples, and perhaps surprisingly, both men and women identified the same three sources of conflict. The most common source was personal criticisms, or spouses' complaints about their characteristics or behaviors. The second most common source of conflict was finances, or fights about money. Household chores was the third most common source of conflict. Together, these three areas accounted for approximately 42 percent of all conflict topics mentioned.

Conflict and power

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At their core, many conflicts are power struggles. Sometimes it is the power to decide who has the right to control resources. As power influences conflict, conflict can also influence the balance and exercise of power. Consider the growing child who persistently asserts more power over her own decisions and her own life.

Forms of power

Classic research classifies power into five specific forms. These are reward, coercive, referent, legitimate, and expert power. Reward power is the ability to offer rewards to the other person. A teacher rewards a student with a good grade, a parent rewards a child with a special privilege or treat, and your supervisor promotes you for good behavior. Coercive power is the opposite of reward power, and is punitive. Teachers punish poor work with poor grades, parents punish misbehavior with a reduction in privileges, and supervisors can extend demotions, firings, or perhaps cuts in pay. Referent power is the power you have over someone because they like you and want to please you. The well-liked supervisor often has a great staff that does what she asks, the likable professor gets good grades out of students, and the child does whatever the affable grandfather asks. Legitimate power is instilled by position. That is, a supervisor has power over you because he signs your checks, the judge has power because she determines your fate, the professor has power because he gives grades, and parents have power over their children merely by the fact of being parents. The final category, expert power, is the power people have when they are an expert in a particular area. For example, if you are talking about baseball and a professional baseball player joins the conversation, you will listen to what he says, because he has expertise, and thus power, in this topic. However, once the topic shifts to world events, the baseball player no longer has power in the conversation.

Problematic behaviors during conflict

How we behave during the conflict matters. It matters in terms of how we make the other person feel, and whether the conflict will actually be resolved. Psychologist John Gottman has extensively studied the communications and interactions of married couples. His goal was to predict divorce or staying together based on couples' communications, particularly in times of conflict. After observing a couple interact for just a few minutes, Gottman can predict divorce with an 82 percent accuracy rate.

Gottman developed a model of conflict behaviors that signal distress in a relationship. He named this model the "4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse," and it includes criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. Criticism is offering complaints about each other and assigning blame. It also includes global statements about a person's value or virtue, instead of specific critiques about the topic. Because criticism includes personal attacks, it inflames an argument and escalates the negativity of the situation. Contempt is the expression of insults and attacks on another's self-worth. It includes name-calling, sarcasm, mockery of the other person, and hostile nonverbal behaviors, such as eye-rolling or sneering. It says, "I am better than you," and functions to put down and degrade the other person. The idea of gunny-sacking means recalling past grievances and bringing them up all at once, which is unproductive. Research suggests that contempt behaviors can increase physical stress and impair health. Defensiveness says you see yourself as a victim and deny responsibility for your behaviors. Instead of actually listening to a partner's concerns and acknowledging the need for change, defensive people whine, make excuses, and respond to complaints with complaints, such as, "Maybe I did this, but you did that." Stonewalling is simply shutting down and withdrawing from the conversation or interaction. In practicing stonewalling, people stop looking at their partners, stop speaking, and stop responding. Sometimes they even leave the room to end the conversation. Gottman has found that people tend to stonewall when they feel incapable of engaging in the conversation any longer. Stonewalling prevents the couple from actually resolving their disagreements.

Successful conflict management strategies

We have seen what damages relationships during conflict, so now let us take a look at some ways we can manage conflict successfully. Researchers have developed a model that reflects the level of concern for self, and concern for the other during a conflict. It includes five strategies: avoiding, accommodating, compromising, competing, and collaborating. It should be noted that there is no single right way to manage all conflict; rather, each situation should be assessed for its most appropriate strategy. Further, recall that conflict, in itself, is neither positive nor negative, but neutral.

In the avoiding strategy, the parties ignore or fail to deal with conflict in the first place. This suggests a low concern for self and a low concern for the other, because the conflict cannot be resolved with this strategy. It isn't always a poor strategy, however, as many people in satisfying relationships choose to ignore or avoid certain topics in an effort to maintain harmony. However, when avoidance is the main strategy, important conflicts remain unresolved, which leads to dissatisfying relationships.

Accommodating demonstrates a high concern for the other and a low concern for self. This is where you just give in. When you just give in, you put your own needs aside. It may work well in the short term, but can also lead to resentment over time. However, not all relationships have equal power in both parties, such as professor-student. In these types of relationships, accommodating is certainly not always a poor choice for the person in the less powerful position.

Compromising reflects some degree of concern for everyone's needs and desires. Here, everyone must give up a little bit of what they want. Compromising takes time and patience, but often leads to more desirable outcomes than some of the other strategies.

Competing means a high degree of concern for yourself, but a low degree of concern for the other. In this strategy, you just want your own way, regardless of what the other person wants. This isn't always a poor choice, as some relationships thrive on competition. It becomes problematic when it builds feelings of resentment, or desires to get even with the other person.

Collaborating involves a high concern for the self and the high concern for the other. The goal here is a win-win for both parties. This strategy can require a good deal of time and creativity, but usually leads to satisfactory results.

In this article, we have seen that conflict is natural, normal, and can even be beneficial to relationships. The difference between conflict being positive or harmful to our relationship often lies in each party's behavior during conflict, and each party's management of conflict. This lesson has provided information about damaging conflict behaviors and offered insights into different types of conflict management. There is no one best way to manage all conflict, but with some patience and creativity, conflict can be a very positive thing for the relationship.