The Characteristics of Conflict in Communication

Many people often think of conflict as a bad thing. Actually, it doesn't have to be. Conflict is natural, normal, and important. It can strengthen a relationship by clearing the air of grievances, making space for a deeper understanding, and increased closeness. It allows us to express our own needs, and in this way, demonstrates concern and regard for the self.

Conflict defined

Let us start with a definition of conflict. According to research, conflict is "an expressed struggle between interdependent parties who perceive incompatible goals, scarce resources, and interference." Let's break this down for better clarity and understanding. Conflict has to be an expressed struggle. This is more than an internal disagreement; it has to be expressed either verbally or nonverbally.
Next, conflict only exists between interdependent parties. That is, there's only conflict when you and another person must rely on each other in some way. For example, in a work situation, the employee relies upon the supervisor to provide direction, and the supervisor relies upon the employee to deliver as requested. Each must depend upon the other for the work to be acceptably accomplished.
The next component of conflict is a perception of incompatible goals. Note that these goals are perceived as incompatible; in reality, they may or may not be. The incompatibility of goals means that one person wants one thing, while the other person wants something else. In the context of feedback and criticism, the person providing the critique wants something different from the person who has performed the action, though that action may seem perfectly acceptable to the one performing it.
Next, conflict appears when resources are scarce. Such resources often include time, money, power, and space. When one person wants to use one or more of these resources differently than the other person, conflict may likely ensue.
Finally, conflict includes interference. This means that each of the parties attempts to prevent the other from achieving his or her goal. Such interference might include one person imposing pressure ("nagging") to meet a deadline while the other person wishes to complete the task in his or her own time.

Characteristics of conflict

There are certain characteristics of conflict in addition to it being natural, normal, and important. Conflict can be expressed directly or indirectly, and it can be beneficial or harmful.
Conflict is often expressed directly, through the verbal channel, or through spoken words. This route can lead to emotional escalation and increase the seriousness of the conflict, though it can also lead to a quicker resolution.
It is also often expressed indirectly, through the nonverbal channel, or through gestures and movements, such as door-slamming; facial expressions, such as eye rolling; and nonverbal utterances, such as scoffing. Indirect expressions of conflict can be considered passive aggressive, but sometimes this route is preferred in order to avoid a confrontation and potentially put strain on the relationship. The major drawback to indirect expressions of conflict is that while it may be easier and more comfortable, it can leave the matter unresolved for a longer period of time. Which approach you take will depend upon the situation, your goals, the person with whom you're interacting, and the importance of the desired outcome.

Conflict isn't always a pleasant experience. This is not new information. For this reason, people often avoid it.

Behaviors during conflict

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There are several behaviors during conflict that have been shown to be detrimental to the relationship. In fact, they have been identified as so damaging that they often lead to divorce. Researcher and psychologist John Gottman can use these behaviors to predict divorce with more than an 80 percent accuracy rate. He calls these behaviors the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. These four behaviors are criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling.

Criticism is complaining. It's not always bad, but becomes bad when the complaint focuses on a person's personality or character, rather than on a particular behavior. Criticisms tend to be general complaints about a person's value, rather than a focus on the topic. They often come across as personal attacks, and thus tend to inflame the situation.

Contempt is insulting and attacking another's self-worth. This can include name-calling, using sarcasm or mockery to make fun of the other person, and the use of nonverbal cues to signal a low opinion of the other person, such as eye rolling, sneering, or scoffing. They can also include public ridicule of others, and encouraging others to do the same, such as making someone the butt of the joke. Contempt functions to put down and degrade the other person.

Defensiveness is seeing yourself as a victim and denying responsibility for your behaviors. Instead of openly listening to concerns and acknowledging the need for change, defensive people whine ("It's not fair it's not fair"), make excuses ("It's not my fault"), and respond to complaints with complaints ("Maybe my writing's not so good, but yours isn't either"). People tend to be particularly prone to defensive behaviors about criticisms when they understand that the criticism has merit, but they don't want to accept responsibility for changing their behavior.

Stonewalling is withdrawing from the conversation. This is simply shutting down. These people stop looking at the other person, they stop speaking, and they stop responding to what the other person is saying. Sometimes they even leave the room to end the conversation. Stonewalling is generally the result of that person feeling "flooded," or incapable of engaging in the conversation further. When stonewalling is present, it's virtually impossible for the conflict to be resolved.

Successful conflict management strategies

There are five strategies for successfully managing conflict, each of which may be appropriate in different situations -- each of which reflects a different combination of concern for self and others.

In avoiding, we simply avoid the conflict. This reflects a low concern for self and a low concern for other, since your needs are not being voiced.
In accommodating, we simply give in. This reflects a high concern for others, since you give them what they want, but a low concern for the self, since your own needs are being overlooked.
Compromising means that you each have to give a little in order to achieve an outcome that is marginally acceptable to both. This approach reflects moderate concern for self and a moderate concern for others, since neither person actually gets what they want.
In competing, you go after what you want at all costs. This reflects a high concern for the self, but a very low concern for others – you don't really care what they want.
In collaborating, both parties work to find a solution where everyone can get what they want in a win-win situation. This reflects a high concern for self and a high concern for others. Collaborating often takes more time, patience, and creativity, but the results are often more rewarding.

Conflict can be destructive and devastating, or constructive and rewarding, depending on how it's approached, and how it's managed. Constructive conflict management demands that the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse be avoided, and that an appropriate conflict management strategy is selected for the situation.