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Conflict and Power Struggle in the Workplace

Studying Conflict

Studying Conflict
Preventing Conflicts
Power Struggle
Power Struggle in Relationships
FAQ in Power Struggle
Beautiful Us



Conflict is more than an argument, a fistfight, or a mild disagreement. In the 1950's, conflict became a focus of study. The study of conflict from the perspective of modern, process-oriented communication theory began to accelerate in the 1970's.

To discover how conflict differs from others types of communication, learn the key elements in a definition of interpersonal conflict: 

1)Conflict and interdependence

Early social science definitions of conflict. All interpersonal conflicts, whether they occur between family members, students and teachers, employees and supervisors, or groups, have certain elements in common. One of the popular definitions of conflict, offered by Coser (1967, 8), asserts that conflict is "a struggle over values and claims to scarce status, power, and resources, in which the aims of the opponents are to neutralize, injure, or eliminate the rivals." Notice that this definition grew out of the cold war, when conflict between the United States and the former U.S.S.R. dominated Western approaches to conflict. Conflict was definitely viewed as a win-lose situation. In 1973, Deutsch maintained that "conflict exists whenever incompatible activities occur . . . an action which prevents, obstructs, interferes with, injures, or in some way makes it less likely or less effective" (156). Mack and Snyder (1973) suggested that two parties must be present, along with "position scarcity" or "resource scarcity," in addition to behaviors that "destroy, injure, thwart, or otherwise control another party or parties, . . . one in which the parties can gain (relatively) only at each other's expense" (36). All of these early social science definitions help us distinguish conflict from simple "strain," "disagreement" or "controversy" (Simons 1972; Schmidt and Kochan 1972).

Contemporary social science definitions of conflict. Contemporary definitions of conflict focus largely on interdependence, instead of unalterable opposition. Donohue and Kolt (1992, 3) define conflict as "a situation in which interdependent people express (manifest or latent) differences in satisfying their individual needs and interests, and they experience interference from each other in accomplishing these goals." Jordan (1990, 4) writes that "conflict arises when a difference between two (or more) people necessitates change in at least one person in order for their engagement to continue and develop. The differences cannot coexist without some adjustment." Parties are presented as inherently interdependent. Additionally, at least one person may need to change his or her perception of the situation. Conflict is sometimes, but not always, accompanied by anger or strong emotion.

Conflict is also characterized as varying in intensity and range. At least two continua have been advanced to describe the intensity of conflict. In one, it may be seen as a (1) mild difference, (2) disagreement, (3) dispute, (4) campaign, (5) litigation, or (6) fight or war (Keltner 1987). Another continuum (Moore 1996) shows conflict ranging from avoidance [through informal discussion and problem solving to negotiation to mediation to Administrative decision to arbitration to Judicial Decision to Legislative decision to Nonviolent direct action to violence] […] Our conflict management choices range from low coercion to increased coercion of the other party; they also reflect who is making the decisions:  the parties themselves or an external authority.

Conflict and communication. An interpersonal approach to conflict management focuses on the communicative exchanges that make up the conflict episode. Intrapersonal conflict – internal strain that creates a state of ambivalence, conflicting internal dialogue or lack of resolution in one's thinking and feeling – accompanies interpersonal conflict. One may endure intrapersonal conflict for a while before such a struggle is expressed. If you are upset with your father yet do not write him, or phone him less often, and avoid expressing your concern, do you have a conflict?

People involved in conflict have perceptions about their own thoughts and feelings, and they have perceptions about the other's thoughts and feelings. Conflict is present when there are joint communicative representations of it. The verbal or nonverbal communication may be subtle--a slight shift in body placement by Jill and a hurried greeting by Susan--but it must be present for the activity to be considered interpersonal conflict. Therefore, although other conditions must also exist before an interaction is labeled "conflict," Jandt (1973, 2) asserts, "Conflict exists when the parties involved agree in some way that the behaviors associated with their relationship are labeled as 'conflict' behavior." Often, the communicative behavior is easily identified with conflict, such as when one party openly disagrees with the other. Other times, however, an interpersonal conflict may be operating at a more tacit level. Two friends, for instance, may be consciously avoiding each other because both think, "I don't want to see him for a few days because of what he did." The interpersonal struggle is expressed by the avoidance. Intrapersonal perceptions are the bedrock upon which conflict is built, but only when there are communicative manifestations of these perceptions will an "interpersonal conflict" emerge.

Most expressed struggles become activated by a triggering event.  A staff member of a counseling agency is fired, setting off a series of meetings culminating in the staff's demand to the board that the director be fired. Or, in a roommate situation, Carl comes home one night and the locks are changed on the door. The triggering event brings the conflict to everyone's attention – it is the lightning rod of recognition.

Communication is the central element in interpersonal conflict.  Communication and conflict are related in the following ways:

  • Communication creates conflict.
  • Communication reflects conflict.
  • Communication is the vehicle for the destructive or productive management of conflict.

Thus, communication and conflict are inextricably tied. For example, the most distinguishing characteristic of happily married couples is their ability to reach consensus on conflictual issues (Mettetal and Gottman 1980). How one communicates in a conflictual situation has profound implications for the residual impact of that conflict. If two work associates are vying for the same position, they can handle the competition in a variety of ways. They may engage in repetitive, damaging rounds with one another, or they may successfully manage the conflict. Communication can be used to exacerbate the conflict or lead to its productive management.

Cooperation and competition. Conflict parties engage in an expressed struggle and interfere with one another because they are interdependent. "A person who is not dependent upon another – that is, who has no special interest in what the other does – has no conflict with that other person" (Braiker and Kelley 1979, 137). Each person's choices affect the other because conflict is a mutual activity. People are seldom totally opposed to each other. Even two people who are having an "intellectual conflict" over whether a community should limit its growth are to some extent cooperating with each other. They have, in effect, said, "Look, we are going to have this verbal argument, and we aren't going to hit each other, and both of us will get certain rewards for participating in this flexing of our intellectual muscles. We'll play by the rules, which we both understand." Schelling (1960) calls strategic conflict (conflict in which parties have choices as opposed to conflict in which the power is so disparate that there are virtually no choices) a "theory of precarious partnership" or "incomplete antagonism." In other words, even these informal debaters concerned with a city's growth cannot formulate their verbal tactics until they know the "moves" made by the other party.

Parties in strategic conflict, therefore, are never totally antagonistic and must have mutual interests, even if the interest is only in keeping the conflict going. Without openly saying so, they often are thinking, "How can we have this conflict in a way that increases the benefit to me?" These decisions are complex, with parties reacting not in a linear, cause-effect manner but with a series of interdependent decisions. Bateson (1972) presents an "ecological" view of patterns in relationships. As in the natural environment, in which a decision to eliminate coyotes because they are a menace to sheep affects the overall balance of animals and plants, no one party in a conflict can make a decision that is totally separate – each decision affects the other conflict participants. In all conflicts, therefore, interdependence carries elements of cooperation and elements of competition.

Mutual influence. A basic question in any conflict is, "How much are we willing to allow each other to influence our choices?"  Persons who understand themselves as interdependent must determine who they are as a unit after they decide individually how much influence they want the other person to have over them. (Sometimes, these choices are not available.) They must decide, tacitly or overtly, which rules bind them, how they will communicate, where "beltlines" are (Bach and Wyden 1968), and dozens of other relationship issues that define them as a conflict unit proceeding toward mutual and individual goals. People who see themselves as relatively independent are primarily concerned with acting issues – where will I go, what will I get, or how can I win? But those who view themselves as highly interdependent must, in addition, decide being issues – who are we, and how will this relationship be defined? For instance, two persons in competition for a job are more interested in maximizing their own gains than the gains of the ephemeral relationship. One year later, after both individuals have been hired by the company, they perceive themselves as highly interdependent when asked to work together. While still in competition with each other for promotions, they must also define for themselves a workable relationship that enhances desired goals for them both.

Negotiating interdependence. Even though conflict parties are always interdependent to some extent, how they perceive their mutuality affects their later choices. Parties may choose interdependence – “we are in this together," – or independence, believing that "just doing my own thing" is possible and desirable.

A couple had been divorced for three years and came to a mediator to decide what to do about changing visitation agreements as their three children grew older. In the first session, the former husband wanted a higher degree of interdependence than did the former wife. He wanted to communicate frequently by phone, adopting flexible arrangements based on the children's wishes and his travel schedule. She wanted a monthly schedule set up in advance, communicated in writing. After talking through their common interest in their children; their own complicated personal, work, and travel lives; and the children's school and sports commitments, they worked out a solution that suited them all. Realizing that they were unavoidably interdependent, they agreed to lessen their verbal and in-person communication while agreeing to maintain written communication. They worked out an acceptable level of interdependence.

Balancing interdependence and independence. Sometimes parties are locked into a position of mutual interdependence whether they want to be or not.  Not all interdependent units choose to be interdependent but are so for other compelling reasons.  Most relationships move back and forth between degrees of independence and interdependence. At times there will be an emphasis on "me"--what I want--and on separateness, whereas at other times "we"--our nature as a unit--becomes the focus. These are natural rhythmic swings in relationships (Frentz and Rushing 1980; Galvin and Brommel 1982; Olson, Sprenkle, and Russell 1979; Baxter 1982; Bochner 1982; Stewart 1978). Just as we all need both stability and change, conflict parties have to balance their independence and dependence needs.

The previous discussion suggests, for clarity's sake, that relationships and interdependence issues precede other issues in the conflict. Actually, these negotiations over interdependence permeate most conflicts throughout the course of the relationship, never becoming completely settled. A helpful practice is to address the interdependence issue openly in ongoing, highly important relationships. In more transient and less salient relationships, the interdependence may be primarily tacit or understood

2) Perceived Incompatible Goods

What do people fight about? (We use the word fight to mean verbal conflict, not physical violence.) People usually engage in conflict over goals they deny are important to them. One company had an extreme morale problem. The head cashier said, "All our problems would be solved if we could just get some carpet, since everyone's feet get tired; but management won't spend a penny for us." Her statement of incompatible goals was clear – carpet versus no carpet. But as the interviews progressed, another need emerged. She began to talk about how no one noticed when her staff had done good work and how the "higher-ups" only noticed when lines were long and mistakes were made.  Her stated needs then changed to include not only carpet, but self-esteem and increased attention from management.  The needs for carpets and self-esteem were both real, but the first may have been incompatible with management's desires, whereas the second might not; the need for recognition may have been important to both the cashiers and management.

Forms of incompatibility. Perceived goal incompatibility appears in a couple of forms. First, the conflict parties may want the same thing – for example, the promotion in the company, the only A in the class, or the attention of the parents. They struggle and jockey for position in order to attain the desired goal. They perceive the situation as one in which there "isn't enough to go around." Thus, they see their goal as "incompatible" with the other person's because they both want the same thing. Second, sometimes the goals are different. Mark and Tom, for example, decide to eat out. Mark wants to go to Bananas and Tom wants to go to Pearl's. They struggle over the incompatible choices. Similarly, in an organization, one person may want to see seniority rewarded, whereas another may want to see work production rewarded. They struggle over which goal should be rewarded. Of course, many times the content goals seem to be different (like which restaurant to go to); but beneath them is a relational struggle over who gets to decide. Regardless of whether the participants see the goals as similar or different, perceived incompatible goals are central to all conflict struggles.

Reframing goals to resolve incompatibility. We do not support the overly simple notion that if people just worked together, they would see that their goals are the same.  Opposing goals are a fact of life. Many times, however, people are absolutely convinced they have opposing goals and cannot agree on anything to pursue together. However, if goals are reframed or put in a different context, the parties can agree. Recently, a student teacher's supervisor outlined her goals for the student. Included in the list was the demand that the student turn in a list of the three most and least positive experiences in the classroom each week. The student asked to be transferred to another supervisor, saying, "I can't be open about my failures with someone who's going to give me my ending evaluation, which will go in my permanent files." In a joint discussion with the teacher and the student, the dean found that both were able to affirm that they valued feedback about positive and negative experiences. Their goals were more similar than they thought; the means for achieving them were different. The teacher agreed to use the list as a starting point for discussion but not to keep copies; the student agreed to list experiences so the teacher would not feel that the student was hiding her negative experiences. Trust was built through a discussion of goals. Perceptions of the incompatibility of the goals changed through clear communication.

3) Perceived Scarce Resources

The nature of resources. A resource can be defined as "any positively perceived physical, economic or social consequence" (Miller and Steinberg 1975, 65). The resources may be objectively real or perceived as real by the person. Likewise, the perception of scarcity or limitation may be apparent or actual. For example, close friends often think that if their best friend likes someone else, too, then the supply of affection available to the original friend will diminish. This may or may not be so, but a perception that affection is scarce may well create genuine conflict between the friends. Sometimes, then, the most appropriate behavior is attempting to change the other person's perception of the resource instead of trying to reallocate the resource. Ultimately, one person can never force another to change his or her valuing of a resource or perception of how much of the resource is available, but persuasion coupled with supportive responses for the person fearful of losing the reward can help.

Money, natural resources such as oil or land, and jobs may indeed be scarce or limited resources.  But intangible commodities such as love, esteem, attention, respect, and caring may also be perceived as scarce.  A poignant example concerns dropouts in the school system. By watching videotapes of classroom interactions, researchers could predict by the fourth grade, which students would later drop out of school.  The future dropouts were those students who received, either by their own doing or the teacher's, very limited eye contact from the teacher. They became, nonverbally, nonpersons.  The glances, looks, smiles, and eye contact with the important person in the room became a scarce resource upon which the students were highly dependent.  Often, children fight with one another over teacher attention – a perceived scarcity.  Or, they fight with the teacher, resulting in a gain of that resource.  A child would rather get negative attention than none. When rewards are perceived as scarce, an expressed struggle may be initiated.

Key resources in interpersonal conflict. In interpersonal struggles, two resources often perceived as scarce are power and self-esteem. Whether the parties are in conflict over a desired romantic partner or a coveted raise, perceived scarcities of power and self-esteem are involved. People engaged in conflict often say things that may be easily interpreted as power and self-esteem struggles, such as in the following scenarios:

"She always gets her own way." (She has more power than I do, and I feel at a constant disadvantage. I'm always one down.)

"He is so sarcastic! Who does he think he is? I don't have to put up with his mouth!" (I don't have ways to protect myself from biting sarcasm. It feels like an attack. I feel humiliated. The only power I have is to leave.)

"I refuse to pay one more penny in child support." (I feel unimportant. I don't get to see the children very often. I've lost my involvement with them. Money is the only way I have to let that be known.  I don't want to feel like a loser and a fool.) 

"I won't cover for her if she asks me again. She can find someone else to work the night shift when her kids get sick."  (I feel taken advantage of. She only pays attention to me when she needs a favor.)

Regardless of the particular content issues involved, people in conflict usually perceive that they have too little power and self-esteem and that the other party has too much. Of course, with each person thinking and feeling this way, something needs to be adjusted. Often, giving the other person some respect, courtesy, and ways to save face balances each person’s perception of resources and decreases the likelihood of conflict.



4) Interference


People who are interdependent, have incompatible goals, and want the same scarce resource still may not meet the conditions for conflict. Interference, or the perception of interference, is necessary to complete the conditions for conflict. If the presence of another person interferes with desired actions, conflict intensifies. Conflict is associated with blocking (Peterson 1983), and the person doing the blocking is perceived as the problem. 

For instance, a college sophomore worked in a sandwich shop the summer before her junior year abroad. She worked two jobs, scarcely having time to eat and sleep. She was invited to a party at a cabin in the wilderness, and she really wanted to go. She worked overtime on one day then asked for a day off from the sandwich shop, but the employer was reluctant to say yes, since the student was the only one the employer trusted to open the shop and keep the till. For an angry moment, the employer – who was interfering with what the student wanted to do – and the student each seemed to the other like the source of the problem. Goals appeared incompatible, no one else was available to open (scarce resource), and the two parties were interdependent because the student needed the job and the owner needed her shop opened and the cash monitored. She was about to say, "No. I'm sorry, but I can't cover you." The student volunteered to train someone else, on her own time, to cover for her. The problem was solved, at least for this round, and the conflict was avoided. But if the student had quit in disgust or the employer had said no, both would have sacrificed important goals.

The student’s and the employer’s willingness to look beyond the immediate obstacle to how they could get around it enabled them to resolve the immediate conflict. Management of future conflict, however, involves developing long-range goals and a process for achieving them.

Skills for Conflict Managers

"The skills required for conflict management are simple, but they rarely are acquired as part of growing up.  Learn them and use them" (Mayer, 1990, 58). The consensus in the professional literature is that if we are to become competent managers of interpersonal conflicts, skills in two arenas must be mastered:


        conceptual arena

        skill competence arena

Conceptual skills. The first arena is conceptual: an individual must understand conflict's causes, styles, strategies, tactics, and world-views. An individual must understand theories of how and why conflicts arise, where and when conflicts habitually occur, and the range of strategies and tactics that may be utilized to manage conflict.

Skill competence. The second arena is skill competence. In addition to understanding communication and conflict theory, an individual must become competent in a variety of basic communication skills and develop a working repertoire of conflict management skills. A lengthy [list of abilities and tactics] can be specified for advanced conflict management. However, two basic communication skills are required if parties hope to manage conflict productively:

  • listening
  • asking questions

Individuals new to conflict management should work first to enhance basic communication skills. Wilmot & Hocker suggest some basic skills for conflict managers. More advanced assessment tools follow these basic skills.


Variables in the Study of Conflict

1) Power  

Power as inherent trait or function of the relationship  

Power:  Is it an inherent trait? The first view paints power as a characteristic of an individual, or a quality automatically bestowed on an individual who controls wealth, property, or resources. At its simplest, power is seen an as inborn trait, like eye color.  In this view, one's power would remain the same regardless of whom one interacts with. Power would be carried from interaction to interaction. Few theorists adhere to a genetic or inherited power perspective.  


Power:  Is it a function of the relationship? The second view describes power as a component of relationships among people.  In relational power, an individual only has power to the extent that the characteristic or resource is valued by the other person. In the characteristic perspective, those with wealth would inherently have more power. The relational view, however, asserts that wealth means little or nothing to individuals stranded on a deserted island or to individuals who have decided to live a life without possessions. Put another way, power exists only in specific relationships.  


Relational power: dependency or currency


Power: Is it derived from dependency? The dependency metaphor suggests we give another person power over us when we are dependent on them for a resource or service. In this view, the landlord has power over tenants in a situation where there is a shortage of housing. The potential tenant needs housing; housing is scarce; therefore, landlords have relative power. In a city where there are many vacant rentals, tenants have choices among landlords and do not need any particular landlord's resources. Instead, landlords need renters to maintain a degree of profitability; therefore, tenants have relative power.  

It is the degree of dependency that creates the power relationship. Power based on dependency is easy to spot in some romantic relationships. One individual may genuinely adore someone else and need that person's love. If the object of his or her desire does not share the same depth of feeling, the power relationship is imbalanced, giving power to the person who is the object of affection--who is less involved. Put another way, the person with the least dependency has the most power. In 1962, Emerson created a formula to determine dependence power.  

Power:  Is it currency to be traded? In 1956, French and Raven suggested that power is derived primarily from five sources:  the ability to reward others, the ability to punish others (coercion), holding legitimate office or rank, knowing other people (reference), and having expert skill or knowledge.  

We can think of power as currency. Currency is useful only because we can exchange it for needed goods or services.  Likewise, power is like currency in that it enables us to make connections with or influence others--our currency is worthwhile only if it is valued by the other person.  To the extent that what is valued varies wildly from individual to individual, it is a good idea for conflict managers to develop a thorough understanding of power currencies.  

Modern views of power as currency includes numerous potential sources of power:  

  1. Control of tangible resources such as property, money and land
  2. Authority – titles, positions or legal judgments, for example – granted by institutions
  3. Expert knowledge or skill in specific subject areas
  4. Control of resources by making work easier and issuing degrees of cooperation
  5. Links to a community and access to many people
  6. Endurance, stamina, will and a record of finishing projects
  7. Cultural traditions and history, which provide a firm grounding
  8. Communication skills such as listening, speaking, or knowing more than one language
  9. Traditional logic and reasoning skills
  10. People skills and the ability to help individuals bond together as a group
  11. General personal competence and dependability
  12. Self worth, integrity and self-esteem
  13. An ethical sense of community and morality
  14. Openness to wisdom through spirituality

Remember, while we tend to discuss variables that affect conflict one at a time, the variables actually are all in play simultaneously.  When we think about all the many lines of influence or connection that exist between two individuals, we must conclude that power is complex and multidimensional.  

2) Goals  

Goals are the desired outcome(s) in a conflict. One of the difficulties in conflict management is that people often are not consciously aware of their own goals, much less have any notion of the other party's goals. Goals also may shift from one focus to another as the conflict unfolds.  

The importance of identifying goals is illustrated by the adage, “Be Careful What You Ask For.” It is not uncommon for people to “ask for” or demand items that they really don't want because their goals are fuzzy.  

Wilmot and Hocker (1998) identify several important types of goals that emerge in various combinations during conflicts:  

  • Content goals:  What do you want?
  • Relational goals:  Who are the parties in relationship to each other?
  • Identity goals:  Who am I in the relationship?
  • Face-saving goals:  Will I feel good about the outcome?
  • Process goals:  How will we communicate with each other?

3) Gender  

Some scholars are convinced that in a culture with historic divisions along gender lines, conflicts can "neither be understood nor resolved without consideration of their contexts
 . . . gender and power are important characteristics of contexts in which status relations and values are negotiated" (
Taylor and Miller, 1994, 2).  

Research has come to no clear conclusion about whether men and women actually behave in different ways while conducting conflicts. However, gender stereotypes do affect conflict behaviors when individuals act and react based on stereotypes of how men and women will/should act rather than selecting behaviors appropriate for the individual one is communicating with.  

The in-depth examination of communication and gender is beyond the scope of this project but is a useful area of additional study for students of conflict management.  

4) Perception  

Conflict management definitions frequently contain the word perception. Strategies and tactics to address conflicts are as often directed toward altering the other's perceptions of events as they are directed at substantive issues.  

Each move and communication exchange is filtered and interpreted through our perceptions, which are rather individualized constructs built from our past experiences, culture, gender, and a plethora of other variables. Because of the integral role of perception in communication, conflict management can never become a formula driven science.  

Managing perception is a key skill in conflict management.

5) Climate and Perception   

The concept of communication climate, developed by Gibb in the 1960's, has been adapted by several scholars as a tool for explaining how certain communication behaviors deter productive conflict management and create environments where perception is negatively charged. Folger, Poole, and Stutman (1997) describe communication climate as “the prevailing temper, attitudes, and outlook of a dyad, group, or organization” (p. 153).  


Gibb's Defensive Climate Behaviors

Gibb's Supportive Climate Behaviors

  • Evaluative
  • Descriptive


  • Focused on the problem
  • Strategic
  • Spontaneous
  • Neutral
  • Empathic toward the other person
  • Superior
  • Equal
  • Certain
  • Provisional

The behaviors in defensive climates create an environment where communication is threatening. Behaviors in supportive climates create spaces where trust can develop. In a defensive climate, gestures intended to be calming and productive are likely to be perceived as strategic and superior. There also is a noticeable overlap between the behaviors in defensive climates and in competitive conflict styles and between supportive climates and collaborative conflict styles.  

It is difficult to manage conflict appropriately in climates where mistrust abounds. 

6) Cultural Assumptions  

Culture shapes and frames each individual's interpretation of appropriate behaviors during conflicts. The fact that cultures have different rules for conflict was illustrated by a Vietnamese MBA student in a negotiation class. He commented that Americans have difficulty doing business in Vietnam because they do not understand that when a contract is signed it is only the beginning of the negotiation for the Vietnamese, but the Americans think the negotiations are over.  

Conflict across cultures, whether across nations or across the diverse cultures within a country, exacerbates the routine difficulties of conflict management.  

An in-depth discussion of culture is beyond the scope of this project. However, one comment seems required. This site is developed based on research and theory derived from and intended for the study of mainstream North-American culture. A comparative research base slowly is developing to describe conflict management behaviors among and across a variety of American and other cultures. Conflict scholars and facilitators look forward to the progress of that research.  

7) Strategies and Tactics

The notion of strategies and tactics originated from game theory. Game theory was developed  to study war and deterrence. Some of the assumptions of game theory (particularly, the idea that parties are aware of the other's goals and will act rationally) make the theory less useful in the interpersonal conflict arena. Still, the notion that individuals choose among a variety of behavioral strategies and tactics remains useful.

Behind the study of conflict strategy and tactics is the hope that individuals who are aware of many options will make better choices in conflicts than those who feel they have no choices or very limited options.

The first strategic choice in a conflict is whether to avoid or engage. The avoidance behaviors discussed elsewhere can be viewed as avoidance tactics.

If a strategic choice is made to engage in conflict, then tactics or moves must be selected. Competitive tactics include personal criticism; rejection, hostile requests, jokes, threats and questions; sarcasm; making statements which attribute thoughts or motives to the other party; denial of responsibility; verbal aggressiveness; refusing to disclose one's interests; remaining positional; and obnoxiousness.

Collaborative or mutual gains tactics include focusing on interests; problem-orientation; appealing to fairness; being descriptive; disclosing one's own goals and needs; soliciting information from the other person in the conflict; making concessions; accepting responsibility; and offering face-saving options.

A comprehensive explanation of tactics is beyond the scope of this introductory discussion. A separate body of literature exists to discuss the tactical moves in traditional or competitive negotiation and in mutual gains bargaining. Keep in mind, however, that understanding and obtaining a wide repertoire of tactical options gives conflict managers more choices and a greater feeling of personal competence.

8) Style  

Five basic conflict styles. A style is a preferred way of behaving. The Blake and Mouton styles grid has been adapted by numerous scholars as a means of discussing five contrasting conflict styles.  

1.     Avoidance. Avoidance is characterized by behaviors that either ignore or refuse to engage in the conflict.  While avoidance is presented by some theorists as a negative style that shows low concern for both one's own and the other party's interests, there are sometimes strategic reasons to avoid conflict.  For example, when the relationship is short-term and the issue is not important or when the situation has a potential to escalate to violence, avoidance may be the prudent choice.

Some examples of avoidance behaviors include:
- Saying the issue isn't important enough to spend time on
- Saying there isn't enough time to do the topic justice
- Being overly polite
- Defining any emotion as discord and calling for objectivity when discussing differences
- Smoothing over discord whenever a difference arises, so differences never are discussed
- Focusing on details to the exclusion of the real issues
- Demanding rationality whenever emotions arise
- Attacking the other person verbally
- Using evasive remarks to avoid sensitive topics
- Shifting the topic away from the conflict
- Avoiding topics where conflict may occur
- Making noncommittal statements that sound like, but are not really, agreement
- Keeping conversations at an abstract level
- Joking to distract from the real issues in a conflict 


2.     Competition. Competition, or win/lose, is a style that maximizes reaching one's own goals or getting the problem solved at the cost of the other party's goals or feelings.  While always choosing competition has negative repercussions for relationships, businesses and cultures, it can occasionally be the right style to choose if the other party is firmly fixed in a competitive style or there are genuinely scarce resources.  While competitive tactics are not necessarily dysfunctional, competition can easily slide into a destructive scenario.  Understanding the tactics and strategies of others who use competitive styles can assist conflict managers in defusing the negative consequences of competition and working toward a mutual gains approach.

Competitive tactics include:
- Lying
- Concealing one's own goals
- Concealing one's own interests
- Attacking or criticizing the other person verbally
- Becoming positional, and then incrementally compromising toward a middle ground
- Elevating one's own arguments
- Denigrating or rejecting the other's arguments
- Threatening and bluffing
- Denying responsibility
- Pretending to be or actually being hostile  


3.     Accommodation. Accommodation involves giving in to the other's wishes or smoothing the choppy waves of a conflict. Accommodation sacrifices one's own goals for the sake of the other person.  Accommodators often use phrases like:  "Whatever you want is fine with me." When one party in a conflict genuinely does not care about the outcome of the conflict, accommodation may be the right choice for that situation. However, if accommodation is the only style a person utilizes, he or she is advised to learn more skills. 


4.     Compromise. Compromise is a give and take of resources. The classic compromise in negotiating is to "split the difference" between two positions. While there is no victor from compromise, each person also fails to achieve her or his original goal.   


5.     Collaboration. Collaboration occurs when parties cooperatively work together until a mutually agreeable solution is found.  


Beyond one's overall style for behavior during a conflict, other matters of individual style also affect perceptions during conflicts.  Each person has preferences in communication.  When two people in conflict have opposite preferences, misunderstandings are likely to occur.  As Markman, Stanley, and Blumberg (1996) conclude, "becoming more aware of the effects of your differing communication styles [in relationships] can go a long way toward preventing misunderstandings" (p. 200).  

Rules perspective. The rules perspective is another way of analyzing misunderstandings that arise from communication differences.  Julia Wood (1998) examines both regulative rules (rules about when it is appropriate to talk about what:  for example, "take turns during a conversation") and constitutive rules  (what counts as what in communication:  for example, "washing someone's car is a way to show affection").  When different groups or individuals have different rules about what is appropriate or what "counts," misunderstandings are likely to occur.  

Conclusions. While research has yet to be completed in this area, it seems likely that individual style or rule differences may create barriers during conflicts when extreme differences occur in:  

  • Degree of verbal aggressiveness
  • Preference for rapport or report talk
  • Listening behaviors
  • Other nonverbal or linguistic characteristics

A competent conflict manager will prefer collaboration, but recognize that the timing or conditions may not always allow collaboration to occur.  Consequently, a skillful conflict manager will be adept at selecting the right style for the right situation and then engaging each style in a humane and non-harmful manner.  



Why the study of conflict is important

Conflicts arise naturally in every arena of daily life.
Conflict management is a key skill for all successful long-term relationships
There are good reasons for employing conflict management skills
There are advantages to conflict

Conflicts arise naturally in every arena of daily life.

It happens on the job, between groups in our society, within families, and right in the middle of our most personal relationships. Conflict is ever present and both fascinating and maddening. The challenges of dealing with differences have rarely been greater.

When a person arises in the morning at home and greets family or roommates, conflict potential abounds.  In educational contexts, differences occur about goals, procedures, or activities. As customers, our hopes and desires sometimes diverge from the stated policies of the stores we visit. As employees, daily work with clients, customers, co-workers, or bosses can be a struggle.

While scholars study conflict management in a variety of contexts (intimacy, work, education, romance, mixed and same sex friendship, intercultural, organizational, war and peace), the basic elements or variables of conflict remain stable across contexts.

This Web site presents a general overview of interpersonal conflict management rather than an in-depth focus on any particular context.

Some qualifiers and limitations:

On the global scale, nations struggle with one another, both diplomatically and militarily.  And with the increased globalization of the world's economy, we are all becoming more interdependent with one another (Brown 1992). War, international negotiation, and ethnic/racial conflict also are important arenas of study. This site focuses on interpersonal conflict.  Exclusion of other areas of study in no way implies they are not important or valuable.

This site also discusses interpersonal conflict primarily from a North American viewpoint, with its supporting theory and research drawn mostly from European-American traditions.

Conflict is a fact of organizational life. On the job, "conflict is a stubborn fact of organizational life" (Kolb and Putnam 1992, 311). Rather than seeing conflict as abnormal, Pondy (1992) suggests we view organizations as "arenas for staging conflicts, and managers as both fight promoters who organize bouts and as referees who regulate them" (259). Furthermore, Pondy asserts that in the company, agency, or small business, conflict may be the very essence of what the organization is about, and if "conflict isn't happening then the organization has no reason for being." One study surveyed workers and found that almost 85 percent reported conflicts at work (Volkema and Bergmann 1989). And with an increasing awareness of cultural diversity and gender equity issues, it is imperative that we become familiar with issues surrounding promotions and harassment. In fact, one can see training in organizations as a form of preventive conflict management (Hathaway 1995). The recognition of the prevalence of conflict at work has led to books on mediating conflict in the workplace (Yarbrough and Wilmot 1995), showing how managers can learn conflict management skills to intervene in disputes in their organization.

Ongoing, unresolved workplace conflict also has negative impacts that reach far beyond the principal parties. In an electronics plant, for example, if the director of engineering and the director of production are unable to reach agreement about quality controls, the staffs of both engineering and production actively complain about one another, subverting both groups' goals. The continual avoidance of the problem seeps throughout the organization, affecting everyone who has direct contact with the directors. If the executive director of a nonprofit agency and her board cannot get along, employees tend to take sides, fear for their jobs, and, like those above them, wage a campaign discrediting the other group. Ignoring workplace conflict sets destructive forces in motion that decrease productivity, spread the conflict to others, and lead to lessened morale and productivity. In one organization one of us recently entered, the president and CEO was on the verge of reorganizing the structure, affecting 600 people so that two vice presidents would not have to talk to one another!

Conflict is a fact of personal life. In your personal relationships, the study of conflict also can pay big dividends. If you are an adolescent or parent of an adolescent, it will come as no surprise to you that it takes about ten years for parents and children to renegotiate roles closer to equality than their earlier parent-child relationship (Comstock 1994), and at the heart of this renegotiation is the conflict process. The study of conflict can assist in this renegotiation process, letting you see which styles backfire, which ones work best, and how much productive power you have available.

We all know that romantic relationships provide a rigorous test of our skills. Siegert and Stamp (1994) studied the effects of the "First Big Fight" in dating relationships, noting that some couples survive and prosper, whereas others break up. These communication researchers tell us quite clearly that "the big difference between the non-survivors and survivors was the way they perceived and handled conflict" (357). As Wilmot (1995) wrote, "What determines the course of a relationship . . . is in a large measure determined by how successfully the participants move through conflict episodes" (95).

One of the ultimate testing grounds for romantic relationships is marriage. Almost all spouses report "occasional marital disagreement" (Bolger et al. 1989; Metz, Rosser, and Strapko 1994). For many spouses the disagreements may be only once or twice a month, yet for others they may continue over many days (Bolger et al. 1989). It is common and normal for partners to have conflicts or disagreements, and in fact, managing conflict is one of the central tasks of maintaining a marriage (Gottman 1994). As you might guess, learning to constructively resolve conflict is clearly and directly linked to marital satisfaction. "Findings regarding the link between conflict resolution styles and marital satisfaction have been consistent in indicating that each spouse's marital satisfaction is positively related to the frequency with which each spouse uses constructive strategies to resolve conflict" (Kurdek 1995, 153).



Organizational Behavior