Even though we cannot change others, we are not powerless in the face of conflict. Personal Conflict Management, 2nd edition explores the dynamic world of interpersonal conflict management. Conflict managers can develop more successful relationships and better reach career goals than those who do not cope well with conflict.
Successful conflict management stands on a three-part foundation of knowledge, attitudes, and skills. First, the competent conflict manager must have knowledge about conflict theory, causes, patterns, and tactics. Second, the best conflict managers embrace the productive and creative energy of conflict. Finally, flexible conflict managers develop a toolbox of skills to engage in competitive conflict (when one must) and cooperative conflict (when one can). Although it may take two to tango, it only takes one person to create the opportunity to change a conflict. One person, with knowledge, skill, and the right attitude, can enhance the probability of transforming an unproductive conflict into opportunities for everyone. No set of skills can promise to resolve every conflict, but we can guarantee one trend: Many conflicts will not improve on their own.
begins with an examination of the nature of interpersonal conflict and how it differs from other communication contexts. The section continues with a discussion of the dominant theories that guide the study of interpersonal conflict, the contrast between competitive and cooperative approaches to interpersonal conflict, an elaboration of conflict causes, and how sex/gender, race, culture, generation, power, trust, and humor affect the choices people make during conflict.
Barnlund’s six views
Deutsch’s crude law on social relationships
After reading the chapter, you should be able to:
- Identify the components in the definition of interpersonal conflict
- Explore the role of perception in communication and conflict
- Differentiate between interpersonal conflict, argument, and negotiation
- Explain why conflict is an inherent and crucial part of the human condition
- Explain how the seven assumptions affect the choices made by conflict scholars
Interpersonal conflict is a struggle among a small number of interdependent people (usually two) arising from perceived interference with goal achievement. Interpersonal conflict occurs when one person perceives that another person is blocking an important goal.
The definition of interpersonal conflict recognizes that conflict is both internal and external. Internally, when an individual feels a struggle between personal goals and someone else’s actions, conflict is germinated. The external dimension of interpersonal conflict manifests in how one acts. In other words, the internal feeling of struggle affects how one behaves externally. Even though the conflict may not be an obvious topic of conversation, communication is different than before the conflict germinated because of a feeling of inner disequilibrium.
Most individuals have experienced the instinct that something is wrong when talking with a friend or acquaintance. Even though no discussions have occurred about the topic of concern and no obvious conflict strategies have been applied, a conflict is being expressed through the nuances of nonverbal communication—perhaps a look of disagreement or eye rolling when a topic someone would rather avoid is brought up. One person may know there is a conflict and the other does not. For example, there may be a general sense of tension at work between coworkers that others observe, but the workers themselves aren’t consciously aware of their behaviors. At other times, there is no doubt that a conflict exists. Direct expression of conflict can take many forms—some productive such as starting cooperative problem solving and some less so, for example yelling and calling each other names. A discussion of each part of the definition of interpersonal conflict will highlight its important elements.
Interpersonal Conflict Is a Struggle
The term “struggle,” popularized by Keltner (1987) as it relates to interpersonal conflict, is an apt description of how conflict differs from casual disagreements, mild differences, or intellectual argument. Not all differences rise to the level of interpersonal conflict. An interpersonal conflict is hallmarked by a feeling of struggle, meaning participants in an interpersonal conflict are invested in the outcome. In casual disagreements, mild differences, or intellectual arguments, the participants have less investment in the outcome. They even might argue as a type of entertainment. Two friends may call each other “pig,” “stupid,” “brat,” or even profane names in a ritual of good-natured banter. What might be fighting words in another context is a type of bonding for these friends. Sports fans may argue passionately about which quarterback is the all-time best as a type of entertainment and a way to practice their command of statistics, facts, and sports trivia. The conversation, unless it takes a negative turn and becomes personal, is not an interpersonal conflict.
Sometimes a conversation that starts as a casual disagreement can transition into an interpersonal conflict. For example, Jake is deeply invested in a perception of himself as a sports expert who loves his Denver Broncos. When his sports expertise is questioned, even playfully, he may see the challenger as interfering with his role as a defender of his team. If his self-image is challenged, Jake may become defensive. To be an interpersonal conflict, the participants must feel invested in the outcome—emotionally and/or relationally.
Interpersonal conflict is a struggle among a small number of interdependent people (usually two) arising from perceived interference with goal achievement.
Interpersonal Conflict Occurs Among a Small Number of People
The minimum number is two. The maximum number is open but limited to a number less than when group dynamics begin to alter communicative processes. Group communication contains many of the characteristics of a two-person conversation, but it also includes unique dynamics such as group leadership, the possibility that everyone may not talk to every other person, or specialized role development (see Chapter 16
). Although this book examines interpersonal conflict in a variety of settings (friendship, family, and work), the primary focus is the dynamic interplay of two individuals.
Even though intrapersonal conflicts—purely internal struggle about one’s goals—do occur, they are not the primary interest of this book. Psychologists are interested in internal states and may focus on conflict completely within the self. The feeling that two of one’s cherished goals are in conflict is not unusual. A person may believe that exercise is important to long-term health and have a goal of staying fit, yet spend free time playing Clash of Clans online. Internal conversations, called intrapersonal communication, might have the “internal athlete” chewing out the “couch potato” in a tussle among competing goals.
Let’s Switch Jobs
Rachel and Beth are coworkers. Beth has been working for the company for over three years. Rachel was hired as part-time help about a year ago. Both work at the front desk as receptionists. Every morning when Rachel arrives there is a pile of customer service requests, files to be processed, and appointments that need to be scheduled. When Beth comes in, she goes to the back room to help other coworkers with general filing.
It is June 29, and the end of the month is the busiest time in the company. Rachel is stressing that she won’t get through all the customer requests by the end of the day, which could really be bad for some of the customers. Rachel enters the back office to ask Beth if she will help at the front desk. As Rachel enters the back room, she sees Beth shopping on the Internet for new flip-flops.
“Beth, could you help me up front? I don’t think I’m going to get through all the paperwork by the end of the day.”
“I can’t right now. I’m waiting for Brent to get off the phone to help me lift boxes in the filing room.”
Disgusted, Rachel walks to the front desk where she continues to slog through the customer service requests. After a while, the FedEx truck arrives to drop off a pile of mail and boxes. One of the packages is addressed to Beth from Eddie Bauer. Rachel gets up and goes to the back room to hand out what FedEx has delivered. She saves Beth’s delivery for last.
“Beth, you have a delivery.”
“Really, who from?”
“Oh, awesome! I ordered my husband a nice lunch box to take to work.”
“It must be nice to have the time to shop while you’re at work. Is that all you ever do back here?”
“I only shop when I have some downtime.”
“Well, you want to switch places for a while? I’d love to be paid to shop on the Internet!”
Rachel drops the package onto the floor and stomps back to the front desk. Beth glares at her as she walks away.
Discussion Question • 1.1
How is conflict expressed by Rachel in Case 1.1
How people react to conflict makes all the difference. In Case 1.1
, Beth may be clueless that a problem even exists. Rachel avoids talking with Beth about job expectations, but she becomes angry when her expectations aren’t met. Avoidance, overreaction, and lashing out can turn a minor disagreement into a full-blown conflict.
Interpersonal Conflict Requires at Least a Minimal Amount of Interdependence
Interdependence can be understood as the level to which people need each other to attain their goals. Few goals can be achieved in complete isolation. Students cannot get A’s in a class without someone to evaluate their work; teachers and students are interdependent. Bosses need employees to complete tasks, and employees need bosses to write paychecks: They are interdependent.
Discussion Question • 1.2
Are strangers waiting for a bus interdependent? If so, how? If not, what would have to change for them to become interdependent in a significant way?
Interdependence is tied inextricably to perceptions of goal interference. If one person doesn’t ne...