We have argued that conflicts are best understood if we view them as a form of interaction. But interaction is an extraordinarily complicated phenomenon. How can we get a grasp on what happens in conflicts? How can we use that knowledge to turn conflict interaction in productive directions?
This chapter provides an introduction to conflict interaction. First, we describe a model of conflict interaction as a “balancing act.” The model proposes that in order to manage a conflict effectively, parties must first articulate and understand the differences in their positions and interests. Only after this has been done can they move toward a mutually acceptable, integrative solution. However, this is a precarious process, fraught with difficulties. If parties make the wrong moves, their differentiation may spiral into uncontrollable escalation or, alternatively, to rigid suppression and avoidance of a conflict that they should be able to face and manage. Walking the tightrope to productive conflict management requires insight into the forces that push conflict in negative directions and the appropriate actions required to control them.
The second part of this chapter presents five basic properties of conflict interaction which suggest a number of factors that are important in conflicts. These factors, discussed in subsequent chapters, can move conflict in productive and destructive directions and suggest various levers parties can use to manage conflict effectively.
At the outset it is a good idea to consider effective conflict management, the type of interaction that will lead to productive conflict. In his book, Interpersonal Peacemaking, Richard Walton (1969) described a simple yet powerful model of effective conflict management that reflects insights echoed by a number of other influential writers (Fisher & Ury, 1981; Pruitt & Carnevale, 1993; Putnam, 2010). The model views conflict in terms of two broad phases: a differentiation phase followed by an integration phase. In differentiation, parties raise the issues underlying the conflict and spend time and energy clarifying positions, pursuing the reasons behind those positions, and acknowledging their differences. As Putnam suggests, “Differentiation refers to the pattern of interaction that sharply distinguishes opposing positions” (2010, p. 327). This first phase is sometimes uncomfortable and tense, and it may evoke unpleasant emotions, but it is valuable because it helps parties to become more knowledgeable about the issues and the different goals and points of view they have (Wageman & Donnenfeld, 2007). After some time differentiating, the process reaches a “tipping point,” and an integration phase begins. Parties begin to acknowledge common ground, explore possible options, and move toward some solution—sometimes one that meets everyone’s needs, and sometimes simply one they can live with. If integration is not completely successful, the conflict may cycle back through a new differentiation phase.
This two-phase model of conflict may seem elementary, but it is highly suggestive because it indicates what parties must do to move through a conflict successfully. How and whether conflict interaction moves from differentiation through integration is complicated.
The differentiation stage of conflicts is often difficult because of the seemingly unbridgeable differences that emerge and the intense negative emotions these differences often spark. The combination of hostility and irreconcilable positions may encourage behavior that spurs uncontrolled escalation into a destructive conflict. In a different overreaction, parties fearful of escalation and loss of control may “sit on” and suppress the conflict, which then festers and undermines their relationship. But it is important to navigate differentiation successfully in order to set up the conditions for integration, during which “parties appreciate their similarities, acknowledge their common goals, own up to positive aspects of their ambivalence, express warmth and respect, and/or engage in other positive actions to manage their conflict” (Walton, 1969, p. 105). The simultaneous need for and fear of differentiation poses a difficult dilemma for parties who want to work through important conflicts.
Adequate differentiation is necessary for constructive conflict resolution. Without a clear statement of each party’s position, finding a satisfactory result—one in which “the participants all are satisfied with their outcomes and feel they have gained as a result of the conflict”—is a hit-or-miss venture (Deutsch, 1973, p. 17; Putnam, 2013). Unless parties honestly acknowledge their differences and realize that they must tackle the conflict and work it out, they may not be sufficiently motivated to deal with the problem. And unless they understand their points of difference, they do not have the knowledge required to find a workable solution. Expressing different points of view and dissenting from consensus are often the foundation for creativity and high-quality decision making (Behfar & Thompson, 2007; Schulz-Hardt, Mojzisch, & Vogelgesang, 2008). Similarly, parties’ ability to confront another’s unacceptable or nonnormative behavior is often tied to greater productivity and satisfaction with participating in groups (Urch, Druskat, & Wolff, 2007).
Despite its real value and critical importance, differentiation may also lead to open confrontation and competition. Discovering that others disagree or want something that threatens our best interests is frustrating. Others may be combative, demanding and angry, or complaining and insistent, as they express their demands and air grievances. Differentiation may initially involve personalizing the conflict and blame-placing as parties clarify their stands and identify with positions. Due to these and other potential problems, parties may be reluctant to openly explore and understand their differences (Putnam, 2010).
Paradoxically, though, it is not until opposing positions are articulated that the conflict can finally be managed. Once individual positions have been clarified, it is just a short step to the realization that the heart of the conflict lies in the incompatibility of positions and is not the other party’s “fault.” If parties can clarify the issues and air diverse positions without losing control (a difficult problem in its own right), they can recast the conflict as an external obstacle that they can work together to surmount.
Once achieved, this depersonalized and more accurate view of the issues serves as a basis for commonality. It often marks the beginning of an integrative phase, but by no means does it signify the end of the conflict process. The parties must still generate ideas and choose a solution that, as Simmel (1955, p. 14) puts it, “resolves the tension between contrasts” in the group or social relationship. From this point of view, people can build on the accomplishments of differentiation.
Differentiation and Escalation Although differentiation is necessary for constructive conflict resolution, it can also nourish destructive tendencies. Differentiation surfaces disagreements and makes them the center of attention. It raises the stakes, because failure to resolve the disagreements means that members must live with a keen awareness of this failure and with the negative consequences it entails.
In some cases, the process of differentiation can spiral out of control into “malevolent cycling”—highly personalized or hostile conflict that is not directed toward issues (Walton, 1969). Baxter, Wilmot, Simmons, and Swartz (1993) conducted open-ended interviews with students that suggested that spiraling escalation is common in interpersonal conflicts. They labeled one commonly occurring type of conflict in their interviews “Escalatory Conflict” because it involved increasing emotional intensity and multiple stages in which the scope and intensity of the conflict increased over time. One female respondent provided this example from a romantic relationship: “I might bring up a topic. Then he will get mad that I brought up this particular topic. Then I will lose my patience and get frustrated. He, in turn, will get more mad” (Baxter et al., 1993, p. 98). “Serial arguing,” in which unresolved conflicts manifest over the course of many interactions, is a common feature of many interpersonal relationships (Roloff & Wright, 2013; Koerner, 2013).
This type of escalation also occurs in workplace conflicts, conflicts between groups, and international conflicts (North, Brody, & Holsti, 1963; Garner & Poole, 2013; Walton, 1969). As we discuss in Chapters 2
, it is fueled by
negative emotions such as anger and hurt, by social cognitive processes such as attributing fault for the conflict to the other, and by interaction processes such as reciprocity.
Differentiation and Avoidance A second, equally damaging pattern in conflict interaction is overly rigid avoidance. Parties may sometimes fear the consequences of open conflict so much that they refuse to acknowledge the conflict and avoid anything that might spark a confrontation. They may respond to potential conflicts with ambiguous statements (“I’m not sure how I feel about that”) and skirt troublesome issues. They may openly suppress discussion of the conflict (“Let’s not talk about that”) and refuse to acknowledge it (“There’s really no problem here”). Even when both parties know there is a conflict, they may simply avoid discussing it, even if there is palpable discomfort with that “elephant in the room,” the potential conflict. Even when someone is being bullied by another person, he or she is often likely to avoid addressing the behavior (sometimes by leaving a group or organization) rather than confront the issues (Coyne, Stockdale, Busby, Iverson, & Grant, 2011; Raver & Barling, 2008). The fear of conflict escalation easily motivates people to avoid talking about the conflict (Pruitt, 2008; Speakman & Ryals, 2010).
The problem with rigid avoidance is that parties may never realize their own potential for finding creative solutions to important problems (Garner & Poole, 2013; Tjosvold, 1995). Trying to avoid conflict at all costs, parties may quickly accept an unsatisfactory solution.
A classic study by Guetzkow and Gyr (1954) provides a vivid picture of the consequences of rigid avoidance. In a sample of seventy-two decision-making groups they compared interaction in groups with high levels of substantive conflict (conflict focused on the issues and on disagreements about possible solutions) to interaction in groups with high levels of affective conflict (interpersonal conflict characterized by extreme frustration, according to an outsider’s observations). They were interested in the difference between substantive and affective conflicts because affective conflicts are more likely to exhibit spiraling escalation. Affective conflict was highly correlated with how critical and punishing members are to each other and how unpleasant the emotional atmosphere is. In essence, affective conflict is a sign of differentiation gone awry. The objective of Guetzkow and Gyr was to determine what conditions allowed groups with substantive and affective conflict, respectively, to reach consensus.
Guetzkow and Gyr found that different behaviors contributed to each group’s ability to reach consensus. Groups that were high in substantive conflict and were able to reach consensus sought three times as much factual information and relied on that information more heavily in reaching a decision than did groups that were not able to reach consensus. In other words, substantive conflict was resolved by determined pursuit of the issue.
In contrast, groups high in affective conflict engaged mostly in flight or avoidance to reach consensus. Members withdrew from the problem by addressing simpler and less controversial agenda items, showed less interest in the discussion overall, and talked to only a few others in the group. When consensus was achieved in the affective conflict groups, it was most often the result of ignoring the critical problem at hand and finding an issue on which members could comfortably reach agreement. If the primary goal is to reduce tension and discomfort at any cost, then flight behaviors will serve well.
When people cannot easily ignore an issue, however, destructive tension can result from their inability to pursue the conflict. Baxter et al. (1993) also found this type of avoidance in their study of interpersonal conflict. One of the interviewees in their study called this type of conflict “don’t talk about it” conflict. When confronting particularly serious issues, friends reported that they would change the subject and avoid the conflict because they did not want to threaten their relationship. Results similar to those in the two studies just summarized have been found in numerous other studies (Nicotera & Dorsey, 2006; Garner & Poole, 2013).
Differentiation and Rigidity In the Greek epic poem The Odyssey, Ulysses and his men must sail through a narrow strait guarded by two monsters. On one side is Scylla, a ravenous six-headed snake who would seize six men from each passing ship to satisfy her ravenous hunger. On the other is Charybdis, a whirlpool that would suck unsuspecting ships into the deeps. Ships had to navigate the strait very carefully to escape the two monsters. To drift too far one way or the other was to court death and disaster. Avoidance and hostile escalation are the Scylla and Charybdis of differentiation, and carefully navigating a course that escapes both is key to effective conflict management.
Differentiation is often threatening or anxiety-ridden, and this makes sticking to the straight and narrow course toward integration difficult. Threat and anxiety tends to produce rigidity that causes people to cling inflexibly to patterns of interaction that emerge during differentiation.
We will consider the relationships among threat, anxiety, and rigidity in more detail in Chapter 2
, but we will undertake some preliminary discussion here to explain the normative model. Figure 1.1
illustrates the relationship among differentiation, inflexibility, and the course of conflict interaction.