Interpersonal Conflict and Conflict Management Essay

Interpersonal Conflict and Conflict Management Essay

Interpersonal Conflict and Conflict Management Essay

Preliminaries to Interpersonal Conflict

11.1 Define interpersonal conflict and some of the reasons for conflict. Before considering the stages and strategies of conflict management, we need to define exactly what we mean by interpersonal conflict, some of the myths surrounding this concept, and some of the issues around which conflict often centers.

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Definition of Interpersonal Conflict

You want to go to the movies with your partner. Your partner wants to stay home. Your insisting on going to the movies interferes with your partner’s staying home, and your partner’s determination to stay home interferes with your going to the movies. Your goals are incompatible; if your goal is achieved, your partner’s goal is not. Conversely, if your partner’s goal is achieved, your goal is not. As this example illustrates, interpersonal conflict is disagreement between or among connected individuals—friends, lovers, colleagues, family members—who perceive their goals as incompatible (Cahn & Abigail, 2007; Folger, Poole, & Stutman, 2005; Hocker & Wilmot, 2007). More specifically, conflict occurs when people: • are interdependent (they’re connected in some significant way); what one person does has an impact or an effect on the other person. • are mutually aware that their goals are incompatible; if one person’s goal is achieved, then the other person’s goal cannot be achieved. For example, if one person wants to buy a new car and the other person wants to pay down the mortgage, there is conflict. Note that this situation would not pose a conflict if the couple had unlimited resources, in which case they could buy the car and pay down the mortgage. • perceive each other as interfering with the attainment of their own goals. For example, you may want to study, but your roommate may want to party; the attainment of either goal would interfere with the attainment of the other goal. One of the implications of this concept of interdependency is that the greater the interdependency, (1) the greater the number of issues on which conflict can center, and (2) the greater the impact of the conflict and the conflict management interaction on the individuals and on the relationship. As interdependency increases, so do breadth (the number of topics) and depth (the level to which topics are penetrated). When you think about it this way, it’s easy to appreciate how important understanding interpersonal conflict and mastering the strategies of effective conflict management are to your relationship life. The diagram in Figure 11.1 is designed to illustrate this idea.


Myths about Interpersonal Conflict

One of the problems many people have in dealing with conflict is that they may be operating on the basis of false assumptions about what conflict is and what it means. Think about your own assumptions about interpersonal and small-group conflict, which were probably derived from the communications you witnessed in your family and in your social interactions. For example, do you think the following are true or false?

1. Conflict is best avoided. Time will generally solve any problem; most difficulties blow over given time. 2. If two people experience relationship conflict, it means their relationship is in big trouble; conflict is a sign of a deeply troubled relationship.

3. Conflict damages an interpersonal relationship.

4. Conflict is destructive because it reveals our negative selves—our pettiness, our need to be in control, our unreasonable expectations.

5. In any conflict, there has to be a winner and a loser. Because goals are incompatible, someone has to win and someone has to lose.

Each of these statements is false and, as we’ll see in this chapter, these myths can easily interfere with your dealing effectively with conflict. To explain briefly: (1) Avoiding conflict prevents differences and disagreements from ever getting resolved. (2) Conflict is inevitable; conflict is a sign of disagreement, not necessarily major relationship problems. (3) Conflict, when it is appropriately managed, can actually improve a relationship. (4) Conflict can be constructive, especially when both individuals approach it logically and with consideration for each other. (5) Conflict does not mean that someone has to lose and someone has to win; both can win. It’s not so much the conflict that creates problems as the way in which you approach and deal with the conflict. Some ways of approaching conflict can resolve difficulties and differences, and can actually improve a relationship. Other ways can hurt the relationship; they can destroy self-esteem, create bitterness, and foster suspicion. Your task, therefore, is not to try to create relationships that will be free of conflict but rather to learn appropriate and productive ways of managing conflict so that neither person emerges a loser.


Interpersonal Conflict Issues

Interpersonal conflicts cover a wide range of issues (Canary, 2003). Such conflicts may focus on goals to be pursued (for example, parents and child disagree on what college the child should attend or what romantic partner he or she should get involved with); on the allocation of resources such as money or time (for example, partners differ on how to spend their money); on decisions to be made (for example, spouses argue about whether to save or splurge after one receives a bonus); or on behaviors that are considered appropriate or desirable by one person but inappropriate or undesirable by the other (for example, two people disagree over whether one of them was flirting or drinking or not working as hard on the relationship). In a study on the issues argued about by gay, lesbian, and heterosexual couples, researchers found that respondents identified six major issues that were almost identical for all couples (Kurdek, 1994). These issues are arranged here in order, with the

DeVito, Joseph A.. Interpersonal Communication Book, The (Page 285). Pearson Education. Kindle Edition.

first being the one mentioned most often. As you read this list, ask yourself how many of these issues lead to interpersonal conflict. • intimacy issues, such as affection and sex • power issues, such as excessive demands or possessiveness, lack of equality in the relationship, friends, and leisure time • personal flaws issues, such as drinking or smoking, personal grooming, and driving style • personal distance issues, such as frequent absence and heavy school or job commitments • social issues, such as politics and social policies, parents, and personal values • distrust issues, such as previous lovers and lying.

According to the website, nine issues are at the heart of couple conflicts: Free time, money, household responsibilities, politics, sex, children and pets, religion, jealousy, and stress. Another class of issues that create conflict is that of social allergens (Cunningham, 2009). Much like an allergen such as poison ivy irritates you physically, social allergens irritate you psychologically, emotionally, relationally. Physical allergies begin with a mild physical reaction and then, upon repeated contact, with reactions that are more and more severe. Similarly, a social allergen—for example, not calling when you’re going to be late—may at first be treated as a simple personality quirk. But when it occurs repeatedly over time, it’s no longer just a quirk; it’s a major annoyance. A social allergen is a personal habit of a friend or romantic partner that you find, say, annoying, unpleasant, distasteful, impolite, inconsiderate, uncouth, or just plain bothersome. Each person, of course, will have his or her own list of what constitutes social allergens. One researcher found that men and women identified different types of allergens. For example, the allergens that men complained about women included: using the silent treatment, bringing up old grievances, being too critical, and being stubborn. Women, on the other hand, complained about men forgetting dates of important events such as birthdays or anniversaries, not working hard enough, burping and flatulence, and looking too much at other women (Cunningham, 2009; Eccles, 2009). Here are a few additional ones mentioned in the many websites that discuss this issue: leaving wet towels on the bathroom floor; not capping the toothpaste tube; blowing one’s nose at the dinner table; commanding rather than asking; picking one’s nose; leaving toe nail clippings on the floor; and smoking, drinking, working on Facebook, or talking on the phone too much. In a study of same-sex and opposite-sex friends, the four issues most often argued about were shared living space or possessions, violations of friendship rules, the sharing of activities, and disagreement about ideas (Samter & Cupach, 1998). In large part, the same conflicts you experience in face-to-face relationships can also arise in electronic communication. Yet there are a few conflict issues that seem to be unique to electronic communication, whether via e-mail, on social networking sites such as Facebook or Google+, in blog postings, or on the phone. For the most part, such conflict results when people violate the rules of Internet courtesy, for example, sending commercial messages to those who didn’t request them often creates conflict. Sending someone unsolicited mail (spamming or spimming), repeatedly sending the same mail, or posting the same message in lots of newsgroups, even when the message is irrelevant to the focus of one or more groups, also create conflict. Putting out purposely incorrect information or outrageous viewpoints to watch other people correct you or get emotionally upset by your message (trolling) can obviously lead to conflict, though some see it as fun. Other potential causes of such conflict include ill-timed cell phone calls, calling someone at work just to chat, criticizing someone unfairly, or posting an unflattering photo on social network sites. In the workplace, conflicts are especially important because of their potential negative effects such as personnel leaving the job (necessitating new recruitment and retraining), low morale, and a

DeVito, Joseph A.. Interpersonal Communication Book, The (Page 286). Pearson Education. Kindle Edition.

lessening desire to perform at top efficiency. In workplace settings, the major sources of conflict among top managers revolved around the issue of executive responsibility and coordination. Other conflicts focused on differences in organizational objectives, on how resources were to be allocated, and on what constituted an appropriate management style (Morrill, 1992). Not surprisingly, social allergens are also represented in the workplace (Miller & Reznik, 2009). Workplace conflicts, according to another study, center on issues such as these (Psychometrics, 2010): • personality differences and resulting clashes, 86 percent • ineffective leadership, 73 percent • lack of openness, 67 percent • physical and emotional stress, 64 percent • differences in values and resulting clashes, 59 percent

Principles of Interpersonal Conflict

11.2 Describe the major principles that govern interpersonal conflict. The importance and influence of conflict in all interpersonal relationships can be best appreciated if we understand some fundamental principles of this particular form of interaction. Here we look at (1) the inevitability of conflict, (2) conflict’s positive and negative aspects, (3) conflict’s focus on content and/or on relationships, (4) differing styles of conflict and their consequences, (5) the influence of culture on conflict, and (6) the usefulness of viewing conflict management as a multistep process.

Conflict Is Inevitable

Conflict is part of every interpersonal relationship, whether between parents and children, brothers and sisters, friends, lovers, or coworkers. The very fact that people are different, have had different histories, and have different goals invariably produces differences. If the individuals are interdependent, as discussed earlier (see Figure 11.1), these differences may well lead to conflicts—and if so, the conflicts can focus on a wide variety of issues and can be extremely personal. And, of course, some people have greater tolerance for disagreement. Consequently they are more apt to let things slide and not become emotionally upset or hostile than are those with little tolerance for disagreement (Teven, Richmond, & McCroskey, 1998; Wrench, McCroskey, & Richmond, 2008).

Conflict Can Occur in All Communication Forms

In large part, the same conflicts you experience in face-to-face relationships can also arise in online communication. Yet there are a few conflict issues that seem to be unique to online communication, whether in e-mail, in social networking sites such as Facebook or MySpace, or in blog postings. For the most part, online conflict results when people violate the rules of politeness. For example, sending commercial messages to those who didn’t request them often creates conflict, or sending a message to an entire listserv when it’s relevant to only one member may annoy members who expect to receive messages relevant to the entire group and not personal exchanges between two people. Sending someone unsolicited mail (spamming or spimming), repeatedly sending the same mail, or posting the same message in lots of newsgroups (especially when the message is irrelevant to the focus of one or more groups) can also create conflict. Putting out purposefully incorrect information or outrageous viewpoints to watch other people correct you or get emotionally upset by your message (trolling) can obviously lead to conflict, though some see it as fun. Other potential causes of online conflict are ill-timed cell phone calls, calling someone at work just to chat, or criticizing someone unfairly or posting an unflattering photo on social network sites.

Conflict Can Have Negative and Positive Effects

Even though interpersonal conflict is inevitable, the way you deal with conflict is crucial because conflict can have both negative and positive effects, depending on how it is handled. Negative effects Among the disadvantages of conflict is that it often leads to increased negative feelings. Many conflicts involve unfair fighting methods and focus largely on hurting the other person. If this happens, negative feelings are sure to increase. Conflict may also deplete energy better spent on other areas, especially when unproductive conflict strategies are used. At times, conflict may lead you to close yourself off from the other individual. When you hide your feelings from your partner, you prevent meaningful communication and interaction; this, in turn, creates barriers to intimacy. Because the need for intimacy is so strong, one possible outcome is that one or both parties may seek intimacy elsewhere. This often leads to further conflict, mutual hurt, and resentment—all of which add heavily to the costs carried by the relationship. As the costs increase, the rewards may become more difficult to exchange. Here, then, is a situation in which costs increase and rewards decrease, a scenario that often results in relationship deterioration and eventual dissolution. Positive effects Among the advantages of conflict is that it forces you to examine a problem and work toward a potential solution. If you use productive conflict strategies, your relationship is likely to become stronger, healthier, and more satisfying than it was before. Even angry discussions in which you voice your unwillingness to accept certain behaviors can be beneficial (McNulty & Russell, 2010). Conflict often prevents hostilities and resentments from festering. Say that you’re annoyed at your partner, who comes home from work and then talks on the phone with colleagues for two hours instead of giving that time to you. If you say nothing, your annoyance is likely to grow. Further, by saying nothing you implicitly approve of such behavior, so it’s likely that the phone calls will continue. Through your conflict and its resolution, you each let your needs be known: your partner needs to review the day’s work to gain assurance that it’s been properly completed, and you have a need for your partner’s attention. If you both can appreciate the legitimacy of these needs, then you stand a good chance of finding workable solutions. Perhaps your partner can make the phone calls after your attention needs are met. Perhaps you can delay your need for attention until your partner gets closure about work. Perhaps you can learn to provide for your partner’s closure needs and in doing so get your own attention needs met. Again, you have win–win solutions; each of you has your needs met. Consider, too, that when you try to resolve conflict within an interpersonal relationship, you’re saying that the relationship is worth the effort; otherwise, you’d walk away. Although there may be exceptions—as when you confront conflict to save face or to gratify some ego need—confronting a conflict often indicates concern, commitment, and a desire to protect and preserve the relationship.

DeVito, Joseph A.. Interpersonal Communication Book, The (Page 288). Pearson Education. Kindle Edition.

Conflict Can Focus on Content and/or Relationship Issues

content conflict centers on objects, events, and persons in the world that are usually external to the people involved in the conflict. These include the millions of issues that you argue and fight about every day—the merits of a particular movie, what to watch on television, the fairness of the last examination, who should get promoted, the way to spend your savings. Relationship conflicts are equally numerous and are concerned with the relationships between the individuals—with issues such as who’s in charge, the equality or lack of it in the relationship, and who has the right to establish rules of behavior. Examples of relationship conflicts include those involving a younger brother who does not obey his older brother, two partners who each want an equal say in making vacation plans, or a mother and daughter who each want to have the final word concerning the daughter’s lifestyle. Relationship conflicts are often hidden and disguised as content conflicts. Thus, a conflict over where you should vacation may, on the content level, center on the advantages and disadvantages of Mexico versus Hawaii. On a relationship level, however, it may center on who has the greater right to select the place to vacation, who should win the argument, or who is the decision maker in the relationship.


Conflict Is Influenced by Culture and Gender

As is true with all communication processes, conflict is influenced by the culture of the participants—and especially by their beliefs and values about conflict—and by their gender. cultuRal iNflueNces Culture seems to influence the topics people fight about, the nature of their conflict, the conflict strategies they use, and the norms of the organization regarding conflict. Topics Culture influences the topics people fight about as well as what are considered appropriate and inappropriate ways of dealing with conflict. For example, cohabiting 18-year-olds are more likely to have conflict with their parents over their living style if they live in the United States than if they live in Sweden, where cohabitation is much more accepted. Similarly, male infidelity is more likely to cause conflict among American couples than among southern European couples. The topics of conflicts also depend on whether the culture is collectivist or individualist. In collectivist cultures, conflicts are more likely to center on violations of collective or group norms and values. Conversely, in individualist cultures, conflicts are more likely to come up when individual norms are violated (Ting-Toomey, 1985). Nature of Conflict Cultures also differ in how they define what constitutes conflict. For example, in some cultures it’s quite common for women to be referred to negatively and to be seen as less than equal. To most people in the United States, this would constitute a clear basis for conflict. To some Japanese women, however, this isn’t uncommon and isn’t perceived as abusive (New York Times, February 11, 1996, pp. 1, 12). Further, Americans and Japanese differ in their views of the aim or purpose of conflict. The Japanese see conflicts and their resolution in terms of compromise; Americans, on the other hand, see conflict in terms of winning (Gelfand, Nishii, Holcombe, Dyer, Ohbuchi, & Fukuno, 2001). African Americans and European Americans engage in conflict in very different ways (Hecht, Jackson, & Ribeau, 2003; Kochman, 1981). The issues that cause and aggravate conflict, the conflict strategies that are expected and accepted, and the attitudes toward conflict vary from one group to the other. Conflict Strategies Each culture seems to teach its members different views of conflict strategies (Tardiff, 2001).

geNDeR iNflueNces Research finds significant gender differences in interpersonal conflict (Krolokke & Sorensen, 2006; Wood, 2010). For example, men are more apt to withdraw from a conflict situation than are women. It’s been argued that this may be because men become more psychologically and physiologically aroused during conflict (and retain this heightened level of arousal much longer) than do women, and so may try to distance themselves and withdraw from the conflict to prevent further arousal (Goleman, 1995b; Gottman & Carrere, 1994). Another position argues that men withdraw because the culture has taught men to avoid conflict. Still another claims that withdrawal is an expression of power. Women, on the other hand, want to get closer to the conflict; they want to talk about it and resolve it. Even adolescents reveal these differences. In research on boys and girls ages 11 to 17, boys withdrew more than girls (Heasley, Babbitt, & Burbach, 1995; Lindeman, Harakka, & Keltikangas-Jarvinen, 1997). Other research has found that women are more emotional and men are more logical when they argue. Women have been defined as conflict “feelers” and men as conflict “thinkers” (Sorenson, Hawkins, & Sorenson, 1995). Another difference is that women are more apt to reveal their negative feelings than are men (Canary, Cupach, & Messman, 1995; Schaap, Buunk, & Kerkstra, 1988). It should be mentioned, however, that some research fails to support these stereotypical gender differences in conflict style—the differences that cartoons, situation comedies, and films portray so readily and so clearly. For example, several studies dealing with both college students and men and women in business found no significant differences in the ways men and women engage in conflict (Canary & Hause, 1993; Gottman & Levenson, 1999; Canary, Cupach, & Messman, 1995; Gamble & Gamble, 2014).

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