What is Conflict? Don't let fights go bad.

What is conflict? Don’t let fights go bad.

Conflict may be defined as an incompatibility of values, beliefs, interests and/or positions.[i] But are conflicts truly caused by an incompatibility, or simply a perception thereof? What is conflict? Can conflict be a good thing?

When you think of the word conflict, what do you feel? Stress, worry, discomfort…? If you have experienced destructive conflict, these strong emotions are understandable. As mediators, we prefer to see conflict as an opportunity for positive change, whether it is personal, relational, organizational, or societal in nature. We believe that conflict is a normal and healthy part of our lives in relationships, families, workplaces and communities. Conflict may present itself due to real or perceived incompatibilities between those involved, but conflict needn’t be destructive. So, we must ask ourselves, what makes one type of conflict destructive and the other constructive?

One of the founding researchers in conflict resolution, Morton Duetsch, suggested that conflict itself is not negative or positive. Rather, we as individuals, determine how conflict takes shape, be is positive or negative, constructive or destructive.[ii]



Destructive Conflict:

When a “fight goes bad”, these primary characteristics, are often present due to competitive and ridged behaviours of those involved:

  • Escalation: conflict escalates and goes “out of control” in a given dispute,
  • Retaliation: the reasons for the conflict are forgotten, and the parties aim to hurt or retaliate against one another,
  • Outcome-focused: opportunities for mutual gain are forgotten, as is the potential for mutual gain,
  • Negative Spiral: the negative outcome of one conflict situation often carries to future interactions, leading to negative conflict spiraling,
Constructive Conflict:

We encourage our clients to remember the benefits of particular behaviours to increase the chances of constructive conflict resolution. These behaviours are adaptive, based on the people involved, the context and the substantive issues at play. The first two points are attributed to Deutsch, cited above, and the last three are attributed to Mary Parker Follett, another pivotal scholar in the field of dispute resolution. Here are some characteristics of constructive conflict.

  • Process-focused: strong focus on the process of conflict resolution, not only the goal of arriving to a conclusion,
  • Mutual Gain: aim to balance the interests and needs of all parties involved, and to increase the chances of mutual gain,
  • Improved Relationships: realizing that by dealing with our differences, we improve the depth of our relationship(s),[iii]
  • Shared Power: when we share power with others and the organization with which we work, we are more capable of collaborating,[iv]
  • Increased Power: Individuals should be empowered as a group to increase conflict resolution,[v]
In conclusion, conflict is a potential or actual incompatibility between two or more parties. In order to prevent a conflict from becoming destructive, we recommend that you do not think that a fight goes bad per se. Rather, the behaviour that we choose, contributes to a more destructive or constructive conflict cycle. This reminds us that that we have the power to help turn a potentially negative conflict situation into something positive. Next, we recommend focusing on the process of resolving conflict, the benefits of mutually gain, striving to improve the relationship and lastly, increasing shared power to improve the likelihood of constructive conflict resolution. Through focusing on constructive conflict, we are more likely to realize that these perceived incompatibilities are simply that, perceived, and that a mutually beneficial outcome is possible.

If you are facing a conflict, be sure to try the M2G Conflict Resolver for free, or contact one of the mediators on our mediation services directory.





[i] See generally http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/conflict.
[ii] Deutsch, M. 1973. Conflicts: Productive and destructive. In Conflict resolution through communication, edited by F. E. Jandt. New York: Harper & Row.
[iii] See generally Mary Parker Follett
[iv] Ibid.
[v] Ibid.



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