Defining Conflict

"There is more than a verbal tie between the words common, community, and communication.... Try the experiment of communicating, with fullness and accuracy, some experience to another, especially if it be somewhat complicated, and you will find your own attitude toward your experience changing."
-- John Dewey

What is Conflict?

A disagreement may be between two or more people based on differing values, opinions, work styles, perceptions, etc. The difference may cause significant tension and affect the work and effectiveness of the people working together.

Conflict Happens

Conflict arises when there are differences - big or small - between the values, motivations, perceptions, or opinions of two or more people. Conflict is also identified by Craig E. Runde and Tim A. Flanagan (co-authors of Conflict Competent Leadership) as "situations where people believe they have incompatible goals, interests, principles, or feelings. These don’t need to be actually incompatible; just the appearance is enough."

Conflict is a normal, natural and inevitable part of life - be it between people in the workplace, friends in the community, or family at home. It is a necessary ingredient for a healthy relationship. Furthermore, conflict is not an isolated event, but is influenced and affected by its surroundings. Dependent upon perceptions, decisions, and underlying situations, people are always adapting and changing to conflict.

chart of conflict stages

Stages of Conflict

Conflict can often be described as cycling through various stages. Over time, conflict can intensify and escalate until it reaches a tipping point that often leads to a resolution, but can also lead to a fracture. The number of stages and the names of the stages vary depending upon different conflict theorists. The following stages best describe the conflict cycle as it relates to VISTA members and VISTA Leaders:

  • Underlying Conflict
  • Conflict Development
  • Conflict Stalemate
  • Conflict Resolution
  • Reconciliation

Why is conflict so hard?

Myers Briggs results diagram

  • Dealing positively with conflict requires clarity of communication and strong listening skills - such communication skills must be taught.
    • Stephen R. Covey, the author of a very well-known book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, explains that, "Seek first to understand involves a very deep shift in paradigm. We typically seek first to be understood. Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply. They're either speaking or preparing to speak. They're filtering everything through their own paradigms, reading their autobiography into other people's lives."
    • This is a key skill in learning to manage conflict.

emotional intelligence diagram

  • The emotions that create conflict are under the surface and largely unseen.
    • "Our behaviour is a manifestation of our emotions: we feel a certain emotion that causes us to behave in a certain way. Furthermore, our emotions manifest from needs and interests of ours being met or, in most conflict cases, not being met. Imagine an iceberg, where 20 per cent of the iceberg is above the waterline and visible, while the other 80 per cent is below the waterline and obscured from view. Imagine that the 20 per cent that’s visible represents our behaviour: we can see and hear it."
    • "Our emotions are largely unseen in part because the physical pathway for our emotions, and emotional intelligence, begins in our brains, at our spinal cords. Therefore, our primary senses have to travel through the limbic system (center of the brain and where emotions take place) to the front of our brains (frontal lobe and where we think rationally). The center of the brain and the frontal lobe must communicate effectively to create the link between emotion and rationality. If we develop our emotional intelligence, although the iceberg will still exist, we will be more capable of handling conflict."