Interpersonal Conflict

What is Interpersonal Conflict?

Interpersonal conflict refers to the manifestation of incompatibility, inconsistency, or disagreement between two or more interacting individuals. It usually occur between peers or between superiors and subordinates or between individuals in interpersonal relationship.

Usually, conflict Opens in new window entails an expressed struggle between two or more interdependent people who perceive that they have incompatible goals (Cahn, 1992). This struggle most likely occur when resources are scarce, when each conflicting partner attaches importance to his or her goals, and when those goals are hard to obtain (Wilmot & Hocker, 2007).

Interpersonal conflict contexts can include the study of conflicts in acquaintanceship, friendship, dating, marital relationship, family socialization, health care, workplace, life span, and/or intercultural context. In any of these contexts, some of the following features exists:

  • some subtle or overt signals of conflict messages or behaviors are being exchanged, and meanings are inferred;
  • one or both conflict parties perceive that they seek different goals, and they perceive own goals as potentially interfered;
  • some degree of emotional frustrations or threats is experienced or felt;
  • the two or more individuals in the relational system are interdependent and oriented toward each other in a social or personalized relationship direction;
  • there exists some degree of reciprocal, mutual influencing process;
  • the conflict scene can take place in a public or private setting; and
  • the conflict episode is framed within multiple embedded contexts (Kpapp & Daly, 2011).

An interpersonal conflict situation basically involves the study of how two or more individuals approach and manage the message exchange process and the meaning construction process due to incompatible goals, scarce resources, and the perceived interferences from others in achieving his or her goals in a multilayered socio-cultural system (Wilmot & Hocker, 2011).

In their research, Cupach, Canary, and Spitzberg (2010) identified four property approaches to the study of interpersonal conflict as:

  • pervasive
  • explicit disagreement,
  • a hostile episode, and
  • disagreement in particular episodes

Styles of Handling Interpersonal Conflicts

There are various models that analyze different styles of behavior by which conflict may be handled. However, in regards to handling interpersonal conflicts, Rahim and Bonoma (1979) and Rahim (1983a) differentiated the styles of handling interpersonal conflict on two basic dimensions: concern for self and concern for others.

The first dimension explains the degree (high or low) to which a person attempts to satisfy his or her own concern. The second dimension explains the degree (high or low) to which a person wants to satisfy the concern of others.

Combination of the two dimensions results in five specific styles of handling interpersonal conflict, as described below:

1.   Integrating: high concern for self and others

Integrating entails collaboration between the parties, i.e., openness, exchange of information, and examination of differences to reach a solution acceptable to both parties. “The first rule… for obtaining integration is to put your cards on the table, face the real issue, uncover the conflict, bring the whole thing into the open” (Follett, 1940, p. 38).

Prein (1976) suggested that this style has two distinctive elements: confrontation and problem solving. Confrontation involves open and direct communication which should make way for problem solving. As a result, it may lead to creative solutions to problems.

2.   Obliging: low concern for self and high concern for others

An obliging style is associated with attempting to play down the differences and emphasizing commonalities to satisfy the concern of the other party. There is an element of selfsacrifice in this style. It may take the form of selfless generosity, charity, or obedience to another person’s order.

An obliging person neglects his or her own concern to satisfy the concern of the other party. Such an individual is like a “conflict absorber,” i. e., a “person whose reaction to a perceived hostile act on the part of another has low hostility or even positive friendliness” (Boulding, 1962, p. 171).

3.   Dominating: high concern for self and low concern for others

This style has been identified with a win-lose orientation or with forcing behavior to win one’s position. Here, the dominating person wants to win at any means necessary because he feels that one side must win and the other must lose. Thus, a dominating or competing person goes all out to win his or her objective and, as a result, often ignores the needs and expectations of the other party.

Dominating may mean standing up for one’s rights and/or defending a position which the party believes to be correct. Sometimes a dominating person wants to win at any cost. A dominating supervisor is likely to use his position power to impose his will on the subordinates and command their obedience.

4.   Avoiding: low concern for self others

Avoiding indicates low concern for self and others. This is also known as suppression. People use this style to stay out of conflicts, ignore disagreements, or remain neutral. It has been associated with withdrawal, buck-passing, sidestepping, sidestepping, or “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” situations.

Avoiding may take the form of postponing an issue until a better time, or simply withdrawing from a threatening situation. An avoiding person fails to satisfy his or her own concern as well as the concern of the other party.

5.   Compromising: intermediate in concern for self and others

Compromising style is an intermediary cooperative and assertive method. It is based on give and take and typically involves a series of negotiations and concessions.

A compromising party gives up more than a dominating party but less than an obliging party. Likewise, such a party addresses an issue more directly than an avoiding party but does not explore it in as much depth as an integrating party.

Generally, integrating and, to some extent compromising, styles are appropriate for dealing with strategic issues. The remaining styles can be used to deal with tactical or day to day problems. The above discussion on the styles of handling conflict and the situations where they are appropriate or inappropriate is a normative approach to managing conflict.