Why Is Conflict So Difficult, And What Can I Do About It?

Written by: Megan Smith / Communication / January 2019

Do any of these situations sound familiar?

•      You raised your voice at your manager when you learned that you were not recommended for a promotion.

•      You raised an issue with a close friend, but ended up apologizing to him instead.

•      Your romantic partner brought up a minor relationship issue and you froze, unable to find a single word to use in reply.  

These are three maladaptive styles of conflict management. Some people will find that their style of conflict management is consistent across different scenarios and with different people, but others will shift between different styles at different times. Regardless of how people react to conflict, many will find it stressful.

Why is conflict so hard to manage?

Conflict is stressful

There are many reasons why people find conflict to be stressful, and will become anxious when faced with a situation that may lead to conflict. Because of the relationship between conflict and anxiety, our “fight, flight, or freeze” response can be triggered.

If you enter the “fight” response, you are likely to push back aggressively at the source of the conflict, regardless of the intent of the person who began the conversation. The “flight” response leads to passivity – either by ignoring a problem so that conflict can be avoided, or by giving in quickly in order to escape the situation. The “freeze” response leads to complete withdrawal or disengagement.

Because your response to conflict may be different than the people around you, it can sometimes be difficult to bridge the gap. This means that you may not be able to improve your reaction in moments of conflict using a one-size-fits-all strategy. However, taking steps to manage your own stress responses will be important to move forward productively.

Self-fulfilling prophecies

The theory of cooperation and competition outlines two general strategies for resolving conflict:

In competitive conflict, participants consider only their own outcome. Each wants to “win” the conflict and therefore is hoping for the other person to “lose.” In contrast, cooperative conflict occurs when both parties focus on a positive joint outcome, and will therefore make efforts to help each other achieve this overall goal rather than hoping for the other party to fail.

When people see all conflict as competitive, self-fulfilling prophecies occur. As described by Morton Deutsch in his chapter of The Handbook of Conflict Resolution - Theory and Practice:

“Self-fulfilling prophecies are those wherein you engage in hostile behavior toward another because of a false assumption that the other has done or is preparing to do something harmful to you; your false assumption comes true when it leads you to engage in hostile behavior that then provokes the other to react in a hostile manner to you.”

Essentially, if someone expects bad things to happen during conflict, they are likely to cause bad things to happen during that conflict.


Strategies for managing conflict effectively

Be proactive

Many people avoid raising important concerns because they do not want to cause problems in their relationships with others. By addressing any problems in your relationships with family members, friends and coworkers before they become major problems, you will be more able to keep your reactions under control. Being proactive also allows you to plan out exactly what you would like to say to the other person so that you can communicate your perspective in a way that is both direct and fair.

Focus on the positives

Ask yourself: What are the potential benefits of addressing this problem?

Conflict is not inherently negative. Engaging in conflict cooperatively can lead to positive change, and can help an individual develop better relationships with themselves and others. Moments of conflict also allow us to practice important communication skills such as self-advocacy, active listening, and empathy. By focusing on the upsides of conflict, we can help reduce the stress associated with the situation, and we are motivated to find the most positive outcome possible.

Manage your reactions

If you know in advance that you may be about to enter into conflict, try taking some slow, deep breaths to clear your mind and relax your body. Preventing your fear response can help keep you productive in your attempts to deal with the problem.

If you are dealing with a conflict that you were unable to prepare for and you become overwhelmed, ask to revisit the issue later after you have had some time to calm down and think things through properly.

Listen actively

Conflict develops when needs go unmet, but many people only touch on the surface of an issue when they bring it up with others.

Approach the situation like a detective to determine the true unmet need: What is the emotion behind the other person’s words? How has your behaviour caused this emotion? Does the relationship between action and feeling make sense as it is described?

By approaching a conflict with the assumption that your position is the only correct position, or that the other person is behaving irrationally, you are ignoring the unmet need. This could worsen the situation that you are trying to resolve or weaken the relationship that is experiencing the conflict. Working with the other person to get to the root of the problem is more likely to leave both parties feeling closer and more satisfied, regardless of whether the problem was romantic, professional, or social in nature.

Use your words effectively

Using language that assigns blame or overgeneralizes may help you win a fight in the moment, but it risks weakening the relationship in the long term. Remember that the other person is not the problem; instead, it may be the situation or their behaviour that upsets you.

If you know that this is difficult for you, try emphasizing your response to the problem by leading with it. When you feel the need to say “You always go behind my back,” try instead: “It frustrates me that I had no opportunity to correct the problem before you brought your feedback to our manager.” This makes cooperative discussion more likely, and competitive discussion less likely.

Offer a solution

Once a conflict has occurred, end the discussion by reframing it as “us vs. the problem” rather than “me vs. you.” This will remind the other person that you can cooperate in the long term despite a momentary disagreement. Try to incorporate the needs of the other party into the solutions that you offer, and be certain to fairly consider any ideas that they contribute.

Perhaps you often clash with your children because they ignore necessary housework, but they alternately claim that it is because they forgot and because they don’t know what to do. As a solution, you could offer to create a master list of chores and set a reminder on their phone to complete a certain number of chores from the list each day. However, their buy-in will be important, so ask for their feedback. If your children do not agree that this solution is worthwhile, it will never be put into practice.

Teaching our clients to manage conflict is an area of pride for the clinicians at Well Said: Toronto Speech Therapy. If you feel that you could use some more personalized tips and tricks, or want to practice your emerging skills in a safe space, schedule an initial consultation with one of our speech-language pathologists by calling (647) 795-5277 or by clicking the link below.