man and woman in a tug of war symbolizing conflictIn a recent article about a research study on conflict management systems and strategies in the workplace (Katz and Flynn, Conflict Resolution Quarterly, Summer 2013) the authors wrote, “…differences in how people define conflict can be a root cause of conflict.”

Neil H. Katz and Linda T. Flynn conducted a pilot study in Broward County, Florida. They chose not to predefine conflict for the interview participants. Rather they asked them how they define conflict. Perhaps not surprisingly, people had differing definitions of conflict. The finding that such differences can lead to conflict might be surprising.

I pulled a few books on conflict off my shelves to review how different authors on the subject define it. A cursory scan of opening chapters garnered the following views on conflict.

Mark Gerzon, author of Leading Through Conflict: How Successful Leaders Transform Differences into Opportunities, talks about “hot conflicts (strong emotions, loud voices, visible tensions) and cold conflicts (suppressed emotions, tense silence, invisible stress).”

In their book Resolving Conflicts at Work: Ten Strategies for Everyone on the Job, Kenneth Cloke and Joan Goldsmith emphasize chronic conflicts. They define these as, “…those that nations, societies, organizations, families, or individuals

  1. Have not fully resolved
  2. Need to resolve in order to grow and evolve
  3. Are capable of resolving
  4. Can only resolve by abandoning old approaches and adopting new ones
  5. Are resistant to resolving because they are frightened, dissatisfied, insecure, uncertain, angry, or unwilling to change”

“There are two very different kinds of conflict,” writes Robert Bolton in People Skills: How to Assert Yourself, Listen to Others, and Resolve Conflicts. He defines them as realistic and nonrealistic conflicts. He says, “In realistic conflict there are opposing needs, goals, or values. Nonrealistic conflict…stems from ignorance, error, historical tradition and prejudice, poor organizational structure, displaced hostility, or the need for tension release.”

Moving to a slightly more academic definition of conflict, James A. Schellenberg author of Conflict Resolution: Theory, Research and Practice, focuses on social conflict between individuals and groups. He defines social conflict as, “the opposition between individuals and groups on the basis of competing interests, different identities, and/or different attitudes.”

Here is one more definition. This one comes from Conflict: from Theory to Action by Roxane S. Lulofs and Dudley D. Cahn. These authors take an entire chapter to define conflict. In summary, they focus on interpersonal conflicts in which people are “mutually dependent on one another to meet their psychological and/or physical needs.” Thus, when disagreements arise about differences in perceptions, goal incompatibility or competition over scarce resources, what is often at stake is “the relationship itself and how the relationships is to be defined.”

Personality style or ethnic/cultural differences are also often cited as underlying causes of conflict. This is in keeping with the above notion that defining the relationships must be part of any conflict resolution effort. It suggests that the topic or substance of the conflict is merely the surface issue. To resolve it, it is necessary to delve deeper.

This need to delve beneath the surface of the visible disagreement is, I suspect, how differences in defining conflict can become the root cause of a conflict. Sitcoms make fun of this phenomenon when they pit husband and wife against each other, and one of them (usually the wife) ends by saying, “You just don’t get it.” What the other person “doesn’t get” is the underlying cause or reason why one person is upset over something.

In the Broward County study, the example given is where one person felt slighted to the complete surprise and bafflement of the other party. It turned out to be a generational difference in which respect and different expectations of behavior toward elders was the issue. One person–the one who felt disrespected–defined the conflict in terms of how the relationship should be defined. The other person–the one who intended no slight and was oblivious to having caused a problem–defined the conflict as non-existent and couldn’t understand what the fuss was all about.

Perhaps one take-away lesson from all this is to check in with other people on what they see as the problem and accept that their perception is their legitimate reality.

I would be curious to know, dear readers, what you think about the various conflict definitions above and how you define conflict. Please do write your answers in the comment section below.