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Understanding Conflict 

 October 13, 2021

By  Donna Woodrow

Have you ever wondered how it is we get into conflict? Maybe you're curious if everyone experiences conflict in the same way? Is there is a pattern to how conflict arises - and better yet - is there a pattern or a roadmap to resolving conflict? Maybe you're experiencing conflict right now and seeking a solution to the challenge that conflict presents. You are not alone, because some manner of conflict is a part of life for all of us, and it's not even unique to our species. We use animal metaphors to represent conflict. If I were to say that two people in a relationship were 'like cat and dog', or 'cat and mouse'. For most of us, I suspect what comes to mind is that some form of conflict is present in the couple's relationship. 

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In this article, we'll look at the different kinds of conflict, and the different individual ways that we respond to conflict. Knowing these two things is key to understanding any conflict, and the start of the process towards resolution. 


Managing conflict...

When we're working with conflict there are a few key things that are valuable to question and understand as a starting point, if we are aiming to resolve the conflict. 

  1. 1
    What is the root cause of this conflict, or what kind of conflict is this?
  2. 2
    What is my style of conflict resolution?

When we understand the root cause of the conflict, this gives us clues as to what kind of conflict we might be dealing with. If the root cause of the conflict is a partner in a relationship expecting to have a need met by their partner, but their partner fails to meet this need - perhaps we are talking about a conflict of value systems, or perhaps there is a structural conflict where although the partner desires to meet the need, they do not have the resources available to do so.

Also, understanding our own natural style of conflict resolution can be KEY to resolving conflict. Sometimes, when we think we're helping, our habituated pattern of behaviour and response to conflict can sometimes make things worse. So clueing on to ourselves, and bringing awareness of our own state and our own responses in a conflict, then opens up new possibilities for us to choose a new response or behaviour. 

Seek first to understand, before you seek to be understood. 


As with just about everything we do at Modo, we invite our clients (and ourselves!) to apply to self first. This means when there is an opportunity for learning new skills or accessing new resources, we might be tempted to say "Gee I wish my spouse/colleague knew this information and would learn this skill!", and whilst it might be valuable for your partner to learn the new skill - and make your life easier in the process - we know that simply wishing it was so rarely get's us the outcome we want, because we can't change other people but we can change ourselves.

The same principle applies when managing conflict, if you are experiencing conflict in relationship and you really just wish the other person 'got you' and understood your perspective, have you first paused and sought to understood their perspective? 

Types of Conflict

In my examples above, I've touched on relationship conflict that involved another person - as this is the most common kind of conflict I discuss with my coaching clients. However did you know there are many different kinds of conflict. 

We can have internal conflicts which are conflicts that we face with ourselves; such as wanting something but not wanting to pay the cost. For example, I want to eat the donut and enjoy the taste, but I don't want to ingest the extra sugar. This is a very basic example, but we can have all kinds of internal conflicts about who we are and what we want in life. 

There are external conflicts too - such as relationship conflicts, brought on by poor communication, or even differences in needs and values of the two partners in a relationship. Differences of opinion might be found between each partner’s expectations of the relationship and expectations of the other person, beliefs and value systems may differ, family backgrounds, cultural and spiritual backgrounds, and circumstances of each person during the relationship.

Sometimes a conflict can include both internal and external relationship-conflict. Maybe you want to develop a particular skill or resource in yourself such as setting boundaries, and at the same time experience disapproval from your loved ones about your growth and development as a person. This can create both external relationship conflict and a sense of internal conflict about who you are. 

Another kind of conflict which is less talked about and tends to have a very practical approach are Structural conflicts. These can arise with environmental factors, where we don't have conflicts with a person, but instead with a situation, such as geographical and time zone conflicts, the impacts that a process or workflow might have on our life, and the impacts of an external events as we encounter them. 

What is Your Conflict Resolution Style?

The way that we resolve conflict (our conflict resolution style) may relate to the particular styles displayed by our parents as we experienced in our upbringing. As children, we learn to resolve conflict by the example set by our parents. There a few different models for understanding our conflict resolution style (For example, each Enneagram Type also has preferred conflict resolution style, if you'd like to hear more about this, drop us a comment below.) however in this article I'm going to share a simple model that explains five common ways that an individual may respond to conflict. As you read through, the invitation is to apply to self first - what is your conflict resolution style?

Withdrawing or Avoiding

Withdrawing or avoiding conflict will present in a variety of ways. For instance, a partner may pretend they didn’t hear a comment or question, or they may change the subject. Alternatively, they may use humour to respond in an attempt to minimize the conflict, refuse to take a position during discussions, or they may simply walk away from potential arguments.

Individuals with a withdraw/avoid conflict resolution style are usually uncomfortable with conflict. By withdrawing, avoiding or ignoring conflictual communication they are trying to terminate the conflict. If this behaviour is accepted by their partner, the conflict will not be resolved and the existing behaviours and problems will be reinforced. A partner engaging in withdrawal is considered to have low concern for themselves and their partner. 

Accommodating

In accommodating, the partner prefers to hasten the end of the conflict. They choose to obligingly comply with their partner’s remarks. Accommodating may appear as a partner responding with short statements, such as “Yes, that’s right” or some other action designed to soothe the other person.

Through accommodating and bringing a hasty end to the conflict, they are avoiding their feelings and simply surrendering. They may feel they will not measure up or they may have become accustomed to playing the role of a martyr. In contrast to the withdrawal style of conflict resolution, accommodating indicates low concern for self and high concern for others.

Forcing or Competing

This is a win/lose conflict resolution style. This partner considers themselves to be in competition with their partner. They can be hostile, devious, and obstinate and use threats, intimidation or duress to win. The conflict is black and white to them and they desire to win at any cost. It is an abusive style of conflict resolution and not helpful for resolving conflict within a relationship. In fact, it is more likely to increase tension and resentment. The competitive partner has high concern for themselves and low concern for others.

Compromising

This is a practical perspective of conflict. It indicates a view by the partner or partners who are compromising that the resolution to the conflict needs to meet their mutual desires. In compromising, the partner does not relent or surrender. They choose to have their needs met in a way that is acceptable to them while relinquishing part of their requirements in favour of their partner’s needs. There is partial satisfaction for both partners. These partners have moderate concern for themselves and others.

Collaborating

In this style of conflict resolution, the problem is viewed by both partners as a mutual issue. They will collaboratively work towards a solution that is satisfactory and the most favourable for each. By collaborating on a resolution, generally the discrepancy is clarified and the similarities are brought into focus. It encourages honesty and sincerity which will enhance the trust in their relationship. Partners who collaborate display high concern for themselves as well as others.

Receptiveness to Conflict scaled - Understanding Conflict

With each of these conflict resolution styles, we have an internal temperature or degree of receptiveness towards conflict.

If we are afraid of conflict, we have a low receptiveness towards conflict, and we do our best to avoid it or dismiss it. More often than not, this enhances the conflict, because the person we are in conflict with may feel dismissed, unheard and undervalued, which only creates further conflicts in the relationship.

It seems counter-intuitive but actually engaging in conflict in an adaptive way, can speed up the conflict resolution process, especially if we are able to display our high concern for ourselves as well as others. 

Is Conflict Good or Bad?

People who have great difficulty with conflict often hold a belief that conflict is bad and that it should be avoided at all costs, or that it is not a representation of a peaceful and harmonious society. However, not all conflict is maladaptive.

Sure, there may be moments in your life when you unexpectedly find yourself in the face of aggressive and dangerous behaviour (conflict) and the appropriate response it to remove yourself from the situation. We encourage you to avoid and remove yourself from harm.

However, for most of the conflict that we experience day to day, aggressive and dangerous conflict is not the norm, and conflict may offer us an opportunity to improve our own skills. With each of these conflict resolution styles above, there is a temperature or a certain degree of receptiveness towards conflict, and when we witness these difference kinds of responses towards conflict, we come to see that the conflict itself is neither good nor bad, but it is our thinking about the conflict which makes it so. 

Learning to respond to conflict in a healthy way can actually be quite adaptive. It teaches us resilience in the face of challenges, it cultivates problem solving skills and when conflict is approached in a collaborative way, it even strengthens our relationships as it builds trust between two people working together for a common goal toward resolution.

Summary

Now that you have read through the different types of conflict, and the different conflict resolution styles. You can leverage this information the next time you are in a conflict, here are some questions you could ask yourself (and your partner) as you work together to resolve conflict.

  1. 1
    What is the root cause of this conflict? What is the conflict on behalf of?
  2. 2
    What type of conflict are we having?
  3. 3
    What is my conflict resolution style? What is my partners conflict resolution style?
  4. 4
    Could I/we become more collaborative?
  5. 5
    What do I believe about this conflict? Is there an opportunity for growth here?

If you would like to explore your relationship with conflict further, and learn how to resolve conflict in a healthy, adaptive way, reach out and start a discussion with one of Modo's Coaches today. Get your first introductory coaching session here. Did you know we also offer corporate conflict resolution training, to support the professional development of your teams?

Donna Woodrow


Donna takes a genuine interest in the collective and personal growth of the human race and its individuals. Donna is a seeker who loves to travel and invests considerable time in her own personal growth. Donna is a professional coach and trainer, experienced Enneagram facilitator and the Managing Director and Partner of Modo Coaching & Training.

Donna Woodrow

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