• Issue 84 / November - December 2011

    Different Approaches to Interpersonal Conflict

    Osman Senkaya

    "...set things right (adjust all matters of difference) among yourselves to allow no discord..."1

    Approximately three decades ago, the Camp David Accord was signed between Egypt and Israel. Israel's position was to retain the Egyptian land it had claimed in order to protect itself. Egypt's position was that Israel must completely withdraw from Egyptian land. The positions both parties brought to the table were much too rigid to find any common ground. Israel's interest was that its borders be protected from hostile neighbors. Egypt's interest was that Egyptian land belonged to Egypt. The negotiated settlement was a 10-mile demilitarized zone on Israel's border with Egypt- protecting Israel but owned by Egypt, with Egyptian flags flying.2

    Obviously, conflict is not limited to international disputes only, and may well take place at various sublevels. Organizations may have different positions or interests on any given issue that would yield to different perspectives. Even at a grassroots level, like between friends or within a family, viewpoints possessed by individuals may not be similar in nature at all times. Each and every entity, ranging from nations to individuals, may have a unique perception of events, therefore their explanations and opinions may differ significantly.

    People who are frequently involved in conflicts are generally labeled as "troublemakers" or "bad apples," however a discomfort may simply arise due to personal differences, deficiency of information, misunderstanding, or incompatibility of priorities, rather than personal defects. Another reason for tension might be resource scarcity: As a tradition suggests, Mawlana Jalaladdin Rumi, the famous scholar and renowned poet of the 13th century, and one of his disciples were passing by two dogs that were cheerfully playing with one another. His student comments: "Look what good friends they are." Rumi replies: "Throw a bone in-between and observe."

    Deviations may surface from time to time, since differences of beliefs/interests are inevitable and legitimate. Our values are shaped by means of various parameters such as family background, level of education, span of experience, etc. Also, personal characteristics and culture affect tolerance for disagreement and personal needs. As a response to the conflict, altruistic-nurturing individuals tend to press for harmony by accommodating the demands of the other party; assertive-directive personalities tend to challenge the opposition by using the forcing approach; and analyzing-autonomizing personalities attempt to resolve the problem rationally (see Figure 1).

    Therefore, it is natural that individuals' interpretations of events and expectations about relationships would vary considerably. However, incompatibility of these personal values and needs may be quite difficult to resolve and may lead to some unease, particularly when the reactions are highly emotional.3 "Like a fly's wing covering the eye conceals a mountain, so too, due to the veil of hatred, man conceals virtues as great as a mountain due to one evil like a fly's wing."4 Disagreements can be viewed as embarrassing, distressing, chaotic, and as a deviance from the group identity, and people generally prefer to avoid them. On the contrary, they may be viewed as valuable when they provide an opportunity for growth.5 "In case of positive difference, each party strives to promote and diffuse its own belief; it does not seek to tear down and destroy that of the other, but rather improve and reform it," Nursi writes, while commenting on the hadith: "Difference among my people is an instance of Divine Mercy,"6 and rejects that difference must be approached in a negative and hostile fashion. He further adds, "if the confrontation of views and opinions takes place in the name of justice and for the sake of truth, it helps the truth become apparent in its full measure, manifesting all of its aspects."7 Even though many of us intellectually understand this value of conflict, we feel uncomfortable when confronted by it due to a lack of understanding of its nature, thus how to handle it effectively.3 Many religious and philosophical teachings suggest avoiding it whenever possible, since an intense conflict saps one's energy, demoralizes oneself, and harms social harmony due to its stressful nature: " not dispute with one another, or else you lose courage and your strength depart..."8

    Finding ways out
    While handling a conflict, law is concerned with the situation and the rules. Dispute resolution, on the other hand, attempts to maximize the benefit to both parties by applying not only situation and rules, but also morality, justice, and accountability.9 "The main processes of conflict resolution are reconciliation, facilitation, mediation, negotiation, arbitration, and problem solving [mutual action plan formulation, implementation, and follow-up]."10 So, how do we respond when we come across a distressing situation? Choosing an appropriate strategy, based on a thoughtful assessment of the circumstances, is crucial for effective conflict management. Our responses to interpersonal confrontations generally fall into five major groups: forcing, accommodating, avoiding, compromising, and collaborating, which reflect a range of cooperativeness and assertiveness. The cooperative aspect reflects the importance of the relationship and a cooperative response prioritizes the needs of the interacting person, whereas the assertive dimension reflects the importance of the issue and an assertive response focuses on the needs of the focal person (see Figure 2).3 Postures in each style, rationales behind them, and their likely outcomes are summarized in Figure 1 respectively. Now we'll elaborate on each style briefly:

    1. "I'm the boss, so we'll do it my way":
    Generally preferred when issues come prior to the feelings, the forcing response is an attempt to satisfy one's own needs at the expense of the other individual's, by using formal authority or simply by ignoring the claims of the other party. This approach is depicted as assertive-uncooperative in Figure 2, demonstrating that the issue is far more important than the relationship.

    Such use of authority entails a lack of tolerance or self-confidence and may breed resentment when used repeatedly. However, when there is a superior-subordinate setting and when there is a sense of urgency, this approach may be suitable.3 Imagine the following situation, in which Bob is in a meeting with his assistant, Tom:

    Tom: I think we should spend some more time on investigating some alternatives. I am just not comfortable with approving your proposal without verifying the details about it. Bob: Tom, I don't think there is enough time to discuss all the details with you. We are just moving on with my decision.

    2. "Okay, however you wish":
    Implemented to maintain harmony, the accommodating approach satisfies the other party's concerns while neglecting one's own. As seen in Figure 2, this is an unassertive-cooperative stance contrary to forcing approach. The figure also suggests that this can be appropriate when the importance of maintaining a good relationship outweighs all other considerations, or when the issues are not vital to your interests and the problem must be resolved quickly3:

    John and Benjamin are two twins that share the same bicycle. Hence, minor tensions arise on riding the bike first, once they come home from school in the afternoon. John loves his brother very much and generally gives in quickly because he is afraid of hurting his brother's feelings. "Well, at the end of the day, it is not worth it," he thinks, "riding first or last isn't that important."

    3. "Let's think about it sometime later":
    The avoiding response (unassertive-uncooperative) neglects the interests of both parties by sidestepping the conflict or postponing a solution. This is often the result of ill-preparedness to cope with the stress associated with confrontations. Or, it might reflect recognition that a relationship is not strong enough to absorb an intense conflict. The repeated use of this approach causes considerable frustration, because issues never seem to get resolved [and] really tough problems are avoided: 3

    The workers in a factory were seeking better payment and discussing a three-week strike as an option, unless the company offered a minimum net increase of 5% in their salaries for the following year. Unaware of the rumors however, the management later announced that it was planning to provide an enhancement in terms of benefits rather than solely monetary means. Without further due, the labor union issued a statement that accused the company of being unfair in its policies, and called for a cease of work. The company responded by declaring that the economic conditions were pressing hard and they would be unable to consider any increment in wages without hurting their no-layoff policy. After the news that the company's shares had lost a significant value, at the fourth day of their action, the workers decided to accept the company's offer on freezing the crisis and starting negotiation talks after 8 months, because they wouldn't risk losing the factory, thus their jobs, in such hard times of recession.

    Although the model outlined in Figure 2 tends to conceptualize the avoidance style as the least desirable option that yields a lose-lose outcome and as reflective of low concern for both self and other, it may be utilized for win-win outcomes in some cultures in order to preserve reputation and the respect of other people, and keep harmony as well.11

    4. "Let's find the middle ground":
    As in the Camp David case above, a compromise is an attempt to obtain partial satisfaction for both parties who make sacrifices to obtain a common gain. While this approach has considerable practical appeal, its arbitrary use may create a climate of pragmatism that encourages game playing, such as asking for twice as much as truly needed. In cases of moderately important issues that lack a simple solution, or when both parties have strong interest in different aspects of the problem, this approach may be used if there is adequate time for negotiations.3

    5. "This is my point, what is yours?"
    The collaborating approach seeks to address the concerns of both parties entirely by finding mutually satisfactory solutions to the conflict. Figure 2 hints that the relationship and the issue are both important per se, and an assertive-cooperative style is pursued in this case. Although not appropriate for all situations, it is the most beneficial approach for the involved parties and will maintain an ongoing supportive relationship between peers. The following situation would be an example:

    Johnny and Ken share an apartment. For the past week, Ken's friend stays over every night. This affects Johnny's sleeping, and he doesn't do well on a test one morning. Johnny first asks Ken if they can talk about the issue without challenging him on it, and summarizes the problem clearly, without being offensive or attacking. (Generally, the one who initiates the conversation has responsibility to guide the situation to a good solution.)

    - Okay, I'm sorry, Johnny. If his visits are really bothering you, I can try to be flexible.
    - Thanks for understanding. I feel like it has been especially hard for my 8 a.m. class on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.
    - Well, Johnny, maybe I can ask my friend to not come over the night before your classes.
    - That's great, Ken, and I can end my video games by midnight on Wednesdays and play somewhere else on Friday nights.

    Notice that Ken takes the lead and makes the first step, and Johnny is quick to acknowledge the gesture and to offer something in return, even if he does not consider it as part of the issue. By working together they both benefit. A collaborative conflict resolution process will not eliminate tension in a relationship immediately, but over time, eliminating the source of tension, and overcoming difficulties can result in growth.12

    Each approach presented here may have some negative side effects, yet each has its place. The suitability of a conflict management strategy depends on both personal style and situational demands. Clarifying earlier messages or providing additional information generally resolves the factual disputes rooted in misinformation, yet each individual has a preferred strategy consistent with the value he places on conflict and his dominant personality characteristics.3 A closer study of these personal styles in a given society will give an idea on how its members would respond to conflicting situations in general. This will be very valuable information since we are in an age of enormous intercultural mixing due to growing global interconnectedness of societies and economies.

    Already substantial within the same cultures, the possibility for conflict between the members of different cultures is even more probable. "It is then vital to better understand the ways in which people prefer to handle interpersonal conflicts and how the preference varies depending on culture and other variables. Such knowledge of conflict-related behavioral tendencies might help in the development of strategies for interpersonal, intercultural conflict resolution or prevention."11 "Realistic, proper and effective communication, based on mutual understanding and goodwill, would solve many disputes, not only between individuals but also groups or nations."13 As stated by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., "mankind must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression, and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love."

    1 Qur'an, 8:1. 2 International Federation of University Women. "Workshop on Conflict Resolution: Facilitator's Guide."
    3 Whetten, David A. & Kim S. Cameron. Developing Management Skills. 3rd ed. New York: HarperCollins College Publishers, 1995: 418-447.
    4 Nursi, Said. Flashes, 13th Flash, 13th indication Third point 5 Abu-Nimer, 29-30; Kim, 63. 6 el-Acl├╗n├«, Ke├żf├╝'l-Haf├ó, 1:64; el-M├╝n├óv├«, Feyz├╝'l-Kad├«r, 1: 210-212. 7 Nursi, Said. Letters, 22nd Letter, 5th aspect. 8 Qur'an 8:46. 9 Abdalla, Amr. "Principles of Islamic Interpersonal Conflict Intervention: A Search within Islam and Western Literature." Journal of Law & Religion 15, no. 1 (2000): 151-184.
    10Abu-Nimer, Mohammed. "Conflict Resolution in an Islamic Context: Some Conceptual Questions." Peace and Change 21, no. 1 (1996): 22-40. 11 Kim, Min-Sun. Non-Western Perspectives on Human Communication: Implications for Theory and Practice. Thousand Oaks, Cal.: Sage Publications, 2002.
    12 Study Guides and Strategies. "Case Study: Conflict Resolution."
    13 Najafbagy, Reza. "Problems of Effective Cross-Cultural Communication and Conflict Resolution." Palestine-Israel Journal 15, no. 3 (2008): 146-150. 14 Ruble, Thomas L. & Kenneth W. Thomas. "Support for a two-dimensional model of conflict behavior." Organizational Behavior and Human Performance 16 (1976): 145.


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