The 8 causes of conflict (and what to do about them)

Duane Rohrbacher
10 min readApr 4, 2017


How are we ever going to get better at reframing conflict if we don’t practice?

This post is experiential. My goal is to highlight that, with practice, anyone can reframe how they manage conflict.

A lot of people do not want to “practice.” I get that. Practice is annoying. It’s just do, or do not, there is no try. The funny thing about that quote is that Luke Skywalker practiced a lot to control the ship in The Empire Strikes Back. He did not just walk up to his plane and raise it out of the swamp. He had to practice with stones.

One of my biggest gripes with many public figures is that they often do not talk about the practice. Their followers dream about their successes and how to emulate them. Here’s a secret: you can. Not with 10,000 hours of practice, which is a popular goal. You can do it with deliberate practice. I will not spend time on deliberate practice now, but I’ve linked to the original article, so that you can check out what deliberate practice is.

Practice Reframing the 8 Causes of Conflict

Art Bell and Bret Hart (not the professional wrestler) published studies in 2002 and 2009 that examined the eight major causes of conflict. The focus of their work was on workplace conflict, but as well all know, workplace conflict is simply a projection of all conflict. I’ll identify the eight causes, provide context into why these are common causes of conflict, and give you a little insight into how you can practice reframing when these causes arise in your conflicts.

Cause 1: Resources

Money is hard. Either you have too much or you don’t have enough. If you have too much, someone might chastise you for having so much and spending irresponsibly. If you don’t have enough, someone might shame you for not participating in activities that you consider too expensive. When it comes to money, the underlying argument is often about the relationship. In money-envy situations (e.g., YOU can do whatever YOU want because YOU have so much money), the other person is likely worried about his or her own financial situation. That worry can lead to an assumption that you do not understand his or her situation.

When reframing, put the onus back on that person and offer to help. On the opposite end, in money-shaming (e.g., Why are you so cheap? Just buy that), the cause is usually your relationship. Instead of simply saying no, you can ask about other things the person has done or wanting to see if you might be willing to join him or her in less expensive adventures.

Cause 2: Approaches to conflict

Your approach to conflict is instrumental into how you reframe conflict. There is a very good chance that your approach to conflict differs from the person whom with you are having conflict. This makes it incredibly challenging to manage that conflict. It’s not like you are going to require everyone you know to take a conflict quiz (like the one I am creating) so that you know how that person approaches conflict. Instead, you have to look for the root causes.

If people do not think that you are listening to them because you don’t make eye contact, practice repeating what the other person is saying to show that you understand. When it comes to approach, it is important to decide what the person’s approach is (confronter, avoider, collaborator, accommodator, compromiser). Once you figure out what your approach to conflict is and learn about all the approaches, you can start to figure out how others approach conflict and adapt your approach to work better with that person.

Cause 3: Perceptions

Perception. Oh perception. Have you ever played the game telephone? If not, try it, at least once. If you have, you completely understand how perception is a huge factor in communication, and it is amplified in conflict. There are probably many situations where you thought you heard something, only for the speaker to later correct you on what you heard. There are also many times in which you said something that the person with whom you were conversing did not hear what you said; the person heard what he or she wanted to hear.

While it may make the conversation longer, I cannot emphasize the importance of repeating what the other person said. It will definitely feel forced at first. As soon as you hear something that does not make sense, that you don’t agree with, or that might lead to a conflict, start with repeating back what you heard. When you repeat back what you heard, you will quickly learn that the person either did not say what they wanted to or that you heard it incorrectly. Even though we’ve been hearing our entire lives, we have not always been listening.

To put it simply, hearing is unconscious and listening is conscious. Unless you have a hearing impairment, you hear things all the time. You hear cars passing by, you hear chatter, you hear background noise, you hear birds. When you listen, you are making a choice to hone in on a specific instance of sound, like someone talking to you or music, and you are deciding what those sounds mean to you. Culturally, as an American, it is safe to say that we are not the best listeners, which I discuss in the Vanity article last week.

Listening takes practice. I urge you to try to really listen (meaning no multi-tasking) when someone is talking to you, and see if you can find areas where you need the person to repeat what he or she said for you to better understand. It could change your perception of how you converse with others.

Cause 4: Goals

Goals are often the reason for conflict. The problem with goals is that we often do not articulate our goals out of fear. We fear that if we show our cards, we might not get what we want. When in conflict, it is probably true that everyone has a different goal in mind for the outcome of the conflict. It could be to have the other person give in, a compromise, or any number of other items (often financial). When we don’t articulate our goals, we often have conflicts without ever understanding why we are in conflict.

Think about negotiating a contract. Say you are offered a job. You have done your Google research (e.g., Glassdoor), and you know that the position in your location is worth $50,000. You become disappointed to hear that HR is offering you $45,000. First, you should name your goal, and then, try to understand what the goal of the other person is. If your goal is to make $50,000 without thinking about anything else, you might not get very far. A company’s goal (for better or for worse) is to get the best talent for the cheapest price to maximize profit margins. Conversely, many employees goals are to earn the highest salary for the least amount of work. See how those goals could be in conflict?

I’m not going to go into details on how to negotiate a job contract, that has been belabored on the Internet 30 million times.

Instead, what I will say, is that you need to be able to articulate your own goals, and you need to be confident and able to ask about the other person’s goals to better understand why you are in conflict in the first place. If you do this, you will get further than someone who does not look at the bigger “goals” picture.

Cause 5: Pressure

Pressure generates a LOT of conflict. Performance pressure, financial pressure, emotional pressure. All kinds of pressure exist in our lives. Our society is built on pressure. You must get the best grades to get into the best school to get the best job. If you do not get to where someone else expects you to, most commonly called “failing,” then OH NO. If you think about how much pressure external entities place on us coupled with how much pressure we place on ourselves, it’s amazing that we do not explode more often.

Kaboom. What is the point? The next time someone pressures you in any way, ask that person why. Friend, why are you pressuring me to go out to a bar? Parent, why are you pressuring me to have a child. Boss, why are you pressuring me to work more? What I am proposing that you do is scary with a capital S. It is much easier to challenge your friend or your parent than your boss. But, are we not trying to get to the point where we can take back control?

I am writing to you, reader, my avatar, to reframe how you think about pressure. This also applies to internal pressure. Ask yourself, why am I putting all this pressure on myself to do X? Pressure leads to stress and conflict. Stress and conflict can lead to dark places. Take a step back, and think about the pressures in your life. See if you can take control of just one of them. Then another. Eventually, hopefully, you can say that pressure is minimal.

Cause 6: Power

POWER. We romanticize power in so many ways. Everyone wants to have power. Those who do not have any power, want power. Those who have all the power want more of it. Do you want more power? We equate power to importance and responsibility in several clichés.

“With great power comes great responsibility.”

“Wear your power suit to that meeting.”

Power through that last set.”

Power is everywhere, and it causes conflict all the time. Because of how we define power, we lose ourselves in it. My question to you is this: what will more power do for you? Will you earn more money? Will others view you as more important? How will this impact you? Why do you care about money and importance?

Taking a step back and answering the underlying “power” questions will guide you on your journey to self-authorship. Reframe how you think about power and see how much conflict power creates in your lives and the lives of those around you. If you take a step back and still want all the power, you want it for reasons that you can own instead of external reasons that society places on you. That is the power of reframing (cliché!).

Cause 7: Values

I want to skip values. I do not want to write about reframing values because values are so personal. World Wars are based on values (and power, of course, but values underlie all conflict). We have political parties because of values. People hate each other, without knowing a single thing about each other, because of values. Values are one of topics where people use inductive reasoning all the time.

“Oh, Jim is from Iowa, he must be a redneck.”

“You are a Patriots fan? Aka a fair weather fan.”

“You live in Southern California? Definitely a hippie.”

“You voted for a Republican? Do you not care about human rights?”

I could legitimately fill 25,000 pages of quotes about how people make broad assumptions based on values. I will not spend a lot of time here because reframing how we think about our own values is not something many people are willing to do. My simple challenge here would be to take a value that you hold loosely (e.g., something that is not core to you) and talk to someone, read about, or think about that value from the opposite perspective. Do this once and see what happens. You might be surprised.

Cause 8: Policies

Policies are like values in the sense that you do not exactly have control over them. You might think that you have control over your values, but years and years of holding values means that it is extremely difficult and requires a lot of deliberate practice to change your values. Policies are even worse because we often have almost no control over them. Do you think that Schools, Courts, and Governments routinely misinterpret the 1st Amendment to the Constitution? Well, that is unfortunate because there is a 0.1% chance that the 1st Amendment will change.

Policies cause conflict because it is in their nature. People, with different values, create policies. Policies only change when people change them. If you disagree with a policy, there are limited ways to change the policy. You could 1) start a movement or 2) become a policymaker. There are other ways to affect policies, sure, but #2 is the only way to REALLY do it. Look at and tell me if #1 works very well. Of course, there are dozens of examples of large-scale policy changes that occurred because of large social movements, but in general, the real change occurs when the people who are part of those movements either elect people who align with their values or become policy makers themselves.

When reframing how we think about policies, often ones that are not going to change and ones that we have no control over, think about how you can interpret those policies in a way that more closely aligns with your value structure. Policies assuredly cause conflicts. You can always take up policies with policy makers hoping to make a change. You also can practice working within a policy to meet your goals. We all must live within a system. Learn to navigate that system by reframing how you think about the policies that govern the system.

Low Stakes Practice

When you are first learning how to play a sport, you do not want to start in a high-stakes game. When you are first learning how to play an instrument, you don’t want the first time you play to be in front of an audience. So, when it comes to reframing conflict and practice, you probably don’t want your first try to be with your supervisor or your partner.

While it might seem artificial, the best place to practice is with people you know and trust, in fake situations. For example, call up your best friend and invite that person out to coffee. Explain to that person that you are interested in working on your conflict skills, and that you want to practice. Get the person to buy in to the benefit of the practice. Then, go find examples of conflict, and ask the person to start having an argument with you. This type of low stakes practice will feel forced and artificial at first. But, practice is the only way to become better at something.

Eventually, you will get to the point where you feel comfortable reframing a conflict in a higher stakes environment. You will use what you learned, said, and how you felt, to be successful in managing this real conflict.