Thoughts And Ideas
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Thoughts And Ideas

The “C” Word Explained

Photo Credit: Nikhil Mitra on Unsplash

“Conflict is an expressed struggle between at least two interdependent parties who perceive incompatible goals, scarce resources, and interference from others in achieving their goals.” Interpersonal conflict (6th edition), Wilmot and Hocker, 2001

This is the best definition I’ve found of conflict thus far, as it relates to interpersonal conflict. It conceptualizes the various components which create conflict, and when you break it down, it makes the puzzle of conflict a bit easier to piece together.

Interdependent Parties

Interdependent parties have a shared connection. There is a purpose for their relationship. Parties may have an ongoing relationship, such as family members or co-workers, or there may be a unified goal or situation which brings two or more parties together.

The depth of the relationship impacts a party’s response to conflict. Parties who maintain a long-term relationship have both a benefit and a drawback to navigating situations of conflict.

Because parties place emphasis on preserving the long-term relationship — think family relationships or work peers — there is often more willingness to work cooperatively to resolve disputes as they arise. Maintaining the relationship is paramount, so parties learn to brush off the actions of the other party which could thwart that goal. In healthy relationships, this is where parties learn to “pick your battles” and not let small issues sabotage their status as interdependent parties. In unhealthy relationships, however, parties fall back into their usual conflict engagement styles and responses. Too much conflict avoidance or competition to save the relationship, at the expense of the parties’ individual needs and mental health, can be detrimental.

The drawback to long-term relationships in situations of conflict is the context of history in the relationship. Because there has been so much time spent together between the individuals, there are certain “triggers” in the relationship which will be sources of conflict. These are the things the other party does which create feelings such as frustration, annoyance or disrespect. Actions that could be attributed to other factors in an alternate context create different responses in relationships between interdependent parties because of their learned patterns.

Incompatible goals

One of the steps towards managing or resolving a conflict is to identify the issues or problems at hand between parties. Essentially, what are the goals of the parties both individually or collectively? What are the barriers to achieving those goals?

If one party does not acknowledge an issue identified by the other, conflict exists. Let’s look at an example with parenting. One parent identifies a behavior issue with their child and feels they as parents steps should seek professional help. The other parent, however, feels it is just typical, age-appropriate behavior and does not see the behavior as problematic. Conflict exists in this example because an issue identified and expressed by one person is not seen as an issue needing to be addressed by the other.

Conflict also occurs when parties are in agreement that a mutual goal is not being met, but there is disagreement about what is blocking achievement of that goal. Here’s another example regarding partner finances. A couple is in debt and both can agree they want to eliminate that debt. One party feels that the problem is income amount and believes greater earnings will help to achieve their goal. The other party feels the problem lies with spending, focusing on ways to cut spending from the budget. The conflict here is not with an identified issue, but rather, what actions should be taken to achieve the mutual goal.

Scarce Resources

Conflict transpires when parties feel a sense of threat to their needs, wants and values. Scarce resources may be concrete items that parties can see, touch or use. Broad examples of these resources frequently at the heart of conflicts include money, space and time. Scarce resources can also include those things that are intangible, such as power, attention and respect.

The important thing to note is that resources may, in fact, be finite. In a lot of instances, though, it comes back to perception. When in conflict, most participants perceive a zero sum game. This view limits the ability to think creatively or potentially maximize the resources that may be available to participants.

There’s a common example of this used in the Conflict Resolution field about two kids fighting over an orange. Both hold the position that they need the entire orange, and there is only one orange. Sounds like someone will have to give in and let the other have the orange, right? Wrong. Upon exploration into why each needs the orange, one wants the inside of the orange to make juice and the other wants the peel to bake a cake. Now they both can utilize the orange, which was once the scarce resource.


If there is one thing you take away from this post, here it is: In conflict, we often make the assumption the other person is directly and deliberately interfering with our goals. What is happening in most instances, however, is that the other party is simply trying to meet their needs. The other party also perceives scarce resources and is, generally, acting to secure resources to meet their needs. It can feel better, in conflict, to align with the narrative that they are intentional in thwarting our goals. But if our goal is to manage the conflict and move forward towards resolution or transformation of the conflict, we should stop assuming deliberate interference and instead uncover the needs the other party is trying to meet.

Does this deconstruction of the definition of conflict or any of the examples remind you of any conflict situations you are currently facing? Maybe it’s a situation with another person or perhaps you are on the periphery of a conflict between others? Where can you explore further to give yourself new insights into the conflict?

Questions, comments, feedback? Email me!

Originally published at on September 9, 2020.



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