What Is Conflict?

Many of us would like to understand conflict better – whether it is to avoid, prevent, or navigate it more productively. One way to better understand conflict is to know what it is. In their book “Interpersonal Conflict,” Folger, Poole, and Stutman share a definition of conflict:

  • “Conflict is the interaction of interdependent people who perceive incompatibility and the possibility of interference from others as a result of this incompatibility” (2016).

I am going to break down the key words in this definition to home in on exactly what conflict is, and better understand  how easy it is  to experience 

Conflict is the interaction…” An interaction can mean anything; from an open discussion to someone walking by someone else, to a facial expression in a zoom team meeting. It is any behavior, however small, that is experienced by someone else. 

… of interdependent people…” Interdependence refers to the relationship between the parties and how they are connected to each other and what they need or expect from each other. You might have a low level of interdependence in your relationship with the person making your coffee at Starbucks (unless coffee is VERY important to you:)). You might have a high level of interdependence with a friend or family member, or pet, or even your employer. The greater the level of interdependence the more meaningful or impactful each person’s behaviors will be on the other – and even the more fraught the conflict will be because the stakes feel higher. 

… who perceive incompatibility…” Perception is everything! The incompatibility doesn’t need to be real, it just needs to be perceived by one person. 

…and the possibility of interference from others as a result of that incompatibility.” Again, the possibility of interference is alone enough to create a conflict. And interference refers to something getting in the way of one party’s goals or hopes.

From this definition, you can see that conflict can be sparked simply by our interpretations and fears. Conflict doesn’t require that the incompatibilities or interferences be real or accurate or actively taking place. They just need to be perceived as possible.

I share this definition with you for a few reasons. 

  1. To raise awareness. While you may not believe there is a conflict, others might. Simply because you don’t perceive incompatibility or interference, doesn’t mean others don’t. 
  2. To recognize that conflict doesn’t equate to wrongdoing. Rather, it means curiosity and a conversation might help foster understanding of other perspectives and help address the concerns. 
  3. Perceiving a conflict or an interference in your goals doesn’t mean they are actively happening or will happen. This is another opportunity to get curious and have a clarifying conversation. 

Knowing the definition of conflict can help you identify conflicts early and give you, and others, the chance to address the concerns, worries, or experiences before they escalate.

By: Teresa Ralicki, Ombuds, University of Colorado Denver

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