What is Conflict?

Fully answering the question that concerns what is conflict and why it needs to exist, involves understanding fundamental aspects of individual and group psychology. You must also understand that conflict is an inevitable part of being human.

We are all affected differently by genetic composition, environmental and social influences, mental and physical health and life experiences. Thus conflict emerges when we interact with others depends on complex thought processes and our innate drive for gratification, happiness and a sense of achievement.

Even people with good communication skills encounter conflict every day simply because conflict is a form of communication, albeit sometimes good and sometimes not so good. However, the amount or level of conflict arising from interactions with family, friends, co-workers, or strangers on a bus is not important. Rather, it is how each of the participants handles these sometimes abrupt and unexpected psychic struggles.

How and Why is Conflict Created?

Conflict is created between two people when one or more of the following occurs:

  • Differing ideas are presented that clash with each person's belief system
  • Desires of two people are incompatible
  • Competition for scarce resources (usually pertains to job advancement opportunities within a particular company that leads to poor workplace communication)
  • Clash of communication styles (verbal vs. nonverbal, emotional vs. stoic, logical vs. subjective)
  • Neither person is willing to compromise

These are just a few core reasons regarding what is conflict as it concerns at least two people. Conflict may also occur due to mental health issues of which someone is not in control. Given the huge diversity of situations favorable for the development of conflict, the importance of communication skills, which enable one to successfully cope with and diffuse potentially negative experiences, become even more vital to achieving a well-balanced, self-actualized life.

What is Conflict and the New Paradigm?


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Following the development of Freudian psychology at the beginning of the 20th century, interpersonal and intrapersonal communication resulting in conflict was viewed as destructive, bad, and avoidable. The catchall term for mental illness at that time was “neurosis” and was believed to involve serious inner conflicts that ultimately led to interpersonal conflicts.

Problems affecting a neurotic individual were supposed to have been caused by sexual frustration, childhood trauma and repressed desires. Instead of teaching good communication skills to those who were anxious, depressed and unhappy (neurotic), psychologists concentrated on uncovering a person's childhood experiences in order to explain the neurosis while ignoring the benefits of learning good communication skills.

The emergence of positive and transpersonal psychologies in recent years combined with the ideas of Abraham Maslow and his “Hierarchy of Needs” theory of human nature has produced a new paradigm of conflict that is now defined by the words “unavoidable”, “natural” and “presenting an opportunity for personal growth”. Instead of viewing conflict from a negative point of view, conflict is now seen in a more positive, constructive light.

Modern Views of Conflict

A modern answer to the question of what is conflict concerns the ability to learn about the different communication styles that people apply to different situations involving conflict and understanding how to deal with these often shortsighted approaches other people have towards conflict. However, learning a specific communication skill that can effectively diffuse a disruptive situation also means understanding why people experience intrapersonal conflict as well.

Intrapersonal Conflict

When a person feels chronically anxious, depressed, apathetic, angry, and psychically impoverished, chances are they are suffering from severe internal conflicts they cannot resolve or are unwilling to resolve. Types of intrapersonal conflict are:

  • Approach-Approach—people experiencing this conflict must make a choice between two equally desirable alternatives
  • Approach-Avoidance—represents someone who is both attracted and repelled by something and is suffering internal conflict as a result
  • Avoidance-Avoidance—when faced with choices that will both produce the same negative result, people will move towards the avoidance-avoidance approach and refuse to make a choice

As a way to help define what is conflict and how it is affecting your life, recognizing and coping with intrapersonal conflict in a healthy, self-promoting manner will also enhance your ability to manage interpersonal conflict as well as gaining insight into your contributions to problematic, interpersonal situations.

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