Motivation and emotion/Book/2011/Dealing with conflict

Dealing with conflict: How to manage emotions for effective conflict resolution

This page is part of the Motivation and emotion book. See also: Guidelines.
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This chapter examines conflict, or more specifically, how to deal with conflict resolution and the management of emotion during conflict. There are many areas of psychology that deal with conflict, and it is certainly a widely studied and fascinating topic. This chapter looks at conflict and conflict styles, and the differences between genders in their choice of conflict style. We will also be examining emotion's involvement in conflict and the way it affects us. Finally, ways to combat these effects will be explored, as well as what to do when these techniques don't work and how to leave conflict behind you.

What is conflict?Edit

We all have to deal with interpersonal conflict. It can be very unpleasant and at times reach critical levels. Conflict can be defined as perceived incompatibilities between parties' held desires, needs, and wants (Bell & Song, 2005). Behfar, Mannix, Peterson and Trochim (2008) suggest two different forms of conflict, including relationship and process conflict. Relationship conflict includes disagreement resulting from personal differences, and usually results in tension and friction (Behfar, Mannix, Peterson and Trochim, 2008). Process conflict, on the other hand, is disagreement over how to divide and delegate responsibility, and the best way to approaching and completing tasks (Behfar et al., 2008). Bodtker, Jameson, Jordan and Porch (2009) also argue that conflict can be viewed as a process involving three separate components: the physiological component, the cognitive component, and a communicative or expressive component (Bodtker et al., 2009). All three are relevant to both the management of emotion and conflict resolution itself.

What is conflict resolution?Edit

Conflict resolution is the reconciliation, resolution and transformation of a situation so that the end solution is sustainable over a long period of time (Bar-Tal, 2011). It is also indicated by acceptance and acknowledgement of mistakes and wrongdoing, forgiveness, and agreement to future peace between the parties (Bar-Tal, 2011). Developmental psychologists have stressed the importance of the management of conflict as it enhances the development of social skills, morality and cognition (Horowitz, Jansson, Ljungberg & Westlund, 2008). It also fosters an understanding of the concepts of negotiation and reciprocation (Horowitz et al., 2008).

we all have different ways of dealing with conflict

Conflict stylesEdit

Conflict styles refer to the way in which someone reacts to another person when a conflict situation occurs (Calhoun, Cann, Norman & Welbourne, 2008). It is suggested that there are two main factors that guide decision making when in conflict, and these are concern for yourself and concern for the other party (Calhoun et al., 2008). There are four theorised types of conflict style, based on these concerns (Calhoun et al., 2008):

  1. An integrative style of conflict involves high concern for both yourself and the other party, and typically involves wanting the best outcome for both people (Calhoun et al., 2008).
  2. An avoidant conflict style incorporates low concern for both parties, which usually results in a lack of any effort to solve conflict (Calhoun et al., 2008).
  3. A dominating conflict style is characterised by a high concern for ones own outcomes, with an aim only to get what you want without much concern for the other party (Calhoun et al., 2008).
  4. An obliging style of conflict is when one holds high concern for the other party and a low concern for the self (Calhoun et al., 2008). This usually means conceding to the other party without worrying about what we want (Calhoun et al., 2008).

This theory, while clear and concise, could be viewed as too simplistic. One could easily consider that many more factors would be involved in our handling of conflict, including our mood, the person we are in conflict with, and the circumstances surrounding the conflict. While people may gravitate toward a certain style of conflict resolution, it is also unlikely we would use the same method of conflict resolution with every person and in every situation. However, even when taking into consideration the simplicity, it is easy to see how being aware of your own conflict style and working out how others approach conflict is useful. With this information, we can be aware of our own strengths and shortcomings and have more of an idea of where others are coming from in conflict situations. This in turn makes it easier for us to get the best all round outcome.

Quick Quiz - What is your conflict style?

1 I tend to think about others over myself when in conflict.


2 People often tell me I avoid conflict situations.


3 When in conflict, I worry about my aims and goals above others.


4 I am confident in my ability to compromise effectively during conflict.


5 I put little effort into solving conflict.


6 In conflict situations I can get aggressive and controlling.


7 I tend to give into others in conflict situations.


8 I think in conflict the best outcome is for both parties to get what they want.


0-2 points = Avoidant Style; 3-4 points = Obliging Style; 5-6 points = Integrative Style; 7-8 points = Dominating Style; and 8+ points = You tend to apply more than one style to your resolution of conflict.

PLEASE TAKE NOTE: This survey was self created and so has not undergone reliability and validity testing. While it may be enjoyable and possibly informative to complete, before one can take it as a scientifically supported survey it will need to undergo proper testing. Please see the below link for the method of construction. Conflict Style Survey Creation

Gender and conflict stylesEdit

Men and women favour differing conflict styles. Women prefer a social approach to conflict resolution, with everyone collaborating and reaching a consensus on a solution (Barrier, Brahnam, Chin, Hignite,& Margavio, 2005). As discussed earlier, this is most indicative of a integrated style of conflict (Calhoun et al., 2008). Men, on the other hand, are more likely to avoid conflict (Barrier et al., 2005).

Horowitz, Jansson, Ljungberg and Westlund (2008) propose that women prefer an affiliative style of conflict resolution and men a non-affiliative approach. This is another tip to keep in mind when assessing the best way to approach conflict resolution. If one can see what angle another one is approaching conflict from it makes it easier to perhaps become less frustrated and more understanding. A study of 163 undergraduates which discovered these differing styles found that since a social approach to conflict resolution tends to be more productive it may well be that men are less effective at conflict resolution than women (Barrier et al., 2005).

Emotion and conflictEdit

Emotion in conflictEdit

One of the hardest parts about conflict resolution is the heavy involvement of emotion. Perceptions of incompatibility, as earlier mentioned, often produce emotions and influence conflict (Bell, 2005). In fact, the processing of conflict has been hypothesised to be promoted by emotion (Kanske & Kotz, 2011).

Brain imaging studies have confirmed this, with a performed study showing faster activation of the ventral, dorsal and right anterior cingulate cortex during conflict processing when also paired with the presentation of an emotional stimulus (Kanske & Kotz, 2011). There was also activation of the amygdala (Kanske & Kotz, 2011).

Bell and Song (2005) proposed that our emotional appraisal of a conflict situation is indicative of behaviour and conflict resolution style. Specifically, blame and concern, and where it is placed, are stipulated as motivating factors in both emotions and the type of conflict resolution a person will display (Bell & Song, 2005). Knowledge of this fact can help us to not get carried away by a conflict situation and keep our emotions from preventing resolution. Remembering that the conflict may be speeding along your emotional experience and not letting it take you over is vital.

Emotions and outcomesEdit

In an interesting study by Sanford (2007), the outcomes of differing types of emotion are examined. In his model, Sanford (2007) discussed what he calls hard and soft emotion, and their involvement in conflict and resolution. Hard emotions include anger and aggravation, and soft emotions include hurt and sadness (Sanford, 2007). In his sample of 276 married people, hard emotion was consistently linked to more negative communication, and less positive communication (Sanford, 2007). This shows anger as a possible detrimental factor in conflict resolution. That being said, the sample was of married people only, with an average marriage time of 17 years (Sanford, 2007). This is not exactly representative of normal conflict - married couples should have an intimate knowledge of each other, and obviously a different type of relationship to friends or coworkers. To examine this model against differing types of relationships would be preferable. However, it does demonstrate how negative emotion can become destructive in times of conflict, and highlights the importance of emotion management in these situations.

Goals for emotion regulationEdit

An interesting aspect of conflict to consider is the roles that our goals for staying calm may play. Rothbaum, Rusk and Tamir (2011) conducted a study which it was found that the types of goals one has for one's emotion regulation can also affect the outcomes. Performance goals refer to the desire to prove to others one can effectively regulate emotion, while learning goals refer to striving to improve emotion regulation with no external pressure (Rothbaum, Rusk & Tamir, 2011). This study discovered that those who employed performance goals were more prone to rumination, depression, thought suppression and a low belief in their ability to regulate emotion (Rothbaum et al., 2011). Those who engaged in learning goals were more likely to experience cognitive reappraisal, which consists of reevaluating a situation and viewing it in terms of positivity (Rothbaum et al., 2011). The sample size was small and only consisted of undergraduate students, which may not be a representative sample. The theory is also limited in that it is hard to believe that there are only two types of goals one may employ in a conflict situation. A more expansive model may be warranted, however in basic terms, it provides a good foundation for better emotion regulation during conflict.

The other side of angerEdit

While anger is often viewed as a destructive force in conflict, others have argued for its usefulness. Dweck, Gross, Halperin and Russell, 2011) conducted a study regarding Israeli and Pakistani relations. The results showed that anger increased willingness for compromise, but only in the absence of hatred (Dweck, Gross, Halperin & Russell, 2011). While it is a very specific conflict situation and can therefore not necessarily be generalised to all conflict resolution, it does demonstrate the constructive use of anger in conflict resolution (Dweck et al., 2011).

What not to doEdit

Sometimes we need to stop and think

Conflict escalationEdit

Conflict escalation is the opposite of what most people in conflict want. We want conflict resolved quickly and efficiently. The conflict bias spiral states that conflict can spiral because we are likely to perceive bias in the one we are arguing with (Kennedy, 2010). Kennedy (2010) says that we think the other person cannot view the situation objectively due to factors such as self-interest. This is more likely in the case of a disagreement or conflict, and the bigger the conflict, the larger the bias (Kennedy, 2010).

De Dreu (2005) suggests that conflict escalation is also a result of ego defensiveness. Since humans inherently want to maintain a positive view of themselves, when something threatens to damage that positive self-concept we can become angry and aggressive (De Dreu, 2005). Due to the fact that challenges and threat are parts of conflict, this can increase the chances of hostile encounters between parties (De Dreu, 2005). However, these focus on only one aspect of conflict, as not all conflicts involve threats and challenges to the self. Despite this, they provide a good overview explanation of why some, and not all conflicts escalate.

Stopping conflict can be achieved

Keeping your coolEdit

Keeping calm has benefits in effective conflict resolution. This is demonstrated in a study by Borbely, Botvin, Brooks-Gunn, Graber and Nicholls (2005) which examined sixth graders in role play conflict resolution scenarios. Assertiveness with no aggression was seen as the most effective conflict resolution style with both peers and parents (Borbely, Botvin, Brooks-Gunn, Graver & Nicholls, 2005). While an interesting insight, it would certainly be interesting to see a study such as this with more emotionally intelligent adults[Rewrite to improve clarity].

Kennedy (2010) suggests non-counter arguing listening as an effective method for conflict resolution. This allows you to examine another point of view without being critical, and also has the benefit of letting the person you are in conflict with feel heard (Kennedy, 2010). This is also likely to decrease the chance that one will slip into the cognitive bias spiral discussed earlier (Kennedy, 2010).

One could also consider if trying to listen with a non-biased perspective you could be seen as having an element of control over your thoughts. If a higher level of control is present then it would further assist in the management of emotion as well as the resolution of a conflict situation.

Keeping your cool may also be beneficial in the long term. A study of Turkish students showed that conflict resolution and peer mediation training led to decreased levels of aggression (Gurler et al., 2010). Post intervention, the students displayed more constructive, restorative and peaceful classroom behaviour (Gurler et al., 2010). This study was done with 11 year olds (Gurler et al., 2010), bringing into question sample representativeness and also is consistent with a cultural bias which makes it hard to generalise to a larger population. However, the implications, particularly within this topic, are great.

If practicing conflict resolution can lead to decreased levels of aggression, then we can quite literally apply the philosophy of practise makes perfect. The more we practise controlling emotion, it is suggested through such studies as this (Gurler at al., 2010) the levels of some of those emotions may decrease with time. This is a great, positive way to approach learning to manage emotion during conflict resolution.

Expression and discussionEdit

Conflict is difficult

Its not healthy to keep your emotions bottled up. One needs to learn how to express feelings in a healthy way before it leads to escalated conflict. Talking about your feelings with others can help you pinpoint what the problem is. For example, a study by Koerner, Sillars and Smith (2010) involved playing back conflict discussions between parents and teens in conflict situations. They found that there was misattribution of feelings to the other parties that were escalating conflict (Koerner, Smith & Sillers, 2010). This involved parents overattributing negative thoughts and avoidance, and even overattributed the level of agreement a spouse was lending to the teen (Koerner et al., 2010). Conversely, they underattributed times when the teen was able to admit they were in the wrong (Koerner et al., 2010). Teens on the other hand tended to overattribute controlling thoughts to their parents (Koener et al., 2010). In the discussions, it also became evident that parties focused on different aspects of discussion, with parents focusing on relations between parties and teens more concerned about the content of the conflict (Koerner et al., 2010).

This study again focuses on only one kind of relationship, and examining the same theories of misattribution in different types of conflict would be fascinating. However, it provides a good foundation on which to help manage and regulate emotion and conflict. If one is open and honest about their feelings, and in turn listens with an open mind to the other party, a more objective view of the situation can be attained, and conflict may be easily resolved before reaching a high level.

When intervention is neededEdit

When a third party intervention is necessaryEdit

People are not perfect, and sometimes a third party is necessary. When all the above hasn't worked or hasn't gotten you anywhere, an objective intervention can work wonders on a tough conflict situation. Its possible to use an uninvolved acquaintance or friend, or you can use dispute resolution services such as the ACT Conflict Resolution Service.

Types of interventionsEdit

There are different types of intervention strategies, and each one can be applicable to different conflict situations.

  1. An Intervention of Power involves the third party coming up with a solution and enforcing it on the parties without prior approval (Buitinga, Peterson & Struik, 2009).
  2. A Coaching of Process intervention is when the third party tries to create an environment in which a solution is reachable, including positive motivation and communication (Buitinga et al., 2009).
  3. In an Arbitration intervention, the third party hears both sides of the conflict from the people involved and reaches a verdict (Buitinga et al., 2009).
  4. Finally, in a Mediation intervention the third party forges a bond with those in the conflict and helps them to reach a compromise (Buitinga et al., 2009).

Knowledge of these intervention methods can help you realise both that others may have different strategies for dealing with conflict, and that different strategies may apply to different conflict scenarios. Using this knowledge, you can learn to manage the emotional side of conflict and deal with it in a healthy and efficient way.

Leaving conflict behind youEdit

Moving onEdit

Moving on can be one of the hardest parts of conflict resolution. It can be hard to forgive and forget, and not to hold a grudge. The Valuable Relationship Hypothesis theorises that we are more likely to reconcile with those we value (Horowitz et al., 2008). This is another valuable fact to keep in mind when moving on from conflict resolution. Our emotions may still be raw post conflict, and it is important to remember not to let them rule us in all situations.

In accordance with the Valuable Relationship Hypothesis, it is important to consider that relationships we consider to be important are not the only important ones. Particularly in employment situations, many relationships we may not see as valuable still need to function after conflict resolution. Conflict is a natural part of life and the aim for resolution should not be total elimination (Bar-Tal, 2011). Conflict helps us to create both social change and development (Bar-Tal, 2011). Halperin and Schwartz (2010) suggest that increasing hope, guilt, fear and anger and decreasing hatred has a useful outcome after reconciliation has occurred. Sizing up whether the parties are ready to move on can also help to increase the chance of prolonged reconciliation (Halperin & Schwartz, 2010).


In conclusion, we all deal with conflict at points in our life and we are all likely to deal with it in a variety of methods. Emotion is an integral part of conflict and it is important to remember this and not let the emotion control your conflict behaviour. Arming yourself with knowledge of your own methods of dealing with conflict, and ways to recognise others methods, is key. If you are not aware of what you are experiencing it makes it that much harder to manage. Seeking to improve your abilities to regulate your emotion also appears to be a useful tool in better dealing with conflict. Finally, if things get too hard it is also important to know when to ask for help. If you use this steps wisely you are on your way to dealing with conflict in your life in a healthy and improved fashion!

See alsoEdit


Barrier, T., Brahnam, S., Chin, J., Hignite, M., & Margavio, T. (2005). A gender-based categorization for conflict resolution. Journal of Management Development, 24, 197-208. doi: 10.1108/02621710510584026

Bar-Tal, D. (Ed.).(2011). Intergroup conflicts and their resolution: A social psychological perspective. New York, US. Psychology Press

Behfar, K., Mannix, E., Peterson, R., & Trochim, W. (2008). The critical role of conflict resolution in teams: A close look at the links between conflict type, conflict management strategies, and team outcomes. Journal of Applied Psychology, 93, 170-188. doi: 10.1037/0021-9010.93.1.170

Bell, C., & Song, F. (2005). Emotions in the conflict process: An application of the cognitive appraisal model of emotions to conflict management. International Journal of Conflict Management, 16, 30-54. doi: 10.1108/eb022922

Bodtker, A., Jameson, J., Jordan, W., & Porch, D. (2009). Exploring the role of emotion in conflict transformation. Conflict Resolution Quarterly, 27, 167-192. doi: 10.1002/crq.254

Borbely, C., Botvin, G., Brooks-Gunn, J., Graber, J., & Nichols, T. (2005). Sixth Graders' Conflict Resolution in Role Plays with a Peer, Parent, and Teacher. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 34, 279-291. doi: 10.1007/s10964-005-5751-8

Buitinga, K., Peterson, J., Struik, C. (2009). A solution-focus approach to resolving conflict among Dutch school personnel. Journal of Systemic Therapies,28, 1-17. doi: 10.1521/jsyt.2009.28.3.1.

Calhoun, L., Cann, A., Norman, M., & Welbourne, J. (2008). Attachment styles, conflict styles and humour styles: Interrelationships and associations with relationship satisfaction. European Journal of Psychology, 22, 131-146. doi: 10.1002/per.666

De Dreu, C. (2005). A PACT Against Conflict Escalation in Negotiation and Dispute Resolution. Current Directions in Psychological Science,14, 149-152. doi:10.1111/j.0963-7214.2005.00349.x.

Dweck,C., Gross, J., Halperin, E., & Russell, A. (2011). Anger, hatred, and the quest for peace: Anger can be constructive in the absence of hatred. Journal of Conflict Resolution,55, 274-291. doi: 10.1177/0022002710383670

Gurler, S., Kacmaz, T., Kalender, A., Turk, F., Turnuklu, A., Sevkin, B., & Zengin, F. (2010). The effects of conflict resolution and peer mediation training on primary school students' level of aggression. Education 3-13, 38, 13-22. doi: 10.1080/03004270902760668

Halperin, E., & Schwartz, D.(2010). Emotions in conflict resolution and post-conflict reconciliation Cahiers Internationaux de Psychologie Sociale, 87,423-442. Accessed through

Horowitz, L., Jansson, L., Ljungberg, T., & Westlund, K. (2008). Age effects and gender differences on post-conflict reconciliation in preschool children. Behaviour, Special issue: Natural conflict resolution in humans, 145, 1525-1556. doi: 10.1163/156853908786131351

Kanske, P., & Kotz, S. (2011). Emotion speeds up conflict resolution: A new role for the ventral anterior cingulate cortex? Cerebral Cortex, 21, 911-919. doi:10.1093/cercor/bhq157

Kennedy, K. (2010). Conflict spirals, bias perceptions, and recommended interventions. Dissertation Abstracts International: Section B: The Sciences and Engineering,71, 3981. Accessed through

Koerner, A., Sillars, A., & Smith, T.(2010).Misattributions contributing to empathic (in)accuracy during parent-adolescent conflict discussions. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships,27, 727-747. doi: 10.1177/0265407510373261

Rothbaum, F., Rusk, N., & Tamir, M. (2011). Performance and learning goals for emotion regulation. Motivation and Emotion, 35, 444-460. doi: 10.1007/s11031-011-9229-6

Sanford, K. (2007). Hard and soft emotion during conflict: Investigating married couples and other relationships. Personal Relationships, 14, 65-90. doi: 10.1111/j.1475-6811.2006.00142.x

External linksEdit