Conflicts 101. Essential terms and definitions

Table of contents

  1. What is a conflict?
  2. Why do conflicts emerge?
  3. Constructive and destructive conflicts
    1. Destructive conflicts
    2. Constructive conflicts
  4. Keeping a conflict constructive

What is a conflict?

Conflict is the gap between what we want to happen and what actually happens. When conflict arises, it generates a significant amount of energy. This energy can be harnessed in two ways: positively, when we struggle for a shared goal, or negatively, struggle against each other. Struggling against is a destructive process because we must pick one of the two scenarios: win or lose. To resolve a conflict effectively we need to use the energy in a positive way.

In well-functioning communities, users do not avoid conflicts; instead, they acquire the skills to address and resolve them. Making conflict constructive plays a pivotal role in enabling the community to accomplish its mission, adds creativity and improves the quality of decision-making.

Why do conflicts emerge?

All people are very different. Each of us possess a unique set of characteristics, needs and perspectives on things around us which inevitably introduce a conflicting element into our interactions.

Usually conflicts emerge when there is a disagreement on an issue that is very important to us, someone fails to meet our expectations, or deviates from social norms that we follow. In such circumstances, we tend to respond emotionally, which can result in counterproductive actions. Therefore, the fundamental aspect of conflict resolution lies in our capacity to manage our own emotions and opt for constructive methods to address conflicts.

Constructive and destructive conflicts

Conflict produces a significant amount of energy. The critical factor is how we use this energy: constructively, to create, or destructively, to destroy.

Poor conflict management reduces community performance as the users tend to focus all their energy on the conflict rather than using it to create something for themselves and the people around them. Conflicts cause stress, which can be so high that users might see only one way out — to leave the community.

The likelihood of destructive conflicts increases when users begin to avoid communication with one another. Make it your priority to maintain a community culture where users trust each other, are comfortable sharing their arguments openly, respect all other people involved in a discussion, listen to others and accept their opinions even if they disagree.

Destructive conflicts

Destructive conflicts are dangerous as they undermine both formal and informal relationships between users, adding psychological unease to communication and potentially driving users away from the community. Destructive conflicts have never helped resolve any underlying issues.

Mishandling conflicts may lead individuals to stop sharing thoughts and ideas due to a fear of criticism. In this case the quality and creativity of decisions decrease dramatically. Destructive conflicts may also contribute to an increase of abusive and violent behavior in the community.

Destructive conflicts are also referred to as “relational conflicts”. Relational conflicts are situations when users feel offended, angry and blame each other for the presence of a problem.

When users use negative language to describe a conflict, they often refer to a destructive conflict. In this case, users either try to avoid the conflict or, when avoidance is not an option, they respond aggressively, so called “fight-or-flight” mode.

Constructive conflicts

Constructive conflicts emerge in communities in the form of disagreement about ideas, values or opinions. Many communities are purposefully designed to foster constructive conflicts. In these environments, users engage in open and respectful discussions to address disagreements and gain insight into each other’s perspectives. Conflicts become beneficial.

Constructive conflicts are also referred to as “task conflicts”. Task conflicts are situations where users come together to solve a problem that is caused by their natural differences. Every user in the group concentrates on solving the problem instead of blaming others.

Keeping a conflict constructive

Conflicts have of two parts:

  1. An event that actually has happened (fact).
  2. Our interpretation of what has happened (fiction).

The frustration does not come from the events themselves but rather from the stories we tell ourselves about these events. Our interpretations, often rooted in emotions, may not necessarily align with facts. Here how it usually works:

  1. Something happens.
  2. We react to the event with some emotions.
  3. We tell ourselves a story based on the emotions we’ve got.
  4. We act accordingly to that story.
  5. We find arguments to support our narrative and justify our actions.

In order to keep the conflict constructive, it is vital that the narrative we tell ourselves leads us to empathy towards the other person. The critical part to accomplish that is to control our own emotions. When we feel them, we need to take a step back, set emotions aside, and seek to deeply understand the other person’s perspective and what you both want to get at the end. Depending on if we can control our emotions we either escalate the situation or contribute to a constructive resolution of the conflict.