Though many of us tend to view conflict as a negative occurrence, it has both positive and negative aspects, which arise both during and as a result of interactions between conflicting individuals or groups.
The Positive Aspects of Conflict
In Social Conflict: Escalation, Stalemate and Settlement, Dean Pruitt and Jeffrey Rubin identify five positive or beneficial aspects of conflict.1
- Conflict contributes to social change ensuring both interpersonal and intergroup dynamics remain fresh and reflective of current interests and realities
- Conflict serves to “discourage premature group decision making,” forcing participants in the decision making process to explore the issues and interests at stake
- Conflict allows for the reconciliation of the parties’ concerns, which can lead to an agreement benefiting both parties’ needs, and often their relationship and organizations
- Conflict strengthens intragroup unity by providing an outlet for group members to discuss and negotiate their interests within the group. Without intragroup conflict, the health of the group typically declines
- Conflict between groups produces intra-group unity as the conflict provides the opportunity for increased intra-group cooperation while working towards the group’s common goal for the conflict’s outcome
The Negative Aspects of Conflict
Pruitt and Rubin also note that, despite most conflicts being resolved peacefully with positive outcomes, conflict has definite negative and sometimes even severe consequences.
- Conflict can distract individuals and groups from their primary purposes, leaving them with less time and resources for other activities. When conflict involves the use of “heavy contentious tactics,” it can cause the individuals or groups involved in the conflict as well as individuals or groups not involved in the conflict to divert time and resources away from other needs
- Conflict can have both short term and long term effects on the physical and psychological health of the individuals involved in or affected by the conflict. In worst case scenarios the psychological consequences can include deep trauma and diminished coping mechanisms
- Conflict can lead to “collective traumas,” which lead to “chosen trauma” and can be transmitted to future generations in the form of resentment against one’s ancestors’ enemies. Chosen trauma gives rise to group identity and keeps the flame of conflict burning
Our Perspective Regarding Conflict
The potential for conflict to produce both positive and negative results closely mirrors our individual perspectives regarding conflict and can be mapped along a continuum from a positive or benefit-centric perspective on one end to a negative or cost-centric perspective on the other.
Research suggests that an individual’s perspective regarding conflict strongly impacts their ability to effectively address it.2 As our perspective of conflict charts our path for engaging and navigating our differences, our view of conflict must be balanced, realistic, and flexible. Such a perspective recognizes that conflict is a normal, natural aspect of human interaction that inevitably manifests to varying degrees in almost everyone’s life.3 The perspective also understands that, though conflict has potential costs, it does not have to be negative or destructive. When properly understood and addressed constructively, conflict can be managed in a way that minimizes its potential, but not inevitable, negative impacts.
- Dean G. Pruitt and Jeffrey Z. Rubin. Social Conflict: Escalation, Stalemate and Settlement. (McGraw-Hill, 2003)
- Ellen B. Zweibel, Rose Goldstein, John A. Manwaring, and Meridith B. Marks. “What Sticks: How Medical Residents and Academic Health Care Faculty Transfer Conflict Resolution Training from the Workshop to the Workplace.” Conflict Resolution Quarterly 25 (Spring 2008): 321-350
- Bernard Mayer. The Dynamics of Conflict: A Guide to Engagement and Intervention. (Jossey-Bass, 2012)