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September 1, 1992
Vol. 50
No. 1

Typical Responses to Conflict

Conflict frequently evokes anxiety. In clinical work, I have found that the anxiety is often based either on an unconscious fear of being overwhelmed in the face of the other's aggression or on the fear of being so angry that one will destroy the other. Different people deal with their anxieties about conflict in different ways. Being aware of one's predispositions may allow one to modify them when they are inappropriate in a given conflict. Following are six dimensions of conflict response.
Conflict avoidance—conflict involvement. Conflict avoidance is expressed in denial, repression, suppression, and continuing postponement of facing the conflict. Sometimes it is evidenced by fleeing into an agreement before exploring conflicting interests and various options for resolving the conflict. The tension associated with conflict avoidance is expressed in fatigue, irritability, muscular tension, and a sense of malaise. On the other side of the coin, excessive involvement in conflict is expressed in a “macho” attitude, a chip on one's shoulder, a tendency to seek out conflict to demonstrate that one is not afraid of conflict. It is also commonly manifested in obsessive thoughts about fights and disputes, with much rehearsing of moves and counter-moves between oneself and one's adversaries. A healthier predisposition is a readiness to confront conflict when it arises without needing to seek it out or to be preoccupied with it.
Hard—soft. Some people take an aggressive, unyielding response to conflict, fearing that otherwise they will be taken advantage of. Others fear they will be considered to be hostile or presumptuous and, as a consequence, are excessively gentle and unassertive. They often expect the other to “read their minds.” A more appropriate stance is a firm support of one's own interests combined with a ready responsiveness to the interests of the other.
Rigid—loose. Some people immediately seek to organize and to control the situation by setting the agenda. As a consequence of feeling threatened by the unexpected, they push for rigid arrangements and rules and get upset by even minor deviations. At the other extreme are people who are aversive to anything formal or constricting. They like a loose, improvisational arrangement in which rules and procedures are implicit rather than overt. An approach that allows for both orderliness and flexibility in dealing with the conflict is more constructive than one that is either compulsive in its organizing or in its rejection of orderliness.
Intellectual—emotional. At one extreme, no relevant emotion is felt or expressed as one communicates one's thoughts. Frequently, beneath the calm, detached surface is the fear that if one feels or expresses one's emotions, one will do something destructive or humiliating. However, the lack of appropriate emotional expressiveness may convey to the other a lack of commitment to one's interests and a lack of genuine concern for the other's interests. At the other extreme are people who believe that only feelings are real and that words and ideas are not to be taken seriously unless they are thoroughly soaked in emotion. The emotional intensity of such people impairs the ability to mutually explore ideas and to develop creative solutions; it also makes it difficult to distinguish the significant from the insignificant, if even the trivial is accompanied with intense emotion. The ideal mode of communication combines thought and affect: the thought is supported by the affect and the affect is explained by the thought.
Escalating—minimizing. At one extreme, some people experience any given conflict in the largest possible terms. The issues are cast so that what is at stake involves one's self, one's family, one's ethnic group, and precedence for all time. Escalation of the conflict makes it more difficult to resolve except when the escalation proceeds so rapidly that its absurdity becomes self-apparent. At the other extreme are people who minimize their conflicts. Yet, by minimizing the seriousness of the differences between the self and the other, they can produce serious misunderstandings. They may not devote enough effort to resolving the conflict constructively.
Compulsively revealing—compulsively concealing. At one extreme, some people feel compelled to reveal whatever they think and feel about the other, including their hostilities and fears, in the most blunt, irrational manner. Or they may feel they have to communicate every doubt or weakness they have about themselves. At the other extreme are those who feel they cannot reveal any of their feelings or thoughts without seriously damaging their relationship to the other. Either extreme can impair the development of a constructive relationship. One should be open and honest in communication but, appropriately so, taking into account the consequences of what one says or does not say.

Morton Deutsch has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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