Conflict and Internal Conflict

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Conflict is defined as involving a perceived or real incompatibility of goals, values, expectations, processes or outcomes between two or more interdependent individuals or groups. There are unique characteristics of intercultural conflict that include ambiguity, language issues and contradictory conflict styles. Ambiguity exists because of the uncertainty of how to handle the conflict or whether the conflict is seen in the same way. Language can sometimes lead to intercultural conflict, but is also the primary vehicle for solving intercultural conflict. Contradictory conflict styles can cause problems in the workplace and become a source of more conflict.

There are four ways that conflict can be approached, either direct or indirect or emotionally expressive or restrained. The way conflict is approached depends on the cultural background and the way one was reared. Some cultural groups think that conflict is fundamentally a good thing and feel that it is best to approach conflict directly, because working through conflicts constructively results in stronger, healthier and more satisfying relationships. Working through conflict can yield new information, defuse more serious conflict and increase cohesiveness. The use of very precise language is used in this approach with the goal of articulating the issues carefully and selecting the best solution based on an agreed upon set of criteria. Many cultural groups view conflict as destructive for relationships and take a pacifism approach – a nonresistant response, avoidance or managing conflict indirectly.

The emotionally expressive conflict style values intense and overt displays of emotions during discussion of disagreement. Persons who employ this style believe that it is better to show emotion during disagreement than to hide or suppress feelings. They also believe that this outward display means that one really cares and is committed to resolving the conflict. Persons who believe in the restraint style think that disagreements are best discussed in an emotionally calm manner. It is important to them to control and internalize feelings during conflict and to avoid nonverbal emotion. They are uncomfortable with emotional expression and think that such expressions may hurt others. Persons who use this approach think that relationships are made stronger by keeping emotions in check.

There are four different conflict resolution styles that are connected to cultural groups:

  • the discussion style,
  • the engagement style,
  • the accommodation style, and
  • the dynamic style.

The discussion style combines the direct and emotionally restrained dimensions and emphasizes a verbally direct approach for dealing with disagreements. The engagement style emphasizes a verbally direct and confrontational approach to dealing with conflict. This style views intense verbal and nonverbal expression of emotion as demonstrating sincerity and willingness to engage intensely to resolve conflict. The accommodating style emphasizes an indirect approach for dealing with conflict and a more emotionally restrained manner. Persons who use this style may be ambiguous and indirect in expressing their views, thinking that this is a way to ensure that the conflict doesn't get out of control. Silence and avoidance are used to manage conflict. The dynamic style uses an indirect style of communication along with a more emotionally intense expressiveness. Persons who use this style may use strong language, stories, and metaphors; are comfortable with emotionally confrontational talk; and view credibility of the other people in terms of their degree of emotional expressiveness.

Helpful Tips to Avoid Conflict

  • Stay centered and do not polarize, moving beyond traditional stereotypes and “either or” thinking. It is important to avoid explaining the other person’s motives as simple while seeing your own as complex. Try to see both sides and be open to a third centered perspective that may bring a new synthesis into view. It is acceptable to be angry but it is important to move past the anger, to refrain from acting out feelings.
  • Maintain contact. You don’t have to stay in the conflict situation, but do not cut off the relationship. Attempt a dialogue rather than isolating yourself from or fighting with your opponent. Dialogue is slow, careful, full of feeling, respectful and attentive. Dialogue offers an important opportunity for coming to a richer understanding of your own diversity conflict and experiences.
  • Recognize the existence of different styles. Conflict is often exacerbated because of the unwillingness of persons to recognize style differences, which often have cultural origins. Failure to recognize cultural differences can lead to negative evaluations of persons.
  • Identify your preferred style. Although we may change our way of managing conflict, based on the situation and the type of conflict, most of us tend to use the same style in most situations. Some styles are more or less compatible and it is important to know which styles are congruent with your own.
  • Be creative and expand your repertoire. If a particular way of dealing with conflict is not working, be willing to try a different style. Adaptability and flexibility serve us well and conflict communication is no exception. There is no objective way to manage conflict.
  • Be willing to forgive – letting go of feelings of revenge.

Additional Readings

Cupach, W. R., & Canary, D. J. (1994) Competence in Interpersonal Conflict. New York: McGraw-Hill

Hammer, M. R. (2005) The Intercultural Conflict Style Inventory: A conceptual Framework and Measure of Intercultural Conflict Approaches. Mediation Quarterly.

Hocker, J. L., & Wilmot, W. W. (2007) Interpersonal Conflict. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Lindsley, S. L., & Braithwaite, C.A. (Spring 1996) You Should Wear a Mask: Facework Norms in Cultural and Intercultural Conflict in Maquiladoras. International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 20, 199-225

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