Interpersonal Conflict: Types, Principles, Stages, Model

what is interpersonal conflict

Interpersonal conflict is a disagreement between or among connected individuals who perceive their goals as incompatible: close friends, lovers, colleagues, and family members.

What is Interpersonal Conflict?

Interpersonal conflict refers to the manifestation of incompatibility, disagreement, or difference between two or more interacting individuals. Many issues that lead to conflicts within romantic relationships include intimacy issues, power issues, personal flaws, personal distance issues, social issues, and distrust issues.

One study found that the first fights were centered on uncertainty over-commitment, jealousy, violation of expectations, and/or personality differences.

In workplace relationships, conflicts were around executive responsibility and coordination, as well as on organizational objectives, resources, and management style.

Friendship conflicts revolve around shared living spaces., violation of rules, sharing of activities, and disagreements of ideas.

The following are examples of interpersonal conflict.

  1. The salesperson at your job is constantly late in putting figures into the system, which means you (as the accountant) are always late as well.
  2. You have a rather large project to do in a very short period of time. You and another person are left in charge to determine how the project will play out. You would like to get the work done quickly, but the other person wants things done in a particular way different from your own.
  3. Your supervisor (who has had less experience and education than you have) tells you to solve a problem in a way you know will not work or is ineffective.
  4. You are an employee at a retail store. You overhear your co-workers saying very racist and sexist remarks.
  5. Your boss is constantly on your case about raising your sales numbers when you know that you are one of the top sales members in the business. How would you approach your boss?                               
  6. There are rumors spreading about you through the grapevine regarding your work ethic. Some employees have brought it to your attention and have informed you as to who started the rumor.

Types of Interpersonal Conflict

Content conflict and relationship conflict are the two types of interpersonal conflict.

  1. Content conflict centers on objects, events, and persons in the world that are usually external to the parties involved in the conflict.
  2. Relationship conflicts are concerned not so much with external objects as with the relationships between the individuals, with such issues as who is in charge, now equal are the members in a primary relationship, or who has the right to set down rules of behavior.

Interpersonal conflict occurs when people:

  • are interdependent (meaning they are connected, and what one person does impacts the other)
  • are mutually aware that their goals are incompatible (one person will achieve while the other will not)
  • perceive each other as interfering with the attainment of their own goals.

For example, You are out with a close friend, and you both want to do a different activity. However, you have a very limited amount of time. There’s not enough time to do both activities. So you must decide which activity to do. Obviously, one person will get what s/he wants while the other does not.

Principles of Interpersonal Conflict

There are five principles of interpersonal conflict.

Conflict is inevitable

It is a part of every interpersonal relationship. One study found that, on average, couples have 182 conflicts per year, which is approximately 3.5 conflicts a week, with each lasting approximately 25 minutes long, and another 30 minutes to sulk. Just because you have conflict doesn’t mean your relationship is in jeopardy, either. It just means that you have a relationship.

Conflict can have negative and positive effects

It’s all about the way you deal with conflict.

Negative effects:

  • Often leads to increased negative regard for the opponent.
  • It may deplete energy better spent elsewhere.
  • It may lead you to hide feelings or close yourself off from a more intimate relationship.              
  • Rewards may become more difficult to exchange, leading to dissolution.

Positive effects:

  1. Forces you to examine a problem and. work toward a solution.
  2. May emerge with a stronger relationship.
  3. Enables you to state your needs
  4. Often prevents hostilities from fostering
  5. Emphasizes the relationship is worth the effort.

Conflict can focus on content and/or relationship issues

Content conflict focuses on objects, events, and persons, usually external to the people involved in the conflict. Relationship conflict focuses on concerns related to the relationship, such as who is in charge. These issues are often hidden or disguised as content conflicts.

Conflict styles have consequences.

There are five basic styles of engaging in conflict. When you compete, the person who loses may conclude that the conflict hasn’t been resolved, just concluded for now. When you avoid it, the conflict festers and probably grows, which will likely resurface later on.

Accommodating means that you sacrifice your own needs to maintain harmony, but your needs are not likely going to go away. Compromising maintains the peace, but there will still be dissatisfaction over the losses endured. Collaborating is the ideal style.

Conflict is influenced by culture and gender.

Each culture has a different way of dealing with conflict, as well as different topics over which conflicts arise. Conflicts change depending on whether the culture is a high or low-context culture, and they also have different views of which conflict strategies should be used. Conflict is also influenced by gender.

Conflict and culture

  • Culture influences the issues that people fight about and what is considered appropriate and inappropriate in terms of dealing with conflict.
  • The types of conflicts that arise depend on the cultural orientation of those involved. In collectivist cultures, conflicts are more likely to center on violations of collective or group norms and values. In individualist cultures, conflicts are more likely to occur when people violate individual norms.
  • Within a general culture, more specific cultures differ from one another in their methods of conflict management.
  • The cultural norms of organizations influence the types of conflicts that occur and the ways people may deal with them.

Conflict and Gender

  • The differences portrayed in media fail to show up in research.
  • Men are more apt to withdraw from a conflict situation than are women. Women are more likely to get closer to the conflict, talk about it, and want to resolve it.
  • Women tend to be more emotional, and men more logical when they argue.
  • Women are more apt to reveal their negative feelings than are men.
  • Among Mexican Americans, men preferred to achieve mutual understanding by discussing the reasons for the conflict, whereas women focused on being supportive of the relationship.
  • Among Anglo Americans, men preferred direct and rational arguments, and women preferred flexibility.
  • Studies with college students and business people found no significant differences in the way men and women engage in conflict.

Stages of Conflict Resolution

There are different stages of conflict resolution. These stages have been mentioned as follows:

Define the conflict

  1. Define both content and relationship issues.                  
  2. Define the problem in specific terms empathize.
  3. Avoid mind reading.

Examine possible solution

  • Win-win solutions are ideal.
  • At least seek solutions in which the costs and the rewards will be evenly shared.

Test a solution

  • Test one solution mentally
  • Test the solution in actual practice.

Evaluate the solution

  • Share your feelings and evaluations as to whether the tested solution helped resolve the conflict.
  • Edward de Bono’s six “thinking hats” support critical thinking :
  1. The fact that focuses on the facts and figures that bear on the problem.
  2. The feeling that looks at the emotional responses to the problem.
  3. The negative argument asks you to become the devil’s advocate.
  4. The positive benefits ask you to look at the upside.
  5. The creative new idea focuses on new ways to look at the problem.
  6. The control of thinking helps you analyze and direct what you’re doing in the evaluation process.                          

Accept or reject the solution.

  • If you accept a solution, you are ready to put it into more permanent operation.
  • If you reject the solution, you can either test a different solution or return to the definition of the conflict.                                           

Conflict Management Strategies

Factors that influence the choice of strategies

  • The goals to be achieved
  • Your emotional state
  • Your cognitive assessment of the situation
  • Your personality and communication competence
  • Your family history

The Strategies are Win-Lose and Win-Win strategies

The following strategies are generally followed by the managers to manage the conflict effectively.

  • Win-win solutions are the most desirable and make the next conflict less unpleasant.
  • View conflict as solving a problem rather than as a fight.
  • In win-win, people feel good about themselves and are more likely to abide by the decisions reached.

Avoidance and Fighting Actively Strategy

  1. Avoidance may involve an actual physical flight or maybe emotional or intellectual avoidance.
  2. In non-negotiation, you refuse to discuss the conflict or to listen to the other person’s argument.
    • It may take the form of hammering away at your point of view until the other person gives in — “steamrolling.”
    • Gunnysacking is a strategy in which you store up grievances and unload them on the other person, even if irrelevant.
  3. Instead of avoidance, take an active role as a speaker and as a listener. Own your thoughts and feelings. Focus on the present and on the other person involved.

Defensiveness and Supportiveness Strategy

  1. Evaluation with its “you-messages” leads to resentment and defensiveness. Instead, use descriptive “I-messages.”
  2. Control messages deny the legitimacy of the person’s contributions, so focus on the problem at hand,                                                         
  3. Strategy, especially manipulation in which you conceal your true purposes, leads to defensiveness, so act openly and with spontaneity;
  4. Neutrality can come across as not caring; try instead to show empathy, that is, you understand what the other person is going through.
  5. Superiority assumed by one party demotes the other party to inferiority instead of attitudes of equality.

Face Detracting and Face Enhancing Strategies

  1. Face-detracting or face-attacking strategies treat the other person as incompetent or untrustworthy, as unable or bad; the attacks vary from embarrassment to damaging his or her reputation.
  2. Beltlining interpersonally hits below the belt.
  3. Face-enhancing strategies help the other person maintain a positive image as competent and trustworthy, able and good.
  4. Even if you get what you want in bargaining, it is a good idea to allow the other person to save face. Excuses and apologies are sometimes helpful.
  5. Generally, collectivist cultures place greater emphasis on the face, but there are many levels and varieties.

Verbal Aggressiveness and Argumentativeness Strategy

  1. Verbal aggressiveness is a method of winning an argument by inflicting psychological pain by attacking the other person’s self-concept. It is a type of disconfirmation.
  2. Argumentativeness, contrary to popular belief, should be cultivated because it refers to your willingness to argue for a point of view. It is preferred to verbal aggressiveness.

The Prisoner’s Dilemma

It is possible to describe interpersonal conflict through the language of game theory (Von Neumann & Morgenstern, 1944). A frequently used example is the Prisoner’s Dilemma (PD) game (Luce & Raiffa, 1957).

Suppose two individuals, A and B, have been arrested on suspicion of committing a serious crime. Although they are guilty, there is not enough evidence for conviction of the serious crime but enough for a lesser one. The accused are separated and not allowed to communicate with each other. The district attorney wants them to confess to the crime they have committed.

Should A and/or B confess or not confess to the district attorney the crimes they have committed? What are the outcomes of their decisions? There are four possibilities. The following figure shows the payoff matrix based on years in prison.

Prisoner’s Dilemma: Payoff Matrix Based on Years in Prison for A and B

A \ BConfessDo Not Confess
ConfessA: 6 years, B: 6 yearsA: 4 years, B: 10 years
Do Not ConfessA: 10 years, B: 4 yearsA: 2 years, B: 2 years
  • If both A and B confess, they will be convicted of the serious offense, but their sentence will be reduced from 10 to 6 years.
  • If A does not confess, but B confesses, A will get a maximum sentence of 10 years, and B will get a minimum sentence of 4 years.
  • If A confesses, but B does not confess, A will get a reduced sentence of 4 years, and B will get a maximum sentence of 10 years.
  • If both A and B hold out and do not confess, they can be convicted only for the lesser offense and sentenced to two years.

The matrix presents a dilemma for the prisoners:

If each tries to maximize his own gain, he will confess and implicate his confederate. If they both do that, they will be worse off than if they both held out and did not confess.

Yet, if each one considers what he should do, regardless of what the other does, he should confess.

Thus, if B confesses, A is better off if he too confesses; if B does not confess, A is again better off if he confesses.

The dilemma can be resolved only if the prisoners trust each other, follow a criminal code of never cooperating with the police, or identify with each other to such a degree that the Confederate’s payoff to some degree, is his own. (Kriesberg, 1982)

The payoff matrix helps us to understand some of the dilemmas that may be present in interpersonal conflicts. Obviously, the management of interpersonal conflict in organizations is much more complex than the payoff matrix.

Model of Interpersonal Conflict

Over the years, a number of models have been developed to illustrate the dynamics of different types of organizational conflict.

Instead of developing a separate model for each type of organizational conflict, an integrated model has been developed that can be used to illustrate the dynamics of interpersonal, intragroup, and intergroup conflicts. Various models present organizational conflict as a process.

Goldman (1966) presented a cycle of conflict based on (1) an initiating event, (2) an influencing event, and (3) a concluding event.

Pondy (1967) presented a model of organizational conflict that identified five stages of a conflict episode:

  1. latent conflict,
  2. perceived conflict,
  3. felt conflict,
  4. manifest conflict, and
  5. conflict aftermath.

Walton and Dutton (1969) presented a model of interdepartmental conflict that focused on the;

  1. determinants of conflict,
  2. attributes or manifestations of conflict, and
  3. Consequences of the relationship patterns of organizational effectiveness.

Thomas’s (1976) process model of a conflict episode includes;

  1. frustration,
  2. conceptualization,
  3. behavior, and
  4. Outcome.

The figure presents a theoretical model of organizational conflict, especially interpersonal, intragroup, and intergroup conflicts. This model is based on the voluminous literature on the subject, especially that which was reviewed earlier.

The model can be used in formulating and testing hypotheses, thereby validating the model itself. This model will enable an organizational interventionist to manage conflict effectively.

If there are differences in power between the parties (e.g., superior and subordinate), the more powerful party may use a dominating style to impose a solution on the less powerful party.

To deal with the situation, the less powerful party may be forced to use an avoiding style, that is, accept the decision given by the more powerful party without protest.

Behavioral Changes

Conflict may affect the behavior and attitudes of parties toward each other. If the conflict becomes intense, the parties move away from a congenial, friendly, and trusting relationship and redirect their energies toward the goal of winning.

Since the immediate goal of each party is to win or control the situation, interest in the solution of the problem becomes less important. In other words, the parties may become less prepared to contribute to organizational goals effectively.

One possibility of intense conflict is the distortion or misrepresentation in the perception of the parties. The perceptual distortion may become progressively greater; each party may consider the other party an enemy, and they may describe each other with negative stereotypes.

Antecedent Conditions

The model begins with the antecedent conditions or sources of conflict, which can be classified as process and structural.

Extensive treatments of these two sources of conflict are provided in this and the following two chapters. The model also shows that demographic features, such as sex, age, education, and so on, may also affect conflict.

Structure Formation

As the conflict intensifies, the parties may restrict free communication and interaction. The parties may decide to communicate with each other only through writing; that is, the parties may formulate a structure of interaction that discourages the free exchange of information.

All contacts between the parties become formal, rigid, and carefully defined. In a bureaucratic organization, the parties may use existing rules and regulations to deal with the situations.

In some situations, a party may come up with a different interpretation of a rule so that a decision can be made in her or his favor. Thus, it will be more difficult for the parties to gather and evaluate information objectively to deal with their conflict constructively.

The parties may attempt to make greater use of the win-lose method to deal with their conflict. If both parties are equally powerful, they may use a dominating style to handle their disagreements. If they fail to reach an agreement, they may change their style from dominating to compromising to resolve the conflict.

Decision Process

When a win-lose conflict is intensified, the parties may be unable to use problem-solving methods to make decisions to deal with their disagreements. Instead, they may establish a medium of negotiation, which is generally bargaining.

When two large, powerful social entities are involved, the bargaining sessions may be extremely formal and lengthy. If conflict is intensified, “there is little room for compromise, and there is a dearth of imagination and creativity.

Emphasis is placed on proving how tough and unyielding one is, so as to persuade the adversary that one cannot be pushed around” (Pruitt & Rubin, 1956). If the conflicting parties fail to reach a decision, a mediator or arbitrator may be selected by the parties to break the deadlock.

In the case of conflict within a group, a decision is often made by a majority vote or by the group leader. This process of decision-making may lead to the formation of subgroups within a group, which may further intensify conflict.

In the case of superior-subordinate conflict, the decision is often made by the superior and communicated to the subordinate. In many cases, organizations allow subordinates to go to a higher-level executive to discuss their grievances.

Many organizations also allow lower-level employees to take their problems to grievance committees. In the case of conflict between two managers at the same organizational level, the superior of the two parties is often called upon to make a decision to resolve the conflict.

The same decision-making process may be used when two departments or units fail to resolve their conflicts in a reasonable manner.

Conflict Aftermath

“Usually, the resolution of conflict leaves a legacy or inheritance that affects the future relations of the parties and their attitudes toward each other” (Filley, 1975).

If bargaining and compromising styles are exclusively utilized as a method of conflict resolution, both parties may perceive themselves as partial losers after the cessation or end of the conflict.

If one party is clearly a loser after a resolution, this party may have antagonistic or aggressive feelings toward the other party, which may affect the generation and resolution of another conflict.

The resolution of a win-lose conflict not only may affect the behavior and attitudes of the parties toward each other but also may affect organizational structure.

For example, the conflicting parties or their superiors may formulate more rules and procedures or clarify the existing ones to deal with future conflicts between the parties.

If the parties use an integrating or problem-solving style to deal with their conflict, this may reduce the psychological distance between them. They may be more prepared to deal with their disagreements in a more constructive manner that involves the exchange of information and open communication.

A problem-solving approach for the management of conflict may lead to greater commitment to the agreement reached between parties. The model begins with the antecedent conditions or sources of conflict, which can be classified as process and structural.

Extensive treatments of these two sources of conflict are provided in this and the following two chapters. The model also shows that demographic features, such as sex, age, education, and so on, may also affect conflict.

Four Models of Interpersonal Conflict

Interpersonal conflicts can be handled with various styles of behavior. Four models of the styles of handling interpersonal conflict in organizations have some similarities and differences.

Model of Two Styles

This view is similar to that of the game theorists who use a cooperative-competitive continuum to facilitate the categorization of conflicts (Schelling, 1960).

Purely competitive conflicts are technically termed “zero-sum games” or “negative-sum games,” in which the positive outcomes to one party are directly and equally’ matched by negative outcomes to the other as a result of their joint choices from interaction.

Model of Three Styles

Instrument that there are three styles of handling interpersonal conflict: non-confrontation (obliging), solution-orientation (integrating), and control (dominating). Hocker and Wilmot (1991) concluded after a literature review that “conflict styles cluster similarly to conflict tactics into three types;

  1. avoidance,
  2. competitive (distributive)
  3. collaborative (integrative)

Model of Four Styles

Pruitt (1983) suggested and provided some empirical evidence from laboratory studies that there are four styles of handling conflict:

  1. yielding / complaint,
  2. problem-solving,
  3. inaction/ effective I enforcing, and
  4. contending/competing.

These styles were based on the two-dimensional model that consists of concern for self (high or low) and concern for others (high or low).

Model of Five Styles

The five styles of handling interpersonal conflict in organizations were first conceptualized in 1926 by Mary P. Follett (1940). She conceptualized three main ways of handling organizational conflict—domination, compromise, and integration—as well as other secondary ways of handling conflict, Such as avoidance and suppression/control.

Blake and Mouton (1964) first presented a conceptual scheme for classifying the modes (styles) for handling interpersonal conflicts into five types: forcing, withdrawing,
smoothing, compromising, and problem-solving.

They described the five modes of handling conflict on the basis of the attitudes of the manager: concern for production and for people.

According to the above discussion, it can be concluded that conflict can be solved by either any of the following five ways.

Avoidance or withdrawal

This means downplaying disagreement, withdrawing, and staying neutral at all costs. Avoidance may be used when an issue is trivial/unimportant, when more important issues are pressing, or when people need to cool down temporarily and regain perspective.

Accommodation or smoothing

It means giving in and smoothing over differences to maintain harmony. Accommodation may be used when issues are more important to others than to yourself or when you want to build “credits” for use in later disagreements.

Competition or authoritative command

It indicates trying to win in active competition or using authority to win by force. Authoritative command may be used when quick and decisive action is vital or when unpopular actions must be taken.


This emphasized bargaining for something “acceptable.” So, each party wins and loses a bit. Compromise may be used to arrive at temporary settlements of complex issues or to arrive at expedient/convenient solutions when time is limited.

Collaboration or problem-solving

This means working through differences to solve problems so that everyone gains. Collaboration and problem solving are preferred to gain true conflict resolution when time and cost permit.