Understanding the Concept of Conflict

What is Conflict?

Concept of Conflict
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Conflict, simplistically, could mean different things but with central themes like: to fight, battle, contend; to be antagonistic, incompatible or contradictory; be in opposition, clash, sharp disagreement or opposition as of interests, ideas, etc.

It may mean an emotional disturbance resulting from a clash of opposing impulses.

The Oxford Advanced Learners dictionary 6th Edition, defines conflict as a situation in which a group or groups of people or countries are involved in serious disagreement or argument; it is also a situation in which there is opposing ideas, opinions, feelings or wishes, a situation in which it is difficult to choose.

Conflict could be seen as a disagreement through which the parties involved perceive a threat to their needs, interests or concerns. Within this simple definition there are several important understandings that emerge:


Generally, we are aware there is some level of difference in the positions of the two (or more) parties involved in the conflict. But the true disagreement versus the perceived disagreement may be quite different from one another. In fact, conflict tends to be accompanied by significant levels of misunderstanding that exaggerate the perceived disagreement considerably.

If we can understand the true areas of disagreement, this will help us solve the right problems and manage the true needs of the parties.

Parties involved

There are often disparities in our sense of who is involved in the conflict. Sometimes, people are surprised to learn they are a party to the conflict, while other times we are shocked to learn we are not included in the disagreement.

On many occasions, people who are seen as part of the social system (e.g., work team, family and company) are influenced to participate in the dispute, whether they would personally define the situation in that way or not.

In the above example people very readily “take sides” based upon current perceptions of the issues, past issues and relationships, roles within the organization, and other factors. The parties involved can become an elusive concept to define.

Perceived threat

People respond to the perceived threat, rather than the true threat facing them. Thus, while perception does not become reality per se, people’s behaviors, feelings and ongoing responses become modified by that evolving sense of the threat they confront. If we can work to understand the true threat (issues) and develop strategies (solutions) that manage it (agreement), we are acting constructively to manage the conflict.

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Needs, interests or concerns

There is a tendency to narrowly define “the problem” as one of substance, task, and near-term viability.

However workplace conflicts tend to be far more complex than that, for they involve ongoing relationships with complex, emotional components.

Simply stated, there are always procedural needs and psychological needs to be addressed within the conflict, in addition to the substantive needs that are generally presented. And the durability of the interests and concerns of the parties transcends the immediate presenting situation.

Any efforts to resolve conflicts effectiveĊ‚y must take these points into account.

So, it must be observed that within its elegant simplicity, lays a complete set of issues to address. Therefore, it is not surprising that satisfactory resolution of most conflicts can prove so challenging and time consuming to address.

Conflicts occur when people (or other parties) perceive that, as consequence of a disagreement, there is a threat to their needs, interests or concerns. Although conflict is a normal part of organization life, providing numerous opportunities for growth through improved understanding and insight, there is a tendency to view conflict as negative experience caused by abnormally difficult circumstances.

Disputants tend to perceive limited options and finite resources available in seeking solutions, rather than multiple possibilities that may exist ‘outside the box’ in which we are problem-solving.

A few points are worth reiterating before proceeding:

  • Conflict is more than a mere disagreement – it is a situation in which people perceive a threat (physical, emotional, power status, etc.) to their well-being. As such, it is a meaningful experience in people’s lives, not to be shrugged off by a mere, “it will pass..”
  • Participants in conflicts tend to respond on the basis of their perceptions of the situation, rather than an objective review of it.
  • As such, people filter their perceptions (and reactions) through their values, culture, beliefs, information, experience, gender, and other variables. Conflict responses are both filled with ideas and feelings that can be very strong and powerful guides to our sense of possible solutions.
  • As in any problem, conflicts contain substantive, procedural, and psychological dimensions to be negotiated. In order to best understand the threat perceived by those engaged in a conflict, we need to consider all of these dimensions.
  • Conflicts are normal experiences within the work environment. They are also, to a large degree, predictable and expectable situations that naturally arise as we go about managing complex and stressful projects in which we are significantly invested.
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As such, if we develop procedures for identifying conflicts likely to arise, as well as systems through which we can constructively manage conflicts, we may be able to discover new opportunities to transform conflict into a productive learning experience.

  • Creative problem-solving strategies are essential to positive approaches to conflict management. We need to transform the situation from one in which it is ‘my way or the highway’ into one in which we entertain new possibilities that have been otherwise elusive.

Conflict as a Literary Concept

Conflict is a concept in literary studies that seeks to analyze plots, by finding their driving sources. In literary terms, it means the struggle or battle in a narrative. It was Sir Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch, a literary critic and author, who was first to classify plots as seven basic conflicts:

Man against Man, Man against Nature, Man against Himself, Man against God, Man against Society, Man caught in the Middle, Man and Woman.

This has inspired a variety of similar lists, as follows and these seem to highlight the nature and dimensions of conflict.

Man vs. Self
Man vs. Man
Man vs. Society
Man vs. Nature
Man vs. Supernatural
Man vs. Machine/Technology
Man vs. Destiny

Man vs. Self is when the main character in the story has a problem with him or herself. It may involve characters having to make decisions (such as which path to take or what clothes to wear), or involving a “guilty conscience” or moral issues. Journey to the River Sea is an example of this kind of conflict because the protagonist has problems with himself.

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Man vs. Man conflict can be described as a conflict arising between two or more characters of the same kind. An example of this might be a fist fight between two people such as the Protagonist (main character) vs. the Antagonist (villain or someone who is against the protagonist).

Man vs. Society is a literature theme in fiction in which a main character (or characters) thinks differently from society or has different concepts than what most people think. An example is Matin Luther King Jnr. seeing people being abused and trying to correct what a lot of society saw as acceptable.

Man vs. Nature is the theme in literature that places a character against forces of nature. Many disaster films focus on this theme, which is predominant within many survival stories. It is also strong in stories about struggling for survival in remote locales, such as the novel Hatchet or Jack London’s short story “To Build a Fire” or “Survivor man“.

Man vs. Supernatural is a type of conflict in which the character is against elements outside of the natural realm. These include encounters with ghosts, extraterrestrials, external spiritual experiences and other unexplained occurrences. The films The Exorcist and The Blair Witch Project have elements of this form of conflict.

Man vs. Machine/Technology is a conflict between the protagonist and mechanical antagonist or the mechanization of society in general. Example could be seen in the Terminator movies.

Man v. Destiny (or Fate) is a theme in which one attempts to break free of a predetermined path before him chosen without his knowledge. It can also be referred to as a conflict between fate and freewill. A common example is Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

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