Understanding and Resolving Interpersonal Conflicts

Understanding and Resolving Interpersonal Conflicts [Image Aleksandar Popovski unsplash]
Image: Aleksandar Popovski via unsplash.com

Interpersonal conflicts offer great opportunities for learning and innovation. To use the potential of conflicts we need to understand them: analysing their roots and dynamics as well as our own responses to conflict situations helps us to understand and resolve interpersonal conflicts in a constructive way.

Understanding Interpersonal Conflicts

Conflicts in everyday life

Conflicts are a part of our everyday life: they are unavoidable and recurring. People mostly experience conflicts as a burden, as something disturbing or even threatening.

Conflicts may cause anger and aggression; they lead to stress, despair and hopelessness. As they cost individuals, groups as well as institutions, power and energy, they are not constructive and not economical. This is the reason why partners are particular keen about getting rid of the conflict, do not let the conflict escalate, to suppress it, to oversee it, to avoid it, etc…

„People expect interpersonal contact to be without conflicts … If conflicts appear, they are unwanted, they are a burden for interpersonal relationships and personal feelings.“

Alexander Thomas 1995:24

On the other hand, conflicts offer great opportunities for learning and innovation. If the partners manage to set free the enormous potential of the inherent tensions of the conflict, it can be used constructively for the development and realisation of creative ideas. A conflict may become an impulse for the personal growth of both partners involved and their interactions.

Conflicts in intercultural contacts

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The central aspect of intercultural encounters is mutual learning from one another, discovering similarities and differences and being willing to understand them. Within the intercultural contact one can find unlimited possibilities of experiencing oneself and others, and conflicts are as common as in relationships of our everyday life. Here as well, conflicts can be either avoided and ‘somehow’ solved, or used constructively for the benefit of the intercultural encounter.

People with different cultural backgrounds have different opinions on what is a conflict, how conflicts arise, how to handle and resolve them. They have different ways of perceiving a conflict and acting in a conflict. Each cultural system consists of special rules how to deal with conflicts. They allow picking up certain behaviour and forbidding other.Analysing and resolving cultural conflicts give an opportunity to reflect on and question one’s own and others’ ways of dealing with conflicts. On this basis, a common conflict culture could be developed.

Resolving culturally defined conflicts in intercultural encounters aims at the following aspects:

  • to reduce psychological and emotional stress,
  • to recognise cultural similarities and differences and their (in-)compatibility,
  • to reveal the influence of one’s own and others’ cultural orientation systems,
  • to avoid culturalised perception, to discover the individual behind the culture,
  • to reduce the development of prejudices and stereotypes,
  • to discover causes and backgrounds of a conflict,
  • to experience one’s own and others’ reactions towards conflicts,
  • to develop a common, interculturally suitable culture of arguing and dealing with conflicts.

(compare Thomas 1995:38)

Causes and backgrounds of conflicts

In a conflict, two or more people are trying to follow contradictory or incompatible intentions. This is where different interest-, need-, fear- and value-directed forces meet. Such differences are experienced as incompatible and limit each others space of carrying out an action.In an intercultural conflict it becomes clear, that differences in behaviours are based on the cultural backgrounds and that they will effect the process of the conflict and its resolution (Liebe 1996:9).

Conflicts in intercultural encounters will not occur, if the partners are not interested in one another (and do not know what to do together) or if a (sub-)group dominates the other one.

Components of a conflict

Conflict components are the assumptions, the specific conflict situation and the frame conditions:

  • Personal assumptions, i.e. attitudes, values, behaviour, needs, fears, ideals, aims,
  • Conflict situation, i.e. the conflict partners and the content of the conflict,
  • Frame conditions, i.e. the context, the encounter, structures, social and cultural rules.

In order to understand a conflict better, a useful instrument is a spider web analysis (see Faller et al 1996:46f). It focuses on three aspects:

  • Who is involved in the conflict (individuals, groups)?</li>
  • What are they doing?
  • What are their intentions? Interests? Needs?
Spider Web Analysis
Spider Web Analysis – Mind-Map: Michael Kimmig

A spider web analysis helps clarifying, who is doing what and with what intention. It is like a mind-map with the conflict in the middle as a starting point. The first branches from the middle are the individuals and groups who are (actively and passively) involved in the conflict. For each of these individuals you describe what they are doing and communicating. Then, from there, for each behaviour you try to identify intentions, interests or needs of this person or group. In the process of doing a spider web analyses you gain a broader and deeper understanding of the conflict and conflict dynamics. And usually, you get already first ideas on how to solve it.

Escalation of conflicts

In some models for conflict resolution a conflict is described in its process dimension. Because each conflict has its own history, the process and development cannot be anticipated. Glasl (1980) and his colleagues worked on the mechanisms, that cause a qualitative change in the conflict. They discovered that the dynamics of a conflict tend to an escalation.

Glasl model of conflict escalation differentiates between nine levels of escalation. Escalation is seen as a downward movement, where conflict parties get pulled into a conflict dynamic with a negative downward spiral that leads over a series of stairs and falls. Conflict parties may stay in one phase for a while, before falling down to a further level of escalation. As the level of escalation increases, it is more and more difficult to come to a resolution of the conflict without an intervening or mediating party.

Glasl’s 9 stages of conflict escalation

Stage 1: Tension
Conflict is often not recognized as conflict yet. It comes to first confrontations, positions harden. Conflict parties still believe, that through discussion the conflict can be solved.

Stage 2: Debate
Conflict parties start to talk, trying to convince one another other. In the confrontation opinions and feelings polarize. Black and white thinking is raising.

Stage 3: Actions replace words
No more discussions. Actions underline each parties’ position. Empathy gets lost and the danger of misinterpretation rises.

Stage 4: Coalitions
The conflict parties manoeuvre one another in negative roles and fight these roles. The original issue becomes less and less important. It’s about winning now. The conflict parties look for supporters who have not been involved yet.

Stage 5: Loss of face
Both conflict parties attack one another aiming at the loss of face of the opponent. Exaggerations and lies escalate the conflict.

Stage 6: Threats
Threats and counter threads accelerate the conflict. Ultimatums are set.

Stage 7: Limited Destruction
Opponents are not seen as human. This dehumanization makes limited destructive blows legitimate. Small own losses can be seen as a benefit, if the opponent looses more.

Stage 8: Annihilation
Destruction and fragmentation of the opponents system and their supporters become the main aim.

Stage 9: Abyss
Total confrontation. No way back. Personal destruction is acceptable as long as opponents go down too.

Source: Friedrich Glasl (1997)

The escalation of conflicts pass three levels. While during the first three stages win-win solutions can be achieved either with self-help or facilitation from outside, in the second three stages both parties often reach a win-loose situation that can be resolved only with mediation. The last three stages are considered as loose-loose situations, that need forced intervention from outside.

Styles of response towards conflicts

Individuals and groups respond in many ways to a conflict: by ignoring, keeping quiet, harmonising but also reacting aggressively, retaliating and destruction. To resolve conflicts however, they need to be made open and dealt with.

Blake & Mouton (1970, Thomas 1995:28) describe five typical responses towards conflicts, according to their focus on the relations and/or on the task / issues:

  • The avoiding strategy suggests that the issue and the relationships are not sufficiently important to work on. The responses could be: walking out, ignoring, distracting, joking, changing the subject, etc.
  • In the surrendering strategy the relationship is more important then the issue. Responses could be: agreeing, apologising, giving in, etc.
  • The ‘Fighting it out’ strategy stands for the importance of the issue and achieving a result. The relationship is less or not important. Responses could be: physical/ psychological attack, arguing, threatening, drawing lines (e.g. ‘I’m right – you’re wrong’ or ‘I’m good – you’re bad’), etc. criticism, put-downs,
  • The compromise strategy suggests attributing moderate importance to both, the issue and the relationship. Responses could be: limiting time/ energy, identifying the issue easily, low feelings, ‘win a bit – lose a bit’ attitude, etc.
  • The problem solving strategy means that relationship and issues are important and both worth working on. Responses could be: faith in win-win solutions, hope that wants can be reconciled, etc.

This model suggests that a strong orientation towards both the task and the relationships is the most suitable strategy for conflict resolution. This is not the case. The context of a conflict gives an orientation, „in which the involved individuals can find out, what is ‘suitable’ or ‘right’ in that moment.“ (Thomas 1995:30) Each behaviour has its own advantages and disadvantages. Not in every situation is it useful to reveal a conflict. Sometimes a strategy of fighting it out is needed, etc.

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Resolving Interpersonal Conflicts

Two sisters argue about an orange as both would like to have it. They finally agree to split the orange in halves. One eats the inside and throws the skin away. The other throws away the inner part and uses the skin for baking a cake. (see Besemer 1993:25)

Compromises often hinder the chance to view conflicts as a crystal point for changes. Ideally the two sisters could both receive a better result. The example of the orange shows the optimistic basis of resolving conflicts constructively, a win-win situation, from which both partners could gain the most out of.

Destructive and constructive conflict resolution

Destructive conflict resolution

A <—–> B

The other person is perceived as the problem.

Constructive conflict resolution

A <—–> Problem <—–> B

The problem is discovered and resolved together.

The basic idea is to move from a destructive situation to a common resolution of the conflict. While destructive ways of dealing with a conflict are based on power and legal positions to force through one’s own will, constructive conflict resolution is based on clarifying and balancing interests and needs (see Ropers 1995:65)

Principles of conflict resolution

Faller et al (1996:114) and Besemer (1993:33) list the following principles of conflict resolution:

Needs / Interests
Put the stress on the needs (interests) of the involved persons and not on the persons!

Distinguish between people and the problem!

Think about many options, before you decide what you will do. Think not only about your own next step, but also about the other party’s possible steps and reactions!

Take care, that the result fits in generally accepted criteria

There are always several truths: yours, theirs and there may be at least one more!

Think about the unity of means and time!

Stick to your principle and build your strategy upon it. Follow the aims, that are helpful both, for you and the other side, also if the other side doesn’t follow the same principle!

Power is the freedom to reach one’s own aims, not to punish others!

Steps towards conflict resolution

The aims of conflict resolution are:

  • to enable people to address the problem and create suitable solutions,
  • to allow people to recognise and express their feelings.

Some problems will not be fully solvable, but exploring the feelings and recognising the constraints involved is essential.

A conflict resolution follows the stages below:

Step 1: Defining the conflict

Step 2: Clarifying the background of the conflict

Step 3: Creating Options

Step 4: Making an agreement and setting goals

Step 1: Defining the conflict

What happened? or What is the conflict about?

It’s important to avoid drawing lines and creating an ‘us and them’ situation. The definition must be acceptable to all involved. The aim of this stage is to see the problem as separate from the people concerned – people with a difficulty rather than difficult people.

Step 2: Clarifying the background of the conflict

What are the backgrounds, the underlying interests, the needs?

The aim is to recognise and accept one’s own point of view and gain some understanding of the other person’s. Expressing feelings is very important here. In most conflicts the relationships between the people concerned are generally at least as important as the issues at stake.

Step 3: Creating Options

What would we like to happen?

The suggestions are not judged for practicality at this stage; the aim is to give an indication of the direction in which a constructive solution might lie. Try to find a ‘win-win’ solution to a problem.

Step 4: Making an agreement and setting goals

What could we do?

The choices are made by referring to both, the feelings and needs expressed in stage two, and to the suggestions from stage three. They should be small steps which will not make a too great demand on either party, but, followed in sequence, will gradually dispel mistrust and bring about a degree of co-operation. It may help to set a timetable or a meeting to evaluate progress.

Conflict resolution: Questions to ask

Step 1: Defining the conflict
What happened? or What is the conflict about?

Step 2: Clarifying the background of the conflict
What are the backgrounds, the underlying interests, the needs?

Step 3: Creating Options
em>What would we like to happen?

Step 4: Making an agreement and setting goals
What could we do?

What, if you are personally involved in the conflict? – If you are personally involved and if there is no third party to mediate, the following steps could be helpful for you:

  • Check what is happening,
  • Disengage, ask someone for support,
  • Create a safe space to talk,
  • Check what the other persons wants,
  • Describe your wants, feelings and the issue as you saw it at the time of the conflict,
  • Listen actively to the descriptions of the other person,
  • Discuss options and choose the best you both agree on.


Besemer, Christoph (1993): Mediation. Vermittlung in Konflikten; Stiftung Gewaltfreies Leben, Königsfeld

Faller, K., Kerntke, W. & Wackmann, M. (1996): Konflikte selber lösen. Mediation für Schule und Jugendarbeit. Das Streit-Schlichter-Programm; Verl. an der Ruhr, Mühlheim

Glasl, Friedrich (1990): Konfliktmanagement; Haupt Verl., Stuttgart

Glasl, Friedrich (1997): Konfliktmanagement. Ein Handbuch zur Diagnose und Behandlung von Konflikten für Organisationen und ihre Berater, 5. erweiterte Auflage, Bern: Paul Haupt Verlag

Liebe, Frank (1996): Interkulturelle Mediation – eine schwierige Vermittlung. Eine empirisch-analytische Annäherung zur Bedeutung von kulturellen Unterschieden; (Berghof Report Nr. 2); Albdruck, Berlin

Thomas, Alexander (1995): Analyse kulturbedingter Konflikte in der internationalen Jugendbegegnung; in: Thomas-Morus Akademie/transfer e.V. (Hrsg.): Vom Kulturkonflikt zur Konfliktkultur (Fachtagung IV des Forscher-Praktiker-Dialogs zur internationalen Jugendbegegnung 21. – 23.11.1995); S. 24 – 42

Source: This blogpost is an updated version of an article published in: Kimmig, Michael: Co-ordinating together. A training manual; Service Civil International, Poznan, 2000