Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


What Makes Conflict? How Are Conflicts Resolved?

Couples do best when both partners have strong conflict resolution skills.

This post is in response to
Why Conflict Is Healthy for Relationships
(c) Design Pics/fotosearch
Source: (c) Design Pics/fotosearch

Conflict is a term that refers to situations in which two or more sides appear to be pulling or pushing in opposing directions.. If the participants stay calm and friendly, we might refer to their way of dealing with the conflict as shared problem-solving. If tensions emerge or anger escalates, the terms arguments or fights may be a better fit.

In these sensitive situations, do you sometimes find yourself insisting on what you want? Do you hold back from verbalizing your perspective on some issues for fear that the conflict will erupt into a fight?

This article explains how to address differences, ie, to deal with conflict, in a way that yields satisfaction for everyone involved. This same collaborative conflict resolution strategy can be used at home, at work, with friends, in business, in politics—in any venue where both parties would prefer to convert their conflicts into effective win-win problem-solving.

Where do conflicts emerge?

As I explain in my book From Conflict to Resolution, conflicts can emerge in any of three realms:

(1) within oneself (which therapists refer to as intrapsychic conflict),

(2) between oneself and one or more others, and

(3) between oneself and a circumstance (e.g., illness, financial difficulties).

Often a conflict has aspects in two or even all three of these realms. For instance, If "Joe" feels conflicted about whether to leave his job, he is likely to experience conflicts within himself—his current salary is great and at the same time, the hours are too long. If a loved one wants Joe to stay and he wants to leave his current job, the conflict has become interpersonal. And if Joe develops an illness, what he wants and the realities of what he needs to do to heal his health problem may conflict.

What causes conflicts to yield fights?

Collaborative dialogue skills are essential to the resolution process. Without the necessary skills, adversarial stances, tension, and anger can make a win-win outcome unlikely.

Bickering, arguing, or getting insistent indicate someone who is unskilled at handling conflicts in a collaborative way. So does going silent about your perspective. Talking in an irritated tone of voice, becoming insistent on your way, ignoring what the other person says, blaming, attacking, and using anger to bully others into doing what you want or, heaven forbid, going to war, all indicate collaborative dialogue skill deficits.

Conflict resolution also takes knowledge of the three-step resolution process. Without clarity about these three steps, participants are likely to end up in a tug-of-war for whose way will win and who will lose. This kind of adversarial process gets settled by who has more power, unlike the win-win plan of action that is the goal of collaborative conflict resolution.

How can you tell when there is a conflict afoot?

Emotional discomfort—that is, negative emotions—alert you to the reality that a situation of conflict is occurring.

Any time two or more people need to pick a shared course of action, they are at risk for experiencing conflict. Decisions, therefore, are one danger point.

Similarly, seeing a situation differently and/or wanting different outcomes can also provoke conflict.

Fortunately, there are ways to disagree that prevent conflicts from emerging in these situations. (I write about these in my post "How To Disagree Agreeably."

The 3 Steps of Collaborative Conflict Resolution

To settle a disagreement without getting mad, sad, or anxious, take the following three steps:

  1. Recognize that there is a problem that needs to be solved by noting differing ideas of what to do.
  2. Explore the underlying concerns.
  3. Create a mutually agreeable solution.

For this 3-step process to proceed effectively, participants need to feel as if they are sitting on the same side of the table facing the problem rather than as opponents sitting across from each other. Sustaining a friendly and cooperative attitude is essential.

What would these steps of conflict resolution look like for addressing a real problem?

Jim and Barbara were a couple in my therapy practice who disagreed about what to do on their summer vacation. Their usual disagreement strategy had been to argue over my, way, no my way until one gave up, gave in, and was left feeling depressed and resentful. Collaborative conflict resolution was new for them.

STEP 1: Note Differing Ideas of What to Do

Recognize that there is a problem that needs to be solved. Usually, that recognition comes when two or more people are each advocating for different action plans.

To begin a process of conflict resolution, Jim and Barbara had to recognize that they had hit a conflict. The conflict had arisen because they need to make a decision together. Becoming irritated, Jim was tempted to continue in bickering mode. Jim responded positively though when I suggested that the rising tension indicated an opportunity to use their new three steps of conflict resolution.

Jim: Let’s take a trip to Peking this summer. I want to travel and explore.

Barbara: (Feeling alarmed) That's what I was afraid you would say. Not me. Travel sounds totally unappealing to me. I'd prefer to just stay home.

Jim: So where do we go from here? If I want to travel and you want to stay home, we're stuck already.

Thus the first step in moving forward toward resolving a conflict consists of both sides saying what is initially on their minds with regard to what they want to do. Both sides speak and both listen to the other, even though what they want seems to be in conflict.

Danger: Participants who at this point head straight for the third step, finding solutions, will find themselves locked in a tug-of-war, a power struggle over whose way will prevail. Far better to note the conflicting ideas and therefore proceed immediately to step two.

STEP 2: Explore the Underlying Concerns.

This second step requires a shift from talking about actions—the solution that each participant has proposed—to exploring the underlying concerns. Concerns are the factors that have motivated each person's initial suggestions. Concerns are desires, fears, and other factors that matter to you in a given situation.

All the concerns, that is, the concerns of both or all the participants, go on one list. Any concern of one party that way becomes a shared concern.

Jim: I was thinking of an exploring vacation because I want to be physically active during our time off. At my job, I sit at my desk all day. On my vacation, I'd like to move around, to walk long distances, to meet new people. Besides, seeing new places and meeting new people feels invigorating, fun.

Barbara: That makes sense to me, that you want physical activity. And I agree that new is often fun. As for me, I want to stay home because I've been working such long hours. I want to rest. I want to relax, slow down, and recuperate. I also would love time to read, since I have so little time to read most of the year.

STEP 3: Create a Mutually Agreeable Solution

Finding solutions can be launched by summarizing aloud all the items on the concerns list.

Each participant then offers a modification of their original suggested solution, or new ideas altogether, so that the plan of action is responsive to their concerns and also to the partner's concerns.

The resolution brings a sense of calm, closure, and mutual satisfaction when a plan of action includes elements responsive to each and all of the underlying concerns of both parties.

Jim: So I want to be able to move around a lot, walk, see new sights, and meet new people. You want to be able to sit still, read, and relax. How about if we go to a beach resort? You can sit and relax on the beach; I can do beach sports like surfing or volleyball and take long suns along the shoreline. You can relax alone in the sun. I can meet the people participating in sports with me. We can go to a place that is new for us, and with a lot of activity options which I would like. That way we could stay in one place which you would prefer. and where you can do activities that are restful for you.

Barbara: Sounds perfect! Sometimes I'd be glad too to go for long walks with you. And I would be okay with flying to a new place if once we arrive I can mostly just sit on the beach. That actually sounds even better than staying home.

Note that even though this couple's eventual solution was different from the initial suggestions of either of them, because the plan of action was responsive to the concerns of both people, it felt good—better even for both of them than either of their first ideas. That is, the solution was “win-win”—not because one or both of them "got their way," but because the solution was responsive to the underlying concerns of both of them.


While the dilemma above was a relatively simple conflict to resolve, the same three steps apply to any conflict, simple or complex. Note too that the three steps described above apply to solving conflicts that have occurred within any of the three potential conflict realms: within one person’s wishes, fears, or values; between people; or between people and difficult circumstances.

Staying on pathways of collaborative communication keeps the conflict resolution process moving forward. Communication errors like blame, criticism or dismissive listening can throw the process off track. Similarly, slippage into a tone of voice that conveys a negative attitude—for example, contempt, irritation, sarcasm, or anger—also risks triggering a stance of adversarial conflict.

Collaborative dialogue plus cooperative conflict resolution skills make people more effective and productive at work and enable them to live more harmoniously as families, They create a peaceful and harmonious way of living in the world. Sound worth a try?

To learn more about how to handle conflict in ways that enhance your relationships, check out Dr. Heitler's books and website.

More from Susan Heitler Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today