“Would you rather be right or happy?” Gerald Jampolsky, M.D., psychiatrist and author of Forgiveness: The Greatest Healer of All
Conflict is a natural consequence of a diverse society where differences exist in numerous dimensions. Unresolved conflict contributes to stress and negative interactions. This chapter explores strategies for reducing conflict through assertiveness negotiation. These skills are explored in detail, along with exercises for self-reflection, discussion, and clinical application to facilitate learning.
The Complex Nature of Conflict
Conflict is a Regular Feature of Society
Conflict is a common and predictable occurrence among interacting groups or individuals.1 According to conflict theorists, social conflict results from individual or group inequities in material goods, status, power, and wealth.2 As individuals vie for dominance, evidence suggests that there is such a significant emotional investment in their positions and judgments (“I am right, you are wrong,” “I am smart, you are stupid”) that these statements actually become part of one's self concept. As a result, any threat or opposition is viewed as a personal attack, resulting in competitive arguments and hostile exchanges.3 Successful conflict resolution thus involves separating oneself from the ego-driven need to be right (hence the quotation at the beginning of this chapter).
Not surprisingly, conflict resolution fails when intense emotions or evaluative judgments prevail over respectful dialogue. In such instances, individuals turn to external sources for conflict resolution. The legal, judicial, and political systems of most societies are direct manifestations of an ongoing attempt to enforce cooperation among diverse social groups who are unable to do so themselves. Instead of attempting to address each party's needs, these institutions provide a mandatory directive in the form of a law, court ruling, or legislative policy. When such directives are described in legal terms, such as “punitive damages,” they are usually unfavorable to one of the parties.
At the interpersonal level, conflict can occur whenever individuals working toward a similar goal have incompatible approaches or values (for example, one person pursues academic excellence by studying for exams while another cheats). Conflict can also arise when individuals fail to acknowledge differing attitudinal perspectives (for example, consider the often antagonistic dialogues that occur in our society over issues like abortion or gun control). Conflict often results from emotional reactions to social, economic, or material inequities. For example, even today, significant disparities exist in the quality of the health care delivered to racial minorities and persons of lower socioeconomic status.4 Such inequities do little to advance compassionate understanding among all citizens. Finally, conflict arises when persons with contrary goals must interact (for example, consider the impact on staff morale when one individual works to maintain the status quo while another actively pursues organizational growth and change).