How Does Conflict Start?

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Sometimes conflict can seem to spark and to spread in a relationship like a wildfire in a forest, essentially acting like a raging, destructive force with an unknown, mysterious cause. Conflict, however, does not have to be that complicated or challenging to understand. Most conflict can be traced to a few primary areas of life, including individual desires and needs. Understanding how conflict starts can help with effectively navigating and ultimately resolving conflict in personal and professional relationships.


Conflict often starts due to different ideas and goals for a situation or a relationship. For example, you may experience conflict with your spouse when one of you wants to visit other family members during a vacation and the other wants a quiet week away from family or friends. Conflict can also be caused by unmet needs. When your coworker feels unheard or overseen during department meetings, conflict may result during a future meeting. A person or a group of people attempting to control a situation, to gain power and to manipulate or change other people can also lead to conflict.


Conflict may develop indirectly as a result of an already damaged or unstable relationship. For example, previously unresolved conflict can increase the likelihood of future eruptions of conflict. Differences in communication styles, such as overly expressive or highly minimal nonverbal communication, can also lead to conflict when misunderstanding or miscommunication occurs. Personality differences, such as those that often occur in the professional settings, can increase the chances of conflict developing. If one or more people feel unsafe expressing feelings and needs, then conflict may develop as well.


A situation involving conflict can be further complicated by how the parties involved respond to the conflict. If distrust already exists in the relationship, then one or more people involved may try to put up a wall of defense, essentially withdrawing from the relationship. Sometimes a person may try to deal with conflict by avoiding the situation in which the conflict occurs, which can actually hinder conflict resolution and even extend the conflict. For example, you may be hesitant to discuss your feelings about being overlooked for a promotion, but in time, you may find that your feelings of distrust and resentment toward your supervisor actually increase rather than diminish the potential for conflict.


Sometimes conflict can also be complicated by the misconceptions of those involved toward conflict. Conflict does not always result from differences, nor does it always have to create unpleasant situations. For example, if your experience growing up was that conflict always involves anger, shouting and verbal abuse, then you may engage in those behaviors during conflict or you may seek to avoid conflict altogether. Conflict does not have to be a negative experience, though, as a number of strategies exist for successfully navigating conflict, in personal and professional relationships.


Regardless of how it starts, conflict can ultimately strengthen a relationship. To avoid approaching conflict in destructive ways, proactively seek out and learn effective conflict resolution skills. Find individuals who have strong, healthy relationships in their lives and discover ways that they approach conflict that may be helpful to you. Also, enter any conflict situation committed to the relationship, considering the different desires, needs and goals of those involved, and committed to seeing the relationship grow stronger as a result of the conflict.