Resolving Interpersonal Conflict

Resolving Interpersonal Conflict



Getting Acquainted with Ourselves and Others

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Arguments Remind me Of hot grease In a skillet.

I can’t Control Where it Will pop next;

And if I don’t Stand back Or turn the Fire down.

I’ll get All splattered And Burned.

Delyn Dendy Harrison Some Things Are Better Said in Black and White .

Fort Worth, TX: Branch Smith, Inc., 1978. Used with permission.

Resolving Interpersonal Confl ict

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304 Chapter 7 Resolving Interpersonal Confl ict

Actually, the list could go on and on, but the fact is clear: when two or more people live or work closely together, for any length of time, a degree of con- fl ict will be generated (O’Neill and Chapman 2007). Furthermore, the greater the emotional involvement and day-to-day sharing, the greater the potential for confl ict. Although it is impossible to eliminate confl ict, there are ways to manage it eff ectively. Th ere is hope for healthier, stronger, and more satisfying relationships.

What Is Confl ict?

Th e word confl ict comes from the Latin roots com meaning “together,” and fi gere meaning to “strike.” Common synonyms of confl ict emphasize words like “struggle,” “fi ght,” “clash,” and “sharp disagreements.” Using these thoughts, Joyce Hocker and William Wilmot (2005) provide an interest- ing defi nition of confl ict. Th eir idea is that confl ict is an expressed struggle between at least two people who perceive the situation diff erently and are experiencing interference from the other person in achieving their goals. Author Jeff rey Rubin (1994) and his colleagues add some additional insights: confl ict is a perception that one person’s goals, plans, and aspirations are incompatible with another’s.

What causes these struggles, interferences, and perceptions?

What Causes Confl ict?

Confl icts occur between people because people are diff erent, think diff er- ently, and have diff erent needs and wants. In fact, social psychologist Morton Deutsch (2006) believes that confl icts usually involve any of six basic types of issues: 1) control over resources, 2) preferences and nuisances, 3) values, 4) beliefs, 5) goals , and 6) the nature of the relationship between the partners.

Perhaps the key word is diff erentness, because this is what causes confl ict in human relationships. Diff erentness is a reality to reckon with, and the reality is that people enter relationships with diff erences in socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds, sex-role expectations, levels of self-esteem, ability to tolerate stress, tastes and preferences, beliefs and values, interests, social and family networks, and capacity to change and grow. And, add to these diff erences that many people are defi cient in communication and confl ict resolution skills and frequently have misunderstood styles of confl ict management (Tannen 2001). Th erefore, it is easy to understand why diff erentness leads to disagreement and confl ict.

E verything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.


Think about this Have you ever found yourself in one of the following situations?

You and your spouse seem to be in constant disagreement. Can this marriage be saved? Your parents have really been yelling at you. Th ey do not understand you, and you do not understand them. You and your roommate cannot seem to divide the chores equally. Is there any hope for this living

arrangement? You and your best friend had a major argument. You left mad and hurt. You and your co-workers have been squabbling and productivity is down. Th e boss is really angry.

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Chapter 7 Resolving Interpersonal Confl ict 305

The Realities of Confl ict

Even though confl ict is inevitable, it can have positive as well as negative eff ects. Th omas Gordan (2000), noted author and psychologist, explains this clearly:

A confl ict is the moment of truth in a relationship—a test of its health, a crisis that can weaken or strengthen it, a critical event that may bring last- ing resentment, smoldering hostility, psychological scars. Confl icts can push people away from each other or pull them into a closer and more intimate union; they contain the seeds of destruction and the seeds of greater unity; they may bring about armed warfare or deeper mutual understanding.

In our society, confl ict is oft en viewed negatively: It is “bad” to show anger, to disagree, or to fi ght. Some people look at confl ict as something to avoid at all costs; but confl ict is not necessarily bad—it exists as a reality of any relationship.

It would be a rare relationship if over a period of time one person’s needs did not confl ict with the other’s needs. Authors Linda Hjorth and Maria Bakalis (1998) make a point by saying:

With living and loving come risk and confl ict. Human relation- ships cannot be put into a vacuum, void of diffi culties and personal diff erences.

Since confl ict is inevitable, coping with confrontations is one of the most critical of social skills. It’s not the degree of confl ict that sinks relation- ships, but the ways people resolve it. We must remember that confl ict needs to be viewed from a problem-solving perspective. Oft en, solutions bring about change, and changes in a relationship should not be feared. Human relationships are dynamic and refl ect the changes that accompany personal growth. Disagreements, if handled well, can help people know themselves better, improve language skills, gain valuable information, and cement their relationships (Marano 2000). Constructive ways for resolving confl ict will be discussed later in the chapter.

We will now discuss in more detail three common benefi ts of construc- tive confl ict resolution (Dubrin 2007).

Positive Effects of Confl ict

PROMOTES GROWTH IN A RELATIONSHIP. People who work through their confl icts can develop a stronger and more intimate relationship. Th ey take the time to learn about each other’s needs and how they can be satisfi ed. Th ey take the time to clarify their feelings. Th ey take the time to share, and in so doing, realize that dealing with problems can be an opportunity to know each other better.

ALLOWS FOR HEALTHY RELEASE OF FEELINGS. When confl icts are resolved in constructive ways, both par- ties are able to air their feelings and leave the situation free of anger and hostility. For example, in a family

A quarrel between friends, when made up, adds a new tie to friendship, as experience shows that the callosity formed round a broken bone makes it stronger than before.


Confl icts can be turned into creative opportunities for more positive relationships.

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306 Chapter 7 Resolving Interpersonal Confl ict

confl ict, unresolved anger and hostility can aff ect a person’s performance at work or school. Likewise, unresolved anger and hostility in a work-related confl ict is frequently brought home and may interfere with family and even social relationships. Talking things out and sharing what is going on are marvelous ways to relieve tension and anxiety (Weiten and Lloyd 2009).

INCREASES MOTIVATION AND SELFESTEEM. When you have been able to resolve a personal confl ict, or make a diffi cult decision, you naturally feel stronger and more motivated to tackle other struggles and diffi cult times. Th ere is a real sense of pride and freedom when you join others and show respect for your rights and the rights of others. As a result, self-esteem is enhanced, and you are more motivated to take other interpersonal risks. In Born for Love, a remarkable book of challenging lessons in loving, Leo Buscaglia (1994) off ers these thoughts:

Ideally, overcoming confl icts is all about adding new insights and acquiring new skills. When we approach obstacles as opportunities for making ourselves over, we not only fi nd solutions, we also immeasurably enhance our general problem-solving abilities as well.

Cathy Birch (1999), in her book Asserting Yourself, stresses that confl icts can be turned into creative opportunities for more positive, healthy, and happy relationships. However, confl ict can be destructive and result in negative outcomes, too.

Negative Effects of Confl ict

How we view confl icts and how we manage them can cause destructive out- comes. DeCenzo and Silhanek (2002) outline two negative eff ects:

THE MANNER IN WHICH WE APPROACH INTERPERSONAL CONFLICT. People generally view confl ict with a belief that there must be a winner and a loser. It is human nature to want to win, just like it is human nature to not want to lose. When people approach a confl ict situation with attitudes of winning and losing, a “tug of war” is oft en proclaimed. Th e net result is oft en one of disaster.

LARGER PROBLEMS AND DEEPER PERSONAL RESENTMENTS MAY OCCUR. Just because you avoid a confl ict or fail to resolve a confl ict does not mean the confl ict is forever gone. It is likely to return again with much greater intensity. You may be less willing to cooperate if you have left over anger or “bad” feelings from a previous confrontation. Failure to deal with confl ict constructively can even “rob” you of a potentially satisfying relationship.

So far, we have been discussing the positive and negative realities of con- fl ict. Th e question now is: when faced with a confl ict, how do you handle it?

What Is Your Style of Confl ict Management?

You are probably thinking that your style of confl ict management depends on the confl ict and who is involved. Although that is probably true, most people have developed a characteristic style of managing confl icts. Th is style has

I f someone is being uncooperative, ask, “Is it

something I’ve done or are you having a rough day?”


J ust as communication is the most important element in a relationship, arguments can be the most destructive element.


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Chapter 7 Resolving Interpersonal Confl ict 307

emerged from our unique personality traits, as well as from what we learned growing up.

Th ink for a moment about how your parents managed confl icts. If your mother cried, sulked, or avoided confrontations, you may fi nd yourself imi- tating her behavior. If your father yelled, intimidated, and dominated others with his anger, you may see some of these traits in your own pattern of con- fl ict management. Th e question then is: How is your style of confl ict manage- ment like and unlike those of your parents?

Actually, most of us go through life responding to confl ict in a natural way that feels good to us. We may be unaware of our particular style and of even what methods we use to resolve interpersonal confl ict. We may continue to use our approach whether it is appropri- ate or not.

Before we discuss the ways of responding to con- fl ict, it might be benefi cial to identify some interper- sonal rights that each person has in interpersonal interactions, whether confl ictual or not. Based on the writings of Smith (2000), Grasha (1997), and Davis et al. (2008), the Consider this on the following page lists a sample of Basic Human Rights.

Now that you know some rights that each person has in interpersonal interactions, what would your answers be to these questions: Is it diffi cult for you to make your wishes known to others? Are you some- times pushed around by others because of your own inability to stand up for yourself ? Do you ever push others around to get what you want? Do you speak your thoughts and feelings in a clear, direct manner, without judging or dictating to others? Do you use clean fi ghting or dirty fi ghting techniques in resolving your confl icts? Th e answers to these ques- tions characterize your behavior style in responding to confl ict.

Behavior Styles

Now, we will return to our earlier question: How do you respond to confl ict? George Bach (1989), a leading authority on confl ict resolution and communi- cation skills, has indicated that people tend to deal with confl ict by using clean fi ghting or dirty fi ghting techniques. Dirty fi ghting techniques can weaken relationships and cause much pain, resentment, and hostility. Table 7.1 shows some of the ways that people engage in dirty fi ghting behavior to resolve confl icts.

Th ere are basically three behavior styles we use in handling opposition and responding to confl ict. Th ese have been classifi ed as passive (also known as nonassertive), aggressive , and assertive. We will now discuss the behaviors, belief systems, advantages, disadvantages, and when it might be appropriate to use each style.

Passive /Nonassertive Style

You may respond to confl ict situations by avoidance . Th at is, you may remove yourself from the situation by leaving, shutting up, placating, concealing

How did your parents manage confl icts?

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ck A person’s individual rights in any relationship are the

same rights he enjoyed before he even knew the other person existed. Rights are not to be bargained for. They simply exist. A relationship’s task is to recognize and protect the rights of both parties.


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308 Chapter 7 Resolving Interpersonal Confl ict

Consider this . . .Consider this . . .

Basic Human Rights

1. The right to say no to a request without feeling guilty 2. The right not to give people reasons for every action you take 3. The right to ask other people to listen to your point of view 4. The right to ask others to correct errors they made that affect you 5. The right to change your mind 6. The right to ask other people to compromise rather than get only

what they want 7. The right to ask others to do things for you 8. The right to persist in making a request if people will not respond the

fi rst time

9. The right to be alone if you wish 10. The right to maintain your dignity in relationships 11. The right to evaluate your own behavior and not just listen to

evaluations that others offer 12. The right to make mistakes and accept responsibility for them 13. The right to avoid manipulation by other people 14. The right to have and express your own feelings and opinions 15. The right to get what you pay for 16. The right to ask for information from professionals 17. The right to choose not to assert yourself 18. The right to set your own priorities 19. The right to be successful 20. The right to be treated with respect

Smith (2000); Grasha (1997); Davis et al. (2008).

T he test of a man or woman’s breeding is how they behave in a quarrel.


Table 7.1 Dirty Fighting Techniques THE KITCHEN SINKER—throws in everything that has been a problem instead of dealing with the specifi c confl ict at hand.

THE BACK STABBER—after agreeing to a solution fails to carry out or express different opinions to parties outside the confl ict.

THE BLAMER—is concerned with assign- ing guilt or placing blame for the confl ict, rather than resolving it.

THE AVOIDER—pretends the confl ict does not exist and refuses to deal with it in an open manner.

THE STAMP COLLECTOR—stores up days or months of hurt feelings and resent- ment and “cashes” them all in at once.

THE MARTYR—attempts to change the other person’s behavior through a guilt-trip, hoping the other person will feel some responsibility for the martyr’s pain.

THE ARMCHAIR PSYCHIATRIST—attempts to read the other person’s mind, making sure to tell the other person why he or she is doing “whatever” they are doing.

THE JOKER—refuses to take the fi ght seriously, laughing at the other person, making a joke, or even avoiding the confl ict.

THE WITHHOLDER—intentionally denies what the other person wants—sex, affec- tion, approval, or anything else that makes life more pleasant for the other person.

THE IRRITATOR—intentionally expresses resentment by doing something that really annoys the other person: smacking gum loudly, turning up the TV too loud, and so on.

THE TRAITOR—openly encourages attacks from outsiders or refuses to defend the partner when he or she is being put down by others.

THE HUMILIATOR—uses intimate knowledge of the other person to “hit” below the belt. This is usually a sensitive issue the other person is trying to overcome.

Bach (1989).

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Chapter 7 Resolving Interpersonal Confl ict 309

your feelings, or postponing a confrontation until a better time (Hocker and Wilmot 2005).

BEHAVIOR DESCRIPTION: When you behave passively, sometimes referred to as submissively , you are usually emotionally dishonest, indirect, and self-denying. You are likely to listen to what has been said and respond very little. Because you do not express your honest feelings, needs, values, and concerns, you actually allow others to violate your space, deny your rights, and ignore your needs. More importantly, you actually demonstrate a lack of respect for your own needs and rights.

BELIEF SYSTEM: Th e message of a submissive person is, “I should never make anyone uncomfortable or displeased except myself. I’ll put up with just about anything from you; my needs and my feelings don’t matter, you can take advantage of me.”

ADVANTAGE: You usually do not experience direct rejection or get blamed for anything. Others may view you as nice, selfl ess, and easy to get along with. Th is approval from others is extremely important to you.

DISADVANTAGE: You are taken advantage of and may store up a heavy load of resentment and anger. You do not get your needs met and other people do not know what you want or need. Consequently, passive people lack deep and enduring friendships. Th ey frequently lose the love and respect of the people they were busy making sacrifi ces for.

Aggressive Style

You may respond to confl icting situations by fi ght. Th at is, you move against another with the intent to hurt. In his book Human Aggression, Geen (2001) refers to the aggressive style as domination .

BEHAVIOR DESCRIPTION: You may literally or verbally attack another person. Typical examples of aggressive behavior are fi ghting, blaming, accusing, threatening, and generally stepping on people without regard for their feel- ings, needs, or ideas. You may be loud, abusive, rude, and sarcastic. You are in this world to intimidate and to overpower other people.

BELIEF SYSTEM: Th e message of an aggressive person is, “I have to put others down in order to protect myself; I must exert my power and control over others. Th is is what I want; what you want is of lesser importance or of no importance at all.”

ADVANTAGE: Other people do not push the aggressive person around, so they seem to wind up getting what they want. Th ey tend to be able to protect themselves and their own space. Th ey appear to be in control of their own life and even the lives of others.

DISADVANTAGE: In the process of gaining control, the other person in the interaction frequently feels humiliated, defensive, resentful, and usually hurt. Others do not want to be around you, and you wind up with an accu- mulation of enemies. Th is causes you to become more vulnerable and fearful of losing what you are fi ghting for: power and control over others. Th erefore, you may create your own destruction.

A re there genuinely nice, sweet people in the world? Yes, and they get angry as often as you and I. They must—otherwise, they would be full of vindictive feelings, which would prevent genuine sweetness.


C utting comments create hostility. HAIM GINOTT

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Assertive Style

You may respond to confl icting situations by moving toward . Th at is, you move toward your opposition until you are either closer together or on the same side. In Th e Encyclopedia of Confl ict Resolution , Heidi and Guy Burgess (1997) indicate this style is used in cooperative (collaborative) problem solving , with some negotiation and compromise along the way.

BEHAVIOR DESCRIPTION: You behave assertively when you stand up for yourself, express your true feelings, and do not let others take advantage of you. However, you are considerate of others’ feelings. Actually, assertion is a manner of acting and reacting in an appropriately honest manner that is direct, self-respecting, self-expressing, and straightforward. You defend your rights and personal space without abusing or dominating other people. Joseph Telushkin (1996), in his powerful book, Words Th at Hurt, Words Th at Heal, expresses these thoughts:

In a dispute with someone, you have the right to state your case, express your opinion, explain why you think the other party is wrong, even make clear how passionately you feel about the subject at hand. But these are the only rights you have. You do not have a moral right to undercut your adversary’s position by invalidating him or her personally. It is unethical to dredge up past information about the person—information with which you’re most likely familiar because of your formerly close association— and use it against that person.

Assertive people simply talk about things in such a way that others will listen and not be off ended, and they give others the opportunity to respond in return (Birch 1999).

BELIEF SYSTEM: Th e message of the assertive person is, “I respect myself, and I have equal respect for others, too. I am not in this world to conform to others’ expectations, and likewise, they are not in this world to conform to my expectations.”

ADVANTAGE: You generally get more of what you want without making other people mad. You do not have to feel wrong or guilty because you ventilated your feelings—you left the door to communication open. Con- sequently, eff ective confrontation is mutually acceptable. From this, you

F our little words that aren’t heard often enough: “You may be right.”


Two roommates had a problem: One of them (A) oft en left dirty dishes in the sink rather than cleaning them up at once. Th is infuriated B, who felt disrespected. For a long time, B suff ered in silence. Eventually, however, B confronted A. B was astounded when A stoutly maintained that is was B’s refusal to let A do the dishes on A’s own schedule that was rude and disrespectful. Now that A and B were talking, however, they discovered they both had unstated beliefs about when dishes should be done—beliefs they had simply assumed the other person knew and had chosen to ignore. Th ey were fi nally able to work out a compromise, though, when they realized that expectations are useless (and even detrimental) until you communicate them.

The Great Dishwashing Controversy

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Table 7.2 Behaviors Exhibited by Assertive, Aggressive and Nonassertive Persons ASSERTIVE AGGRESSIVE NONASSERTIVE

In confl ict situations Communicates directly Dominates Avoids the confl ict

In decision-making situations Chooses for self Chooses for self and others Allows others to choose

In situations expressing feelings Is open, direct, honest, while allowing others to express their feelings

Expresses feelings in a threatening manner; puts down, inhibits others

Holds true feelings inside

In group meeting situations Uses direct, clear “I” statements: “I believe that . . .”

Uses clear but demeaning “you” statements: “You should have known better . . .”

Uses indirect unclear statements: “Would you mind if?”

Adapted from Reece and Brandt (2008).

S arcasm is dirty fi ghting. GEORGE BACH

develop more fulfi lling relationships. Also, because you exercise the power of choice over your actions, you are in a much better position to feel good about yourself. In Asserting Yourself, Sharon and Gordon Bower (2004) remind readers: “Th e extent to which you assert yourself determines the degree of your confi dence and self-esteem.”

DISADVANTAGE: As you become more open, honest, and direct, you also take some real risks in how others will perceive you. Some people have diffi culty with these kinds of exchanges; therefore, you may experience some hurts and disappointments in some of your relationships.

Now that we have discussed the three styles, it might be helpful to note the behaviors exhibited by the three styles in various situations. Table 7.2 lists these behaviors. Th en, we will look at the three styles in action. Th e passive/ nonassertive, aggressive, and assertive styles are illustrated in the following examples of a woman who wants help with the house.

The Styles in Action


Margret: Excuse me, but would you be a sweetie and pick up your clothes in the bathroom?

Charles: I’m reading the paper. Margret: Oh, well, all right.

Analysis: Th e statement “Oh, well, all right” only rewards Charles for postponing Margret’s request. Margret certainly does not get what she wants. She probably feels sorry for herself and may pay him back by giving him the “silent treatment” over dinner.


Margret: I’ve got another thing to tell you. I’ve had it with picking up aft er you and trying to keep this house straight. You either pitch in and help me, or I’m quitting this nonsense.

Charles: Now, calm down, I’m reading the paper. Margret: Did your mother just “wait” on you and treat you like a king? You

don’t give a fl ip about anything around this house, as long as you get to read the daily news whenever you want.

Charles: Now, don’t start in on me about my mother.

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Margret: All you do is come home and relax in the easy chair and grab the paper.

Charles: Shut up! What’s wrong with you?

Analysis: Th e opening statement is an attack, and Margret “relives” hostilities of earlier annoyances. Interactions such as this clearly have no winner, because aggressive behavior hurts another person, creates resent- ment, and guarantees resistance to change.


Margret: I would like for you to pick up your clothes in the bathroom. Charles: I’m reading the paper. Margret: I would feel much better if we shared in keeping the house straight.

You can read the paper when we’re done straightening the house. Charles: I’m almost fi nished with the sports section. Margret: Well, I can start the wash. Will you help me when you are through

reading the sports section? Charles: Sure!

Analysis: Assertive behavior does not aim to injure but to solve an interpersonal problem. Assertive requests include a specifi c goal and the willingness to negotiate a mutually agreeable plan to solve the problem.

It would be unreasonable to expect people to use assertive behavior exclu- sively. Th ere are times when it is wise to be passive and just give in to others; there are times when it is necessary to aggressively defend your rights; there are times when being assertive does not succeed in obtaining its goal. Bolton (1986) views the eff ects of the three behavior styles in this way:

My observation of others and my personal experience leads me to believe that more of a person’s needs will be satisfi ed by being consis- tently assertive than by submissive (passive) or aggressive behavior. In most circumstances, assertive behavior is the most appropriate, eff ective, and constructive way of defending one’s space and fulfi lling one’s needs.

Some individuals use manipulative communication to get what they want from others by making other people feel sorry for them or feel guilty. Th is is not being assertive, but rather shows disrespect for others and yourself, too.

Learning to Be Assertive

Th e main goal of assertiveness training is to help people express their thoughts, feelings, and rights in a way that respects those of others. As you learn to do this, it is important that you become aware of the diff erent types of assertive expressions (Atwater and Duff y 2007).

Basic assertion is learning to stand up for your rights or express your feel- ings, such as saying, “Pardon me, I’d like to fi nish what I was saying.”

Another type of assertiveness is learning to express positive feelings, such as, “I really liked the way you cleaned the car.” Do you have diffi culty in giving compliments, as well as receiving them? Some people do.

You may have to use an escalating type of assertion when people fail to respond to your earlier request. An example here would be, “Th is is the third time I’m going to tell you. I don’t want to change insurance companies.”

O nly I am responsible for my behavior. Only I can change what I do. However, when I change my behavior, I may give the other person in the relationship the opportunity to evaluate his behavior and perhaps modify it.


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Th en, there are occasions when you need to express negative feelings. Th e “I” message , frequently referred to as the focal point of learning to be asser- tive, is a way of expressing yourself eff ectively before you become angry and act in self-defeating ways.

THE “I” MESSAGE. According to Th omas Gordon (2000), an “I” message has four parts: 1) an objective, nonjudgmental description of the person’s behav- ior in specifi c terms, 2) how I feel about this, 3) the concrete eff ects on me; and 4) a request and an invitation to respond. Let us look at each part.

1. An objective, nonjudgmental description of the person’s behavior in specifi c terms. Th ere are four guidelines to help you deliver an eff ective behavior description.

First, describe the person’s behavior in specifi c terms, rather than fuzzy, unclear words. For example,


Specifi c Fuzzy When you frequently call When you frequently call aft er 11 o’clock at night . . . me late at night . . .

Th e person you are angry with may have a diff erent idea of what late means. Th erefore, if you want your needs to be met, you will need to give the exact time you consider too late to receive a phone call.

Second, do not add your thoughts and perceptions about the other person’s motives, attitudes, character, and so on. It is human nature to describe another person’s behavior by stating what you think the other person intended. Th is causes defensiveness, whereas describing what a person actually did creates an atmosphere for further communication.

Th ird, make your behavior description an objective statement, rather than a judgment. Assertion messages avoid character assassinations, blame, sarcasm, or profanity.

Fourth, behavioral descriptions should be as brief as possible. Th e longer your message is, the more likely you will not be heard and under- stood. Also, there is less tendency for others to judge and evaluate when you keep your message simple. One sentence is ample.

2. How I feel about this. Once you have identifi ed what your real feel- ings are, you must take the responsibility for your own feelings. Th is means you say, “I feel angry or disappointed,” rather than “You made me feel angry or disappointed.” Continuing with the late-night calls as an example, we now have the following:

When you call me aft er 11:00 o’clock at night, I feel angry.

3. Th e concrete eff ects on me. People may not be aware of how their behavior is aff ecting you. In most instances, they are not deliberately trying to annoy or frustrate you. Once they become aware of how their behavior aff ects you, they are usually more considerate. Our example now becomes:

When you call me aft er 11:00 o’clock at night, I feel angry, because I am awakened by your calls at least twice a week.

4. A request and an invitation to respond. Simply stated, this means that you use “I” messages and tell others what behavior you would like for them to substitute the next time a similar exchange occurs. Be sure and express your request in one or two simple sentences. It is important

W hen people won’t let you alone, it’s because you haven’t learned how to make them do it.
















Just like Margret, we all “boil”

at different temperatures. Where do you

fit in?

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314 Chapter 7 Resolving Interpersonal Confl ict

to be fi rm, specifi c, and kind. Th en, give the person an invitation to respond to your request. Also, where possible, give a positive response for the agreement. Some examples might be: “We’ll have more time together . . .”; “We’ll have a neater house . . .”; “We’ll save money . . .”; “I’ll be able to get my work in on time . . .”; I’ll be less tired and more fun to be with . . .”; and so on. Our example now looks like this:

When you call me aft er 11:00 o’clock at night, I feel angry, because I am awakened by your call at least twice a week. I’d like you to call before 10:00 o’clock, except in an emergency. Will you agree to that? Th en, we can have a much more pleasant conversation .

To be sure that you understand each part of the “I” message, review the examples in Table 7.3 . You will notice that these “I” messages do not attack or blame the other person. Instead “I” messages are a way of expressing your sincere feelings and requests in a way that encourages others to listen and cooperate.

Suggestions for Delivering an Assertive “I” Message

Alberti and Emmons (2008) off ers three suggestions for improving the suc- cess of assertive “I” messages.

WRITE AND PRACTICE YOUR MESSAGE BEFORE DELIVERING IT. Th is will give you an opportunity to review two important questions: 1) Is it likely to arouse defensiveness in the other person? 2) Are you likely to get your needs met with this assertion?

DEVELOP ASSERTIVE BODY LANGUAGE WITH YOUR “I” MESSAGE. In order to assure that your verbal message is congruent with your nonverbal behavior, you will need to (Review chapter fi ve for more details):

maintain direct eye contact maintain an erect body posture





1. When you call me after 11:00 o’clock at night . . .

I feel angry . . . because I am awakened by your call at least twice a week.

I would like you to call before 10:00 o’clock, except in an emergency. Will you agree to that? If so . . .

2. When you are late picking me up from school . . .

I feel frustrated . . . because I waste a lot of time waiting for you.

I would like to be picked up on time. Will you agree? If so . . .

3. When you do not put your dirty clothes in the hamper . . .

I feel irritated . . . because it makes extra work for me when I do the wash.

I would like you to put your dirty clothes in the hamper each day. Will you agree to that? Then . . .

4. When you borrow my car and bring it home on “empty” . . .

I feel annoyed . . . because I have to get gas before I can even go to work.

I would like you to refi ll the tank with as much gas as you use. Will you? If so . . .

Remember: You can arrange the four parts of the “I” message in a way that is natural and fi ts your personal style. For example, I feel irritated when you do not put your dirty clothes in the hamper because it makes extra work for me when I do the wash. I would like you to put your dirty clothes in the hamper each day. Will you agree to that? Then, we will have more time together.

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Chapter 7 Resolving Interpersonal Conflict 315

speak clearly, fi rmly, and have suffi cient volume to be heard emphasize your message with appropriate gestures and facial expressions do not whine or have an apologetic tone to your voice.

DON’T BE SIDETRACKED BY THE DEFENSIVENESS OR MANIPULATION OF OTHERS. Th is can be accomplished by using the broken-record technique — calmly repeating your point without getting sidetracked by irrelevant issues. Some examples might be:

Yes, but . . .; Yes, I know, but my point is . . .; I agree, but . . .; Yes, but I was saying . . .; Right, but I’m still not interested.

Remember, persistence is one of the keys to eff ective assertion. One of the main reasons why people do not get their needs met when they assert is because they give up or give in aft er the fi rst defensive or manipulative response of the other person (Communication Research Associates 2005).

How to Say No without Feeling Guilty

Th ere is a rampant myth in our culture that to be considered nice, you have to say yes all the time. Perhaps you don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings or you don’t want another person to be upset with you. When we keep saying yes , resentment and anger build. It is possible to develop the skills to say no with confi dence, kindness, and peace of mind. And, you can have more time, more space, more effi ciency, and control over your life. In How to Say No without Feeling Guilty: And Say Yes to More Time, More Joy, and What Matters Most to You , Patti Breitman et al. (2001) give these pointers:

Start small. Practice saying no in nonthreatening encounters, where little is at stake and success is almost assured.

Examples: Tell your best friend you don’t want to go to her favorite restaurant . . . then suggest another. Tell your son he can’t have more ice cream before bedtime.

Keep it simple. Th e most eff ective “nos” are the least complicated. Th e more details you supply, the more likely the other person will try to change your mind.

Furthermore, if you supply too many details, the other person may feel your “excuse” isn’t good enough.

Examples: Say no to requests for money in simple language, without off ering a reason—I wish I could, but I can’t. Say no to someone who wants to change shift s with you by simply saying, I have plans.

Buy time when responding to requests. It relieves pressure when you’re not sure how to say no diplomatically . . . or simply need more time to make a decision.

Examples: I’ll check my calendar and get back to you . . . Let me ask my wife, husband, friend, etc. about their plans for that day.

Remain generous. Saying no without guilt is much easier when it is done in the context of generosity. Th is means being helpful and available to

P eace cannot be kept by force. It can only be achieved by understanding.


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316 Chapter 7 Resolving Interpersonal Confl ict

family, friends, and coworkers whenever you can—as long as it doesn’t cause you signifi cant stress or inconvenience.

Examples: I’m sorry I can’t go shopping with you this weekend. Give me a call again. I can’t help you with the fundraiser this time, but perhaps I can next time.

Understand your Yes . You will feel most confi dent saying no if you have a strong vision of what to say yes to. Why are you saying no to a particular request? What obligation or priority are you trying to make room for?

Remember, once you stop investing the better part of yourself doing things you don’t want to do or being with people you don’t want to see, you can focus your actions on your core beliefs, priorities, and passions. Saying no is a powerful form of assertive behavior.

So far, we have discussed the passive, aggressive, and assertive behavior styles used in interpersonal confl ict. Added to these diff erent behavior styles are two powerful variables that aff ect the way people manage confl ict: gender and culture. We will now discuss each of these factors.

Gender and Confl ict Management

You will recall that in chapter fi ve, we discussed the diff erent communica- tion styles that men and women use. We indicated that males are likely to speak and understand a language of “status and independence,” while females are likely to speak and understand a language of “connection and intimacy.” Th ese diff erent communication styles obviously lead to diff erent approaches in dealing with confl ict.

GENDER DIFFERENCES. Actually, these diff erences can be seen in childhood. For example, males are more likely to be aggressive, demanding, and competitive, while females are more cooperative.

Studies of children from preschool to early adoles- cence reveal some interesting patterns (Barleson 1994). For example, boys try to get their way by ordering one another around: “Lie down.” “Get off my steps.” “Gimme your arm.” Girls, on the other hand, are more likely to make proposals for action, using the words “let’s” and “we”: “Let’s go fi nd some,” “Let’s ask her,” “Do you have any bottles?” or “Let’s go around the restaurant.” Further- more, guys tend to tell each other what role to take in pretend play (“Come on, be a doctor”); girls more oft en

ask each other what role they want (“Will you be the patient for a few minutes?”), or make a joint proposal (“We can both

be doctors”). Also, boys oft en make demands without off ering an explanation (“Look, man. I want the pliers right now”). Girls, however, oft en give reasons for their suggestions (“We gotta clean them fi rst . . . cause they got germs”). Girls simply attempt to infl uence what the others do without telling them what to do. Deborah Tannen (2001) views this diff erence in childhood language as being the diff erent social structures of girls and boys, and women and men:

In the hierarchical order that guys and men fi nd or feel themselves in, status is indeed gained by telling others what to do and resisting

Gender differences start at a young age—females tend to be more cooperative.

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Chapter 7 Resolving Interpersonal Confl ict 317



being told what to do. But girls and women fi nd or feel themselves in a community that is threatened by confl ict, so they formulate requests as proposals rather than orders to make it easy for others to express other preferences without provoking a confrontation. If a man struggles to be strong, a woman struggles to keep the community strong.

Th ese diff erences oft en persist into adulthood. M. J. Collier’s (1991) sur- vey of college students revealed that, regardless of cultural background, men and women view confl icts in contrasting ways. From this study, female stu- dents described men as being concerned with power and more interested in content than relational issues. By contrast, women were described as being more concerned with maintaining the relationship during a confl ict. Do you agree or disagree with what the college students said?

A look at the entire body of research on gender and confl ict suggests that the diff erences in how the two sexes handle confl ict are actually rather small. Although men and women may have characteristically diff erent confl ict styles, the individual style of each communicator—regardless of gender—and the nature of the relationship are more important than gender in shaping the way he or she handles confl ict (Adler and Proctor 2007).

LEARNING FLEXIBILITY. Tannen (2001) suggests that when one’s habitual style is not working, trying harder by doing more of the same will not solve problems. She advises men and women to adopt some fl exibility in their styles. For example, women who avoid confl ict at all costs would be better off if they learned that a little confl ict will not kill them. And, men who habitu- ally take oppositional stances would be better off if they broke their addiction to confl ict. Aft er all, because people are diff erent, not only in gender but in cultural background, diff erences in attitudes toward verbal opposition will persist among friends, lovers, and fellow workers. Frustration can be reduced by simply realizing that what seems like unfair or irrational behavior may just be the result of a diff erent style in approaching confl ict.

Culture and Confl ict Management

Diff erent cultures oft en defi ne and deal with confl ict in diff erent ways. When individuals from diff erent cultures face a confl ict, their normal, habitual

W e fi nd comfort among those who agree with us—growth among those who don’t.


W e meet naturally on the basis of our sameness and grow on the basis of our differentness.


Who Makes the Decisions at Home? Of the 1,260 individuals surveyed in 2008—either married or living together—women wield more

decision-making power at home.

In 43% of the couples, women made more decisions—almost twice as many as men—in the four areas Pew surveyed: planning weekend activities, household fi nances, major home purchases, and TV watching.

The survey also found that 43% of men don’t have the fi nal say in any of those decisions; they either share the decision making or defer to their partners.

As for household fi nances, the Pew study found that couples disagree on who has the greater infl uence. About 45% of women surveyed said they manage the family’s money; 37% of the men say they manage it.

Older couples are more likely than younger couples to make a decision together, the study found. More than a third of those 65 or older said they share in the decision-making in at least three or four areas.

Pew Research Center (2008).

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318 Chapter 7 Resolving Interpersonal Confl ict

communication patterns may not blend smoothly. An example of the chal- lenge faced by an American husband and his Chinese wife is illustrated above (Fontaine 1999). What do you think this couple can do to more eff ectively deal with confl ict? With their cultural diff erences, will they be able to fi nd a confl ict style that is comfortable for them both?

Ting-Toomey and Oetzel (2002) suggest that the way in which people manage confl ict varies depending on their cultural background. Th at is, high- context and low-context cultures manage confl ict quite diff erently.

HIGHCONTEXT CULTURES. Th ese cultures value self-restraint, avoid con- frontation, rely heavily on nonverbal systems, and give a great deal of mean- ing to the relationships between communicators. Preserving and honoring the face of the other person is a prime goal, and communicators go to great lengths to avoid any communication that might risk embarrassing a conver- sational partner. Th e Japanese, Chinese, Asian, and Latin American cultures are examples of high-context cultures. Japanese, for example, are reluctant to say “no” to a request. Th ey will probably respond with, “Let me think about it for a while,” which anyone familiar with Japanese culture would recognize as a refusal (Adler and Proctor 2007).

LOWCONTEXT CULTURES. Th ese cultures use more explicit language, are more direct in their meanings, rely less on nonverbal systems, and stress goals and outcomes more than relationships. Examples include the German, Swedish, American, and English cultures. Individuals in low-context cultures manage confl ict more directly. Th ey are more confrontational and more goal oriented rather than being relationally focused, and they are less concerned about “saving face.” Th erefore, confl ict in low-context cultures is more open, volatile, and threatening than high-context confl ict (Gudykunst 2003).

Let’s get back to our example of the American husband and the Chinese wife. Th e husband from a low-context culture and the wife from a high-context culture were simply responding to their cultural learning of how to deal with confl ict. For example, when indirect communication (that used by the wife) is a cultural norm, it is unreasonable to expect more straightforward approaches to succeed (that used by the husband). Can the husband learn to be cautious in his straightforward approach and more attuned to his wife’s nonverbal sig- nals? Can the wife be more verbally direct without relying so much on her nonverbal signals to express her real feelings?

How Would You Handle This Cultural Confl ict?

The husband would typically try to confront his wife verbally and directly (as is typical in the United States), leading her to either become violently defensive or withdraw completely from the discussion. She, on the other hand, would attempt to indicate her displeasure by changes in mood and eye contact (typical of Chinese

culture) that were either not noticed or uninterpretable by her husband. Thus, neither “his way” nor “her way” was working and they could not see any realistic way

to “compromise.”

Fontaine (1999).





H atred is never ended but by love, and a misunderstand- ing is never ended by an argument but by tact, diplomacy, concilia- tion, and a sympathetic desire to see the other person’s viewpoint.


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Chapter 7 Resolving Interpersonal Confl ict 319

One thing is for sure, a mutual understanding about their cultural attitudes towards verbal confl ict may result in less frustration in the future. Yes, con- fl icts will still arise, but at least they can be arguing about real confl icts of interest rather than fi ghting styles.

Strategies for Handling Confl ict

When you approach a confl ict situation, you can choose to avoid the situation, fi ght with use of power and force, or move toward, using negotiation skills (Adler and Rodman 2008). Most research indicates that in deciding how to handle confl ict, two distinct factors come into play: assertiveness; the degree to which you want to have your own way or satisfy your own interest and cooperativeness; the degree to which you are concerned about maintaining the relationship or satisfying the concerns of others (Rahim & Magner 1995).

Th erefore, depending on the levels of assertiveness and cooperativeness, there are fi ve general strategies for handling confl ict: avoiding, accommo- dating, competing/forcing, compromising, and collaborating (Hocker and Wilmot 2005). See Table 7.4 .

AVOIDING STRATEGY LOSELOSE. In this approach, individuals attempt to passively ignore the confl ict rather than resolve it. Th ey may avoid the confl ict by refusing to take a stance, physically leaving it, or escaping the confl ict by men- tally leaving the confl ict. Oft en, people who use this strategy hope that ignoring the problem will make it go away. If the relationship is not very important or the confl ict is very minor, it may just be wise to avoid the confrontation. However, if the relationship is important or the confl ict is much greater, avoiding the confl ict generally results in greater misunderstandings, resentments, hurt feelings, and more confl icts. Unfortunately, avoiders have a low concern for self and others, and a lose-lose situation is created because the confl ict is not resolved.

ACCOMMODATING STRATEGY LOSEWIN. When using this strategy, individu- als attempt to resolve the confl ict by passively giving in to the other party. Th e accommodating approach is unassertive and cooperative. Individuals who use this strategy prefer harmony to confl ict, desire to be liked, and believe that confl ict is damaging to relationships. If you don’t have strong preferences

B ehavior is a mirror in which everyone shows his image. GOETHE

Table 7.4 The Thomas-Kilman Confl ict Model Competing Forcing (Win-Lose) Collaborating (Win-Win)

Confrontational, assertive, and aggressive. Must win at any cost.

Needs of both parties are legitimate and important. High respect for mutual support. Assertive and cooper

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