Conflict and Interaction
By Joseph P. Folger, Marshall Scott Poole, and Randall Stutman
This Article Summary written by: Mariya Yevsyukova, Conflict Research Consortium
Joseph P. Folger, Marshall Scott Poole, and Randall Stutman, "Conflict and Interaction," in Bridges Not Walls, ed. John Stewart, 6th edition, (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1995), pp. 402-410.
The authors observe that conflicts may be either destructive or productive. They describe the nature of conflict generally, and then examine those features which make conflicts productive or destructive.
All conflict is marked by some degree of tension, uncertainty, and unpleasantness. The conflict situation is usually fragile, in that seemingly trivial occurrences may have profound effects on the direction of the conflict. Additionally, conflicts which end badly tend to be more memorable than those which end well. Because of these elements, people tend to have a negative view of conflict, and seek to suppress or avoid it. Theorists stress the productive potential of conflict, in order to counter this tendency.
The authors define conflict as "the interaction of interdependent people who perceive incompatible goals and interference from each other in achieving those goals."[p. 404] This definition stresses the interactive nature of conflict. Conflict interactions range from include overt confrontation and competition to attempts to suppress and avoid confrontation. Conflicts may occur in almost any social situation, and range in importance from trivial to profound.
The authors also stress that conflict centers around the perception of incompatible goals and interference. Conflict will occur even when such perceptions are not be accurate in fact. Moreover, conflict may occur even when parties lack a clear understanding of their own goals. While some conflicts may be based solely in misperception or miscommunication, the authors believe that most conflict rest on actual incompatibilities.
Parties to a conflict are interdependent. Each party's actions have an effect on the other, either aiding or hindering the other in their interests. In the conflict situation, this interdependence manifests itself through a mixture of incentives to either compete or cooperate. The parties perceptions of each other's motives can affect the balance of incentives. The authors note that "the balance of incentives to compete or cooperate is important in determining the direction the conflict interaction takes."[p. 406]
Productive and Destructive Conflict
The authors begin by describing the sociological distinction between realistic and unrealistic conflicts. Realistic conflicts focus on substantive issues of disagreement. The goal is to resolve the disagreement. Participants generally draw upon a wide array of techniques to address such conflicts. This flexibility in approaching conflict is a characteristic of productive conflicts.
In contrast, the goal of nonrealistic conflicts is the defeat or destruction of the opponent. Participants usually employ force, aggression and coercion. Their approach is inflexible, and this inflexibility often leads to escalation of the conflict. Inflexibility is a mark of destructive conflict.
Productive conflicts seek a resolution which provides some satisfaction to all involved parties. They often have a win-win orientation. Generally parties are willing to work through their differences, until a mutually satisfactory solution is found.
Destructive conflicts often seek the defeat of one another. They tend to have a win-lose orientation. The authors caution that the use of voting to settle conflicts can trigger a win-lose mentality, and so may promote destructive conflict.
Both forms of conflict may involve intense competition over strongly held positions. Such competition becomes destructive when the positions become polarized, and parties become cemented into their respective positions.
Understanding Conflict as Interaction
The authors argue that conflicts are not entirely under any party's control. Conflicts should be viewed in terms of behavioral cycles which have features independent of the mere sum of the individual's actions. Such behavioral patterns tend to form self-reinforcing cycles - patterns of escalation, for example.
The parties' behaviors are both reactive and predictive. Participants react to the other's last move, in anticipation of their next. This predictive element involves interpreting the other's motives, and can make it quite difficult to understand the thinking of parties in conflict. It can also produce an infinite spiral, as I try to predict what you will predict that I will predict about your predictions about my predictions, and so on.