By Joyce Hocker and William WIlmot
This Article Summary written by: Conflict Research Consortium Staff
Citation: Hocker, Joyce, and William Wilmot. "Conflict Tactics", Chapter Five in Interpersonal Conflict, 2nd ed. rev. (Dubuque, Iowa: Wm. C. Brown Publishers, 1985), pp. 107-126.
Chapter Five discusses some of the strategic choices available to conflicting parties. Parties are more likely to strategize, that is, plan, in the face of difficult conflicts. Parties may strategize in advance of a conflict. They may revise their strategy during the course of the conflict. And they may engage in retrospective strategizing as they review a past conflict.
The basic strategic choice is whether to avoid or engage in conflict. Some people generally prefer to avoid conflicts, while others prefer to engage. Both options are appropriate in different situations. Avoiding conflict over trivial issues can strengthen a relationship. Avoiding significant issues can lead to stress and, eventually, uncontrollable conflict. When one party seeks to avoid conflict and the other seeks to engage, the original disagreement can be supplanted by a conflict over whether to conflict.
The authors describe both avoidance tactics and engagement tactics. One way to avoid conflict is to deny that any conflict is occurring. High power parties sometimes use this tactic, because addressing the conflict would require them to negotiate and share power. Related tactics include being unresponsive or under-responding to the other party, changing the topic, or non-hostile joking about the situation rather than addressing it seriously. Parties may avoid addressing a conflict by shifting discussion to a very abstract level--referring to "the way things go" or what "people" would think. Conversely, parties may focus on semantic or procedural issues, nitpicking on technicalities to the exclusion of substantive issues. Parties may make ambivalent or pessimistic statements, which indicate that addressing the conflict would be fruitless. Sometimes people use avoidance tactics as a strategy to get what they want without engaging in overt conflict. The strategy is to charm or trick the other into doing what you want without directly asking them.
Engagement tactics may be either competitive or collaborative, or, as they are sometimes labeled, distributive or integrative. Competitive or distributive tactics are aimed at securing the greater share of resources and so winning the conflict. Competitive parties pursue their self-interest at the expense of others' interests. Competitive tactics aim at coercing the other party, rather than gaining their agreement. Competitive tactics include fault-finding and rejecting the other party's statements, hostile questioning and joking, minimizing one's own responsibility, attributing attitudes to the other party, demanding changes in the other's behavior, threats, and even the use of violence. Threats, and the related tactics of warnings, recommendations and promises, are the most basic of the competitive tactics. To be effective, threats must be credible. The threatening party must be able and willing to create the threatened negative consequence. The threatened party must actually perceived the impending consequence as negative or undesirable.
Collaborative, or integrative, tactics are aimed at finding a mutually favorable solution, and securing both parties' agreement. Collaborative parties assume that both parties can "win," and that it is possible to pursue both one's own and another's interests at the same time. One collaborative tactics is to describe events as objectively as possible, without evaluation, interpretation, or attributing attitudes to others. Another tactic is to qualify statements to make them more precise. Collaborative parties may disclose information that the other party cannot observe or did not know. They may also solicit such disclosures from the other party. Collaborative parties seek negative feedback and invite complaints about themselves. Many people find it difficult to give negative feedback directly. Actively soliciting complaints helps others to voice their concerns and prevents them from resorting to less productive avoidance tactics. Other collaborative tactics include empathizing with the other party, accepting responsibility, emphasizing commonalties, and initiating problem solving.
Which tactics are used affects the course of the conflict. The pattern of tactics determines whether the conflict is escalating, maintaining, or reducing in intensity. Generally, conflicts go through different stages of intensity. Often, tactics are reciprocated. For instance, competitive tactics tend to be reciprocated. A pattern of competitive tactics escalates a conflict. A pattern of mutual avoidance can create a de-escalatory spiral, which in turn can lead to the end of the relationship. Collaborative tactics are needed to preserve a relationship through conflict, and are more likely to lead to productive conflict management. The authors suggest: "When in doubt, collaborate."(p. 125)