Conflict Research Consortium
University of Colorado, USA


Interpersonal Conflict, Joyce Hocker and William Wilmot, 2nd ed. rev., (Dubuque, Iowa: Wm. C. Brown Publishers, 1985), 236 pp.

Interpersonal Conflict explores the factors that contribute to interpersonal conflict, with particular attention to the communication behavior of the conflicting parties. It describes general techniques for interpersonal conflict management. An appendix lists sources for conflict measurement scales, and for educational exercises and simulations.

Chapter One describes the nature of conflict. The authors first identify and dispel misconceptions about conflict. These include beliefs that conflict is abnormal or pathological and should be avoided or minimized, and that conflicts are the result of failures of communication, or of personality clashes. They explore various common images of conflict, such as conflict as war, as a trial, as a ball game, or as an upward struggle. The first chapter concludes with a description of the elements of conflict, and the distinction between productive and destructive conflicts. "From a communications standpoint, conflict is an expressed struggle between at least two interdependent parties who perceive incompatible goals, scarce resources, and interference from the other party in achieving their goals."(p. 23) Destructive conflicts are those where the parties are unhappy with the outcomes and feel that they have lost. Destructive conflicts often escalate and destroy relationships. Productive conflicts leave the parties feeling satisfied. Productive conflicts involve creating a collaborative transformation of the elements of the conflict.

Chapter Two explores various styles of conflict, and suggests methods of adapting or "unfreezing" such styles. Individuals develop typical ways of responding to conflict, although they can learn new patterns. The competitive style is aggressive and uncooperative, focused on winning. The collaborative style combines assertiveness in pursuing ones own goals with respect and concern for the other party's goals. Non-cooperative, non-aggressive people typically try to avoid conflict. Cooperative, non-aggressive people tend to accommodate the other party. The compromising style is intermediate between these styles. An alternative approach is to view the parties' interactions in conflict as a system, and to describe common system response styles. Sometimes people become stuck in one style of response. Effective conflict managers are flexible in the responses, and better able to fit their response to the situation.

In Chapter Three the authors discuss the role of power in interpersonal conflict. Power is pervasive in conflict situations, although parties typically deny that they are using it. Bases of individual power in conflict include expertise, resource control, interpersonal linkages, personal qualities, and intimacy. The authors argue that power arises from interdependency in interpersonal relationships, and in itself is neither positive nor negative. One key to making conflict productive is to achieve a relative power balance between the parties. Productive ways to balance power include empowering the weaker party, having the stronger party limit their own power or increase their dependence on the weaker party, or strengthening the parties commitment to maintaining their relationship.

Chapter Four turns to the issue of goals in conflict. Incompatible goals are part of every conflict. Also, goals may change over the course of a conflict. Clarifying those goals is both an important first step toward conflict resolution, and a process that should continue throughout the conflict course. Transforming incompatible goals into collaborative goals is necessary for making conflicts productive. The authors describe four tactics for building collaborative goals. Parties must separate people from the problem. They should focus on interests rather than on positions. Parties should generate a variety of options before deciding what to do. Finally, results should be evaluated based upon an objective standard.

Chapter Five discusses some of the strategic choices available to conflicting parties. The basic choice is whether to avoid or engage in conflict. The authors describe both avoidance tactics and engagement tactics. Ways to avoid conflict include denial, being unresponsive or under-responding, changing the topic, joking, shifting discussion to a very abstract level, making ambivalent or pessimistic statements, and focusing on semantic or procedural issues to the exclusion of substantive ones. Sometimes people use avoidance tactics as a strategy to get what they want without engaging in overt conflict. Engagement tactics may be either competitive or collaborative. Competitive tactics are aimed at winning the conflict. 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. Collaborative tactics are aimed at finding a mutually favorable solution. Collaborative tactics include describing events, disclosing things the other party cannot observe and soliciting their disclosure, soliciting complaints, empathizing, accepting responsibility, emphasizing commonalities, and initiating problem solving. Which tactics are used affects the course of the conflict. Collaborative tactics foster productive conflict.

Chapters Six through Eight focus on techniques for intervention into and resolution of conflicts. Chapter Six describes ways of assessing conflict and identifying conflict patterns. Systems theory analyzes conflicts in terms of roles, processes, and patterns. It seeks to discover the rules that govern the system's behavior, and the function that the conflict serves. There are various approaches to identifying conflict patterns. Metaphoric/dramatic approaches seek to uncover how the parties' understand their conflict by investigating the metaphors and imagery that they use. Multiparty conflicts can be analyzed using conflict triangles, which map the three-party dynamics of the conflict. "Sculpting, or choreographing, is a nonverbal method of demonstrating the structure of a conflict by having each member of the conflict arrange other members in a tableau that physically symbolizes their emotional relationships with each other."(p. 139) Analysis of microevents--repetitive behavioral structures--can also give insight into the larger conflict pattern. The authors conclude by offering two comprehensive, step-by-step guides to conflict assessment.

Chapter Seven introduces self-regulation as a technique for influencing conflicts from the "inside," as a participant. Parties can influence a conflict by changing the other party, by changing the conflict conditions, or by changing themselves. Attempts to change the other party are most common and least effective. Changing the circumstances can be effective, but is not always possible. Changing or regulating one's own behavior is always possible, and can be highly effective. Techniques for self-regulation include the use of fractionation, the Graduated Reduction in Tension (GRIT) process, and conflict containment. Fractionation breaks a large, unwieldy conflict down into smaller, more manageable parts. The Graduated Reduction in Tension (GRIT) technique calls for making small, explicit, unilateral tension reducing gestures, and inviting the other party to reciprocate. The goal is to initiate a tension-reducing spiral. Stuart's conflict containment model emphasizes three steps: focus on the present, adopt a conciliatory mindset, seek solutions in small steps. Negotiating, either overtly or tacitly, is a common and effective way of influencing conflicts.

Chapter Eight describes external interventions in conflict by third parties. The authors describe an intervention continuum, ranging from informal to formal. For instance, friends and family may intervene informally in a marriage conflict. Sometimes marriages require the formal services of a professional counselor, or of an attorney. Interventions, formal or informal, follow the same general process. First, the third party must identify the situation as one that needs intervention. The third party must decide with the conflict participants whether to intervene. The third part must negotiate their role in the conflict, while being careful to maintain their neutrality and avoid taking sides. Taking sides shifts one from being a third party, to being a participant in the conflict. The intervening party must assess the conflict, design an intervention, and choose appropriate intervention tactics. To be effective the intervening party must have excellent communication skills. They must gain control of the process and transform the conflict elements. Finally the third party must assess their intervention, and exit the situation. Formal modes of intervention include adjudication, mediation, and arbitration. In adjudication the conflicting parties submit their conflict to a judge or jury, which then decides the case. In arbitration the conflicting parties choose a neutral third party to decide the outcome of their conflict. Mediators help the parties to negotiate, and reach their own mutual agreement.

Copyright 2000 Conflict Research Consortium

Conflict Research Consortium
Campus Box 580, University of Colorado, Boulder, Colorado, USA 80309-0580
Phone: 303-492-1635; Fax: 303-499-0354; E-mail: