Understanding ‘what causes conflict?” includes understanding both cause and effect dynamics as well as individual differences across the whole spectrum of human behaviour and experience.
Whenever two or more people interact at work or in their personal lives it is natural and inevitable that various kinds of disagreements will arise as individual differences come into play. What upsets you may not upset your partner or work colleague. Similarly what you value as extremely important may not be important at all to someone else. Conditions for disagreements are heightened when one or both parties are rigid, inflexible or judgemental.
People have misunderstandings and ‘get things wrong’ either through different perceptions, or faulty interpretations or through inaccurate, inadequate or unskillful communication.
Conflict is often caused through inaccurate or unchecked facts and information. A person can either intentionally or unintentionally misrepresent information or events. Not surprisingly, as more people become involved in a disagreement or in a set of opposing positions or viewpoints, the more complex and entrenched the conflict becomes and it can escalate and spread very quickly.
Another important cause of conflict relates to power dynamics. Conflict is virtually inevitable when there is a power imbalance, for example if a partner or colleague is very controlling or you feel disempowered or treated unjustly in some way, especially if this impacts on your needs, rights or values.
The source and evolution of conflict usually involves one or more of the following five fundamentals of human experience and behavior:
- Information processing. We process information differently. This includes how and what we perceive (both what we see, what we hear and what we experience), how we interpret what we see or hear or experience, and how we then communicate our views and experience to other people.
- Needs. Needs have great power to evoke strong emotion and people are more likely to engage in conflict in direct relationship to how pressing and critical their needs are in the situation. A parent can be ferocious in their need to protect their child. The needs for respect or support or financial security frequently cause conflict in personal relationships.
- Fears. Fears, like needs, have tremendous power to ignite and escalate conflict. If your livelihood is threatened for example, you are likely to be in conflict with those whom you believe are responsible for creating the situation.
- Values. The more important a value is to a person or group, the more power it has to fuel conflict. Religious and ethical conflicts for example are based in differences in values.
- Skills. Skills such as communication skills, decision making skills and problem solving skills are central to both creating conditions for conflict, as well as playing an essential role in effectively resolving conflict. For example a common cause of conflict is ‘not being listened to’ or having your concerns dismissed or not acknowledged or validated.
Conflict itself is not necessarily a problem as it often highlights issues that need to be addressed. When conflict is handled skilfully, it can be an opportunity for improvements, growth and positive change in the workplace or within your personal relationships.
Conflict only becomes a problem when the disagreements are prolonged and have been unable to be effectively resolved.
You can read more here about conflict resolution strategies here.