In human relationships, conflict is almost inevitable. This is because individuals do have a wide range of potential differences and if there is no conflict, they would not interact meaningfully. Conflict can be defined as a situation where there is goal or value incompatibility between two parties or more in a relationship. Conflict may be actual or perceived and as such, differences or incompatibility may be perceived or real (Fisher, 2000). Therefore, the main purpose of this paper is to discuss the concept of conflict management, causes of conflict, conflict lifecycles, basic conflict management styles, and research gaps in conflict management.
Concept of conflict management
Conflict management encompasses activities that attempt to prevent, limit, resolve or transform conflict by use of non-violent ways. This may take an approach of preventing a conflict from occurring or escalating. It may also involve stopping or lessening the magnitude of the conflict between parties involved (United States Institute of Peace, n.d). Conflict management is defined as mitigating, limiting, and or containing a conflict while solving or not solving it. Conflict management is often confused with conflict resolution. Conflict resolution is defined as the process of addressing underlying incompatibilities in an existing conflict and promoting mutual acceptance of responsibility of each party’s existence (Swanstrom & Weissmann, 2005). From a careful look, it will be found that the conflict management process is the basis for effective conflict resolution.
William Zartman (2000) argues that in a conflict both conflict management and conflict resolution are needed for getting positive results. He further maintains that these two acts as both ends yet still part of the same continuum where one end attempts to resolve ongoing conflict to facilitate peace while the other focuses on addressing deeper underlying causes of conflict over time ( Zartman, 2000). Therefore, conflict management and conflict resolution emerge as two different concepts though very closely interrelated. They are both important in addressing conflicts at different stages of conflict lifecycles (Swanstrom & Weissmann, 2005).
Causes of conflict
One of the possible causes of conflict is power. The use of power is evident where parties involved in the conflict try to maintain a high amount of influence in a social setting and the relationship. In such a scenario one of the conflicting parties is likely to exert power over the weaker one. It is also possible that instead of a victory and defeat situation, a stand-off that results in heightened tension may occur. Power conflict can manifest itself between persons, groups, or nations where one or more of such parties decide to have a relationship that has a power approach (Fisher, 2000).
Another likely cause of conflict is value. Values are considered to be beliefs or principles that people hold so dear to them. Such value difference arises due to diverse backgrounds where individuals have been brought up and also as a result of past individuals ‘experiences. Value incompatibility can cause serious conflicts. International conflicts are also often a result of value components where each of the parties tries to assert superiority and the rightness of its way of life. Economic needs form another cause of conflict. They can trigger conflict eruption due to scarcity of resources that lead to competing motives to secure these resources. Parties involved tend to maximize gain. Their emotions and behavior are geared towards achieving their economic needs (Fisher, 2000).
Different people do interpret reality differently because of their unique perceptions. As such, individual perceptions lead to perceived differences in causes and consequences of problems. It has been found that these misperceptions come from other individual perceptions, differing perceptions of situations, and what is perceived to be a threat. Lastly, feelings and emotions can be possible precipitators of conflicts. If feelings and emotions differ over certain issues they are more likely to cause a conflict. Similarly, conflict can occur if individuals ignore others or their feelings (Hoban, n.d).
Is conflict good or bad?
Conflict is not necessarily bad. Many conflict management experts find that if a conflict is effectively managed it can be healthy. Conflict can be constructive if it results in solutions to the current problem and everyone gets involved in addressing the conflicting issue. It can be positive when there is real communication, and it helps parties involved to get to learn more about each other as well as cooperate. In addition, a conflict that results in developing a better understanding of each other and skills to manage future conflict is considered to be a positive one (Hoban, n.d).
Thus, where conflict is well addressed it is likely to turn into a healthy conflict that would bring forth growth innovation, new thinking strategies besides bringing in additional options in management. However, when conflict causes a divide in individuals or groups involved making cooperation difficult it ends up causing a negative impact. If it results in damaging team spirit to the group or individual spirit and evokes harmful behavior, such conflict is destructive (Ibid).
Different lifecycles of a conflict
As it may be noticed conflicts are not statistical situations but rather dynamic and they keep changing over time. A conflict passes through several distinct phases. During this time conflicting parties try to act and react to different changing both internal and external situations. There is great importance in understanding various cycles of a conflict to be able to know which appropriate intervention to apply in conflict prevention and management (United States Institute of Peace, n.d).
From different models that attempt to conceptualize conflict lifecycle, there are salient features that stand out remarkably. For instance, any conflict tends to be in a cyclical manner in terms of intensity. There are different levels of conflict intensity namely durable peace, unstable peace, open conflict, crisis, and war. After the war, there is relative peace and finally durable peace which is a level where conflict is considered to be solved. A plethora of empirical research supports that these cycles are recurrent (Swanstrom & Weissmann, 2005).
The first phase of the conflict is stable peace. Here cooperation between the parties exists in areas such as environmental, economic, and other areas that do not have sensory issues. The tension between the groups is very low. The second phase as the intensity of conflict increases is the unstable peace phase. In this phase, tension is increased and peace is not guaranteed. As the conflict continues to escalate, an open conflict phase follows. At this level, conflicting parties are aware of the conflict as it is now well defined and they attempt measures to address it. If conflict is not arrested at this level it moves on to the crisis phase. In the crisis phase, there are occurrences of sporadic violence between conflicting parties. Nevertheless, open violence is not defined but there is an imminent risk of war and militarized options (United States Institute of Peace, n.d).
As time goes by without appropriate interventions war phase erupts. It is characterized by intense and widespread violence. It is the level of a conflict with the highest intensity. All these phases from unstable peace to war crisis sum up the escalation phase of a conflict. After the war phase, conflict enters into a de-escalation phase that reverses the trend of the conflict from war phase to crisis back to stable peace phase. In a stable and unstable peace, the most appropriate kind of intervention is conflict prevention measures. Conflict management is the most appropriate intervention immediately after the conflict has been identified by involved parties. This helps to minimize high levels of tension and deter conflict from escalating (Swanstrom & Weissmann, 2005).
Crisis management is a short time measure applied just before war breaks out. It is most suitable when conflict has escalated so rapidly because there is no time left to do management measures. Activities in crisis management are more rigorous with a focus on containing any possible outbreak of militarized conflict. At the war phase, prevention and management measures to address conflict are not possible and militarized efforts are the primary option through a peace treaty or cease-fire. If attempts are made to separate conflicting parties and prevent deliberate escalation of the conflict, conflict enters into the de-escalation phase. Intervention at this stage is peacekeeping and as the conflict de-escalates further peace-building interventions are applied. If efforts for peacebuilding are successful, the next level of intervention is peace consolidation where the focus is to make conflicting parties be cooperative and create long-term measures (Ibid).
Basic conflict management styles
One of the basic conflict management styles is collaboration. It involves concern for an individual’s or group’s interest to match with the other party’s interest. This leads to the outcome of a conflict with no one losing-it is a win-win situation. This approach is preferred when concerns for the other party are important and also interest for society is at stake. Through this strategy, commitment can be built and minimize negative feelings between the conflicting parties. Collaboration as one of the conflict management styles is generally considered as the best style which can be applied in the management of conflicts. However, the main drawback with this style is that it is time and energy-consuming (Hoban, n.d).
Another conflict management style is compromised. It involves the high interest of the group’s concern with moderate concern for the other rival group. The outcome is usually a win-lose situation. It has temporal solutions and helps to avoid power struggles. This approach has a disadvantage in that parties may lose sight of long-term objectives and values. Competition is another approach to conflict management. It differs from the compromise approach in that there is high group interest concern and with less concern of the other party. It leads to a win-lose scenario where the loser can attempt to retaliate causing an escalation of the conflict (Swanstrom & Weissmann, 2005).
As opposed to the last two types of conflict management styles, the accommodation approach helps the group put its high concern of interest as well as for its rival. It leads to a win-lose situation where the issue of concern is more important to the other group than one own group. Nevertheless, it may lead to losing credibility and influence in the future. The last conflict management style is avoidance. This is where there is a low concern of not only one’s group interest but also for others. It leads to a lose-lose situation. It may be good when the issue is of lesser importance or more information is needed. In addition, it may be suitable if there is an anticipated high potential of damage (Ibid).
From the above-discussed conflict management styles, there is a need for future studies to investigate how the application of each conflict management style is influenced by ethics because there seem to be no previous studies that have addressed this issue. There is also a need for future studies to explore far beyond the element of “concern for self and “concern for the others” in conflict management styles (Anakwe, & Purohit, 2003).
Human beings are social beings and therefore interactions have to be there for meaningful relationships. Consequently, conflicts are unavoidable in the process of interacting. Conflicts are not necessarily associated with negative outcomes. When a conflict results in solutions to the current problem, foster communication and cooperation between conflicting parties it is a good conflict. Power, economic needs, perceptions, value system, and feelings are possible causes of a conflict. An understanding of conflict cycles is important for one to be able to use the most effective interventions in conflict management. There are about five basic conflict management styles namely accommodative, compromise, collaboration, competition, and avoidance. Each one of these is suitable depending on each case scenario of a conflict and intended outcomes.
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