Interpersonal Conflict and Violence Prevention
Updated May 2013 by Heidi Burgess
Conflict between small groups or individuals as opposed to larger national or international conflicts.
Anyone dealing with an interpersonal conflict, especially one that is escalating or violent.
Interpersonal conflict is the material of life. Couples disagree about what to eat, whether to go to the mall, relationships with children, etc. Students and teachers have conflicts over grades. We have road rage on suburban highways, disputes between neighbors over property lines, noise, and dogs, and arguments between workers and bosses. Interpersonal conflict is everywhere.
The importance of interpersonal conflict lies in how we handle it. Some helpful terms that describe our options when we encounter conflict are "flight, fight, or unite."
Flight is what scholars call the exit option. Sometimes you can just walk away. If someone acts aggressively toward you on the highway, you can avoid them. Fighting is very common. Spousal abuse, most violent crime, and schoolyard fights are an outgrowth of interpersonal conflict. A third option is to unite to solve differences cooperatively. Couples can talk through differences of opinion. Teachers and students can settle almost every grade complaint in a way that not only satisfies them but also makes them better students and teachers. However, if the interpersonal conflict is intense, uniting requires help from a third party--someone who helps disputants find common interests that can serve as the basis for an agreement. For example, mediators and arbitrators are used on a routine basis in American businesses and many families see counselors.
Individuals can have a big impact on the results of interpersonal conflicts. Out of the three options, "flight, fight, and unite," the first two are almost always counterproductive. In reality, violence used in response to violence often produces even more violence in return. This is true when the violence is physical, but it is also true when it is psychological or emotional. Psychological violence creates deep anger and hostility--and is likely to result in retribution at some point. Flight seldom provides a better option. Rather than physically running away (which is, indeed, called for when physical violence threatens), we often simply withdraw and avoid the conflict altogether. Although avoidance is sometimes appropriate for small disputes that really don't matter, if the conflict is significant, avoidance often makes it worse. People who are conflict averse tend to delay dealing with it, hoping that somehow it will just go away. It seldom does; instead it gets worse!
Therefore, individuals are usually best off solving their problems cooperatively. Conflict resolution is a growth industry, but individuals still need to learn the skills and have the tools to resolve most of their conflicts on their own--you can't hire a mediator for every little dispute! But people should also recognize when disputes have gotten so deep-rooted and destructive that hiring an outside third part to help resolve them makes sense. Fortunately, conflict resolution is a grown industry, so finding a mediator or an arbitrator is fairly easy (and inexpensive) to do.
Most governments have already taken steps to reduce the most violent forms of interpersonal conflict, such as spousal abuse. (although it still goes on behind closed doors a lot!) But states have a long way to go in preventing most forms of violence. The US rates of gun violence, for instance, as among the highest in the world. Yet controlling access to firearms is almost impossible politically in most states, and at the Federal level. Furthermore, governments have barely scratched the surface when it comes to promoting win/win conflict resolution at any level, although mediation is becoming more of the norm in many federal and state agencies over the last several decades. However, adversarial processes are still very popular, and the US remains one of the more litigious countries in the world.
Children fight on the playground all the time, and gang violence in inner cities is common. Increasingly, however, schools have instituted what are called "peer mediation programs" or other school-based conflict resolution programs that train students to be mediators to help other students resolve their disputes without violence. Many of these programs teach all the students some dispute resolution principles as well, so they can learn to deal with problems directly, without always needing the help of a mediator. Similarly, some inner city schools are implementing restorative (as opposed to punative) justice programs, which not only help keep students in school (since they don't use suspension or expulsion as remedies), while they simultaneously diminish gang activity and violence.
Conflict and violence prevention is used constantly by ordinary people who get into disputes and need to figure out a satisfactory solution. While flight--ignoring the problem, or backing away--may make sense in situations that are not important, it often just allows the conflict to grow bigger over time. So learning positive, collaborative (win-win) forms of dispute resolution is usually a superior approach for all involved.