‘Conflict’ can ben described as a disagreement among groups or individuals often characterised by antagonism and hostility.

This is usually fueled by the opposition of one party to another, in an attempt to reach an objective that is different from that of the other party. The elements involved in the conflict have varied sets of principles and values, thus allowing such a conflict to arise.


The following sections discuss five of the most common factors that lead to conflict situations within organisations.


Conflict can arise from misunderstandings about:

  • The nature, aims and objectives of a job
  • Differing expectations about how things should be done
  • Work conditions and wages
  • The different responsibilities of management and employees
  • Differences in values, beliefs, needs, or priorities

Poor communication

Communication relies on clear and complete messages being sent as well as being received. Problems can be reduced by paying attention to how well you send messages and how well you receive them. Both managers and workers are responsible for ensuring that these issues are considered. There are many ways to improve information flow and communication. Here are some suggestions:

  • Keep message books/day books
  • Keep policy books which include all policies as decided at meetings
  • Hold regular staff/management meetings for passing on information
  • Have frequent employee meetings
  • Ensure correspondence is available for everyone to see
  • Distribute minutes of all meetings promptly and widely
  • Ensure there is clarity about what the objectives are and about what decisions have been made
  • Ensure decisions are implemented
  • Give everyone time to talk at meetings
  • Try to spend twice as much time listening as you spend talking.

Unclear communication from staff to clients is another common source of conflict. It is vital that “house rules” are written down for clients, and that there are no variations in the interpretation of those rules. Distressed clients can very quickly become confused and angry if they feel that they are not being listened to – especially by those who say they care.

Lack of planning

Lack of planning often means an organisation moves from one crisis to the next. This sense of disorganisation and lack of direction can be stressful and can create many problems including misunderstandings. The time spent in planning will be recouped many times over in the more efficient use of workers’ time, and in real and long-term benefits to clients.

Poor staff selection

Inappropriate selection of staff can result in ill-feeling and conflict. Feelings of ill-will may be increased by dismissing staff members.

While staff conflict problems can never be entirely avoided, they can be minimised with good staff selection procedures. Considering existing staff views when approaching staff selection will help minimise conflicts in the workplace.

For a more detailed discussion of these issues, see Chapter 5: Volunteers, in this manual.

Frustration, stress and burnout

When people become frustrated or stressed they are more irritable and more likely to create conflicts than at other times. It is important to recognise the signs of stress in people’s work situations in order to prevent burnout. Try to help people identify the causes of work related stress, and take steps to change these factors or, better still, try to anticipate possible causes of stress before they arise. These factors could include:

  • Threats of violence or actual violence
  • Overcrowding or lack of privacy
  • Verbal abuse
  • Dirty or untidy work space
  • Noise
  • Harassment
  • Continual crises
  • Lack of ability to influence the working environment
  • Tension between staff members
  • Lack of direction from management
  • Criticism and lack of support
  • Poor communication

Conflict is classified into the following four types:

  • Interpersonal conflict refers to a conflict between two individuals. This occurs typically due to how people are different from one another. We have varied personalities which usually results to incompatible choices and opinions. Apparently, it is a natural occurrence which can eventually help in personal growth or developing your relationships with others. In addition, coming up with adjustments is necessary for managing this type of conflict. However, when interpersonal conflict gets too destructive, calling in a mediator would help so as to have it resolved.
  • Intrapersonal conflict occurs within an individual. The experience takes place in the person’s mind. Hence, it is a type of conflict that is psychological involving the individual’s thoughts, values, principles and emotions. Interpersonal conflict may come in different scales, from the simpler mundane ones like deciding whether or not to go organic for lunch to ones that can affect major decisions such as choosing a career path. Furthermore, this type of conflict can be quite difficult to handle if you find it hard to decipher your inner struggles. It leads to restlessness and uneasiness, or can even cause depression. In such occasions, it would be best to seek a way to let go of the anxiety through communicating with other people. Eventually, when you find yourself out of the situation, you can become more empowered as a person. Thus, the experience evoked a positive change which will help you in your own personal growth.
  • Intragroup conflict is a type of conflict that happens among individuals within a team. The incompatibilities and misunderstandings among these individuals lead to an intragroup conflict. It is arises from interpersonal disagreements (e.g. team members have different personalities which may lead to tension) or differences in views and ideas (e.g. in a presentation, members of the team might find the notions presented by the one presiding to be erroneous due to their differences in opinion). Within a team, conflict can be helpful in coming up with decisions which will eventually allow them to reach their objectives as a team. However, if the degree of conflict disrupts harmony among the members, then some serious guidance from a different party will be needed for it to be settled.
  • Intergroup conflict takes place when a misunderstanding arises among different teams within an organization. For instance, the sales department of an organization can come in conflict with the customer support department. This is due to the varied sets of goals and interests of these different groups. In addition, competition also contributes for intergroup conflict to arise. There are other factors which fuel this type of conflict. Some of these factors may include a rivalry in resources or the boundaries set by a group to others which establishes their own identity as a team.

Conflict may seem to be a problem to some, but this isn’t how conflict should be perceived. On the other hand, it is an opportunity for growth and can be an effective means of opening up among groups or individuals. However, when conflict begins to draws back productivity and gives way to more conflicts, then conflict management would be needed to come up with a resolution.

Conflict comes naturally; the clashing of thoughts and ideas is a part of the human experience. It is true that it can be destructive if left uncontrolled. However, it shouldn’t be seen as something that can only cause negative things to transpire. It is a way to come up with more meaningful realizations that can certainly be helpful to the individuals involved. These positive outcomes can be reached through an effective implementation of conflict resolution.

Conflict can be seen as an opportunity for learning and understanding our differences. We can all live harmoniously despite conflicts as long as we know how to responsibly manage these struggles.

Following is a list of useful strategies to help resolve conflicts: 

  • When angry, separate yourself from the situation and take time to cool out.
  • Attack the problem, not the person. Start with a compliment.
  • Communicate your feelings assertively, NOT aggressively. Express them without blaming.
  • Focus on the issue, NOT your position about the issue.
  • Accept and respect that individual opinions may differ, don’t try to force compliance, work to develop common agreement.
  • Do not review the situation as a competition, where one has to win and one has to lose. Work toward a solution where both parties can have some of their needs met.
  • Focus on areas of common interest and agreement, instead of areas of disagreement and opposition.
  • NEVER jump to conclusions or make assumptions about what another is feeling or thinking.
  • Listen without interrupting; ask for feedback if needed to assure a clear understanding of the issue.
  • Remember, when only one person’s needs are satisfied in a conflict, it is NOT resolved and will continue.
  • Forget the past and stay in the present.
  • Build ‘power with’ NOT ‘power over’ others.
  • Thank the person for listening.

A number of treatment approaches have been found to effectively resolve conflict.

Conflict resolution therapy, an approach to treatment that seeks to teach people conflict resolution skills, was designed primarily to help couples but can be used to address conflict in any situation, whether it arises in a family, between friends or romantic partners, at the workplace, or in any other situation.

People seeking treatment may find conflict resolution therapy can help them find solutions to certain challenging situations, relieve related mental health symptoms, and build a skill set that can be used to navigate future conflict.

Conflict resolution skills training, which attempts to help people learn how to redirect conflict without emotional detouring, incorporates imagery and communication as the primary tools for exploration and resolution. Participants are taught skills that can allow them to unite when facing difficult situations, and they are encouraged to work together rather than combat each other in order to overcome difficult issues that may, if left unaddressed, lead to anxiety, depression, or contempt. 

Conflict resolution therapy seeks to provide a balanced mix of therapy and skills training, and a well-trained therapist will generally be able to integrate skill-building activities and therapeutic intervention to those they are treating. Conflict resolution therapy seeks to provide a balanced mix of therapy and skills training, and a well-trained therapist will generally be able to integrate skill-building activities and therapeutic intervention to those they are treating. For example, if a family of origin issue arises in the course of therapy, the therapist may choose to halt skills practice in order to more deeply explore the family issue. 

Life Psychologists can take on several roles over the course of therapy, providing those in treatment with a well-rounded, all-inclusive approach. They act as mediators, guiding people through conflict and helping them learn how to utilize skills to achieve a win-win resolution. They coach by teaching these skills and prompting the use of them in session, and they also take on a healing role by using skills associated with more traditional types of therapy to help those in therapy both mend relationships and understand their past and how it relates to their current area of conflict, whether it is relationship-based or otherwise.

  1. Bio of Dr. Heitler. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.therapyhelp.com/bio
  2. Dattilio, F. M., & Bevilacqua, L. (Eds.). (2006). Relationship dysfunction: A practitioner’s guide to comparative treatments. New York, NY: Springer Publishing Company. 
  3. Heitler, S. (2010). Combined individual/marital therapy: A conflict-resolution framework and ethical considerations. Retrieved from http://www.therapyhelp.com/225 
  4. Heitler, S. (2010). Conflict resolution: essential skills for couples and their counselors. Retrieved from http://www.therapyhelp.com/conflict-resolution-for-counselors-and-couples
  5. Heiter, S. (2010). Conflict resolution therapy. Retrieved from http://www.therapyhelp.com/conflict-resolution-therapy
  6. Wyatt, R. C. (2006). Susan Heitler on couples therapy. Retrieved from https://www.psychotherapy.net/interview/susan-heitler




Seeking Help

If you feel that conflict is impacting on your ability to enjoy life, a Life Psychologist may be able to help.

  • Life Psychologists are highly trained and qualified professionals, skilled in providing effective interventions for a range of mental health concerns, including conflict.
  • A Life Psychologist can help you to identify and address factors that might be contributing to your conflict or disagreements and the most effective ways to conflict resolution on best available research.
  • Life Psychologists usually see all parties involved in the conflict to formulate a plan for mediation where appropriate.
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