What is it about?

For a dispute resolution method to be successful, the parties must first understand the sources of the conflict to choose an appropriate solution. But what are the possible sources of conflict? Surprisingly, there isn't much out there that takes a big picture view and integrates diverse types of causes. So we scoured the multidisciplinary scholarly and professional literature on conflict and have created a three-part typology of the roots of conflict. We label the three key categories as structural, cognitive, and psychogenic. Structural conflicts are result from the relationship between the parties’ interests or goals, rights, and sources of power. The classic conflict over scarce resources is when these interests are focused on things to satisfy material needs and desires. But conflicts are also possible over clashing value orientations (e.g., differing emphases on fairness, inclusion, or respect) or identity needs for a sense of purpose and meaning in one’s life, including those connected to group affiliations such as racial, ethnic, or religious affinities. We label this category “structural conflict” because the nature of these conflicts is determined by the rules, institutions, and practices in which this relationship is situated—in other words, by the structural nature of the relationship. Cognitive conflicts relate to mental functioning. This is a broad category that includes a variety of ways in which cognition may cause or contribute to a dispute: interpretation, perception, information processing, decision-making, and communication. The human brain is not unitary or always internally consistent. So conflicts can arise because individuals perceive the same problem differently, such as when one uses a heuristic and another approaches it analytically. Common types of cognitive bias that result in conflict include loss aversion, anchoring, framing, fixed-pie perception, exaggeration of conflict, illusions of transparency, decision fatigue, and overconfidence. Individuals can also be motivated to process information in ways that validate preexisting beliefs, rather than by a search for accuracy, and in ways that magnify in-group/out-group differences. Individuals may also have different preferences or differences of opinion over how to interact or solve a problem, perhaps influenced by cultural or other differences. Lastly, communication is a cognitive activity that can lead to conflict when it breaks down. Miscommunication can result in many ways, such as noisy communication channels, different meanings, incorrect filtering of intent, and misinterpretation of nonverbal cues and personal demeanor. Lastly, psychogenic conflict arises from the psychology of feelings. This has two main subdimensions. First, emotions and moods can cause conflict through the behaviors they create or by influencing decision-making. For example, anger, frustration, contempt, jealousy, and other hot emotions can lead to aggressive communication behaviors (e.g., criticism, contempt, and shouting) while lessening constructive communication behaviors (e.g., active listening). The recipient of negative emotions often tries to counter this by lashing out or other responses that distracts them away from processing information and making sound decisions; conversely, happy individuals tend to make riskier decisions which can also be a source of conflict. Second, personality differences can also cause or contribute to disputes. Individuals with high values of neuroticism and extraversion and/or low values of agreeableness may be more likely to be contentious, antagonistic, irritable, and even want to dominate others, whereas those who score low on openness and conscientiousness tend to be inflexible and disorganized, which can clash with those who prefer a different approach. Personality can also affect conflict by affecting an individual’s attributions—for example, different personality types tend to see a conflict as either task- or relationship-based.

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Why is it important?

Put yourself in the shoes of a manager who believes that a dispute is preventing two co-workers from working together effectively. What do you do? Possibilities might include encouraging them to get along, locking them in a room until they work out their differences, threatening them with consequences if their work doesn’t improve, giving one of them authority over the other, reassigning one of them, or extending a deadline on a project to give them more time. But here is an important complication: each of these possible solutions will only work if it matches the actual source of the dispute. So before jumping to a preferred intervention, we need to explicit identify the sources of a particular dispute. Effective dispute resolution must be rooted in a comprehensive and accurate understanding of a conflict’s roots. But disputes can be multi-faceted with numerous causes that interact in complicated ways. Just look at the complexity of the conflict over NFL players kneeling during the national anthem. We submit that it is important to conceptually distinguish different aspects of the full range of sources of conflict to appreciate the nature of each particular dispute. So in analyzing any conflict, look for structural, cognitive, and psychogenic aspects. Not all will be present in every dispute, but it’s better to look for them and rule them out than to not look at all and miss a major factor.


This research resulted from our inability to find existing typologies that we believe comprehensively identify the possible underlying sources of conflict. Rather, the diverse range of scholarship analyzing conflict tends to occur within disciplinary silos that focus on narrow causes. Our research is motivated by a desire to bring these perspectives together because (a) there is a need for a comprehensive typology of conflict sources, and (b) disputes will be resolved more effectively when the disputants and/or assisting parties fully recognize the underlying source(s).

Professor John W Budd
University of Minnesota System

Read the Original

This page is a summary of: Advancing Dispute Resolution by Understanding the Sources of Conflict: Toward an Integrated Framework, ILR Review, August 2019, SAGE Publications,
DOI: 10.1177/0019793919866817.
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