Conflict 101

The graphic shows two individuals experiencing discomfort without knowing the cause.

Understanding the difference between what constitutes a conflict and what does not, is crucial in scientific research. This understanding is fundamental to effectively managing or resolving conflicts that arise during our professional lives.

When I first started developing leadership modules for researchers, I noticed a common misconception: many people labelled anything that slowed down or hindered research progress as a conflict. This mislabelling included anything slightly unpleasant or a minor roadblock. This observation led to the creation of our course tagline: “The art of leadership, fewer conflicts, more results.” Our claim is straightforward—effective conflict management leads to better progress in your work and research. However, mislabelling issues as conflicts can obstruct proper resolution.

This idea echoes Abraham Maslow’s famous saying, If the only thing you know how to use is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. While hammers are excellent tools, they are unsuitable for every task, such as changing a light bulb. Similarly, labelling every problem as a conflict makes it harder to address the real issues, especially if you lack the skills to manage conflicts.

So, what is Conflict?

When we ask participants in our courses, “What is a conflict?” we receive responses such as these:

  • A disagreement between two or more people.
  • A fight.
  • A clash of interests.
  • A power struggle.
  • Tension between individuals.
These responses touch on the essence of conflict but don’t fully capture it.
Friedrich Glasl, a renowned Austrian researcher on conflicts and conflict management, offers a comprehensive definition: Social conflict is an interaction between actors, individuals, groups, organizations, etc., where at least one actor sees incompatibilities in thinking, imagination, perception, feeling, or wanting with another actor(s) in a way that impairs them.
Put simply, a conflict is a disagreement or problem between parties where at least one party experiences an unpleasant emotion. Notably, both parties do not need to be aware of the conflict. Often, one party might be oblivious, thinking they are merely engaging in a spirited discussion, while the other party feels deeply upset or offended. One person might see it as a scientific debate, while the other is brewing thoughts of revenge.

In our next post, I discuss how you can recognise and begin to address conflicts in your team.

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