Conflict and perceptions

I recently had quite an intense conflict with a family member. Like many conflict situations, it exploded from what appeared to be minutiae. After first a ‘heated’ argument, followed by a long period of silence, we then had  a more ‘rational’ discussion about what happened. It quickly became blazingly clear that we had polarized perceptions of the conflict. Further, the conflict affected us in vastly different ways.


It’s amazing how when conflict happens, the people involved can perceive the intensity of the conflict as vastly different.  Weren’t we all in the same room? Didn’t we all witness the same thing?  If so, then how does it get interpreted in such a different way?   Of course, there are obviously different levels of conflict: from the personal, more value-based conflict (ie. you slept with my boyfriend), to the most superficial and trivial (ie. I want to use the phone and you’re using it).  But even within those categories, the perceptions can be quite diverse.  For example, say Person X raises his voice. Perhaps to X, this is just an indication that he is passionate about the topic.  However, to Person Y, raised voices indicates anger and frustration. Persons X and Y  may leave the discussion with a very different opinion of the other and what happened.   Do we have control over how we perceive conflict, or are we slaves to the moment?

Impacts of Conflict

Given the asymmetry of perceptions in a conflict situation, there is also likely to be an asymmetry in outcomes.  While some people may tend to internalize the conflict , others quickly move on or even thrive from the conflict situation. I assume this can have some pretty strong impacts on the individual: the person who internalizes conflict may suffer from self-esteem troubles, anxiety, depression. The other, on the other hand, may even become engaged by the conflict: this is just a part of daily functioning, or even a normal part of life.

Why does this happen?

Good question. In my opinion there are a number of things that influence our perceptions of, and responses to conflict. Gender, cultural upbringing, family dynamics, age, etc.   Lets take gender as an example. In Western society boys (more than girls) are encouraged towards hobbies that involve externalized conflict – particularly physical conflict. They take out their frustration ‘on the field’, or maybe even through a physical fight.  I think that as kids, girls go straight for the emotional/relational/personal conflict – and I’m not sure how much that changes as we age. I’m speaking from my own personal experience, but I can remember some pretty nasty hurtful comments directed my way as a young girl. Comments that stick with you, and sometimes become a central narrative in your life.  Do boys not actually do the personal hurtful thing, or is it that they dont perceive it as being so deeply painful (and thus forget it?)?

Fast forward to life in organizations, as adults. Are we still conflicting like we did when we were kids?  Does gender still play a role? Or is it something else?


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One Response to Conflict and perceptions

  1. James says:

    I obviously dont have a conclusive answer but my suggestion would be that genetics would be one major thing. Male vs Female included.

    Dr. Louann Brizendine would probably say men use different parts of their brain when conflicts arise than females. Im guessing it has some evolutionally explaination.

    Stephen Pinker would probably attribute that additionally we have an amount of self deception built into our behaviours which hampers our ability to see ourselves and situations clearly.

    On top of that you have to follow the genes – what maximizes our survival, how we see our opponents (our status vs them, etc), and what the stakes are can influence our reactions to other people.

    That being said why we might naturally act a certain way might be very much genetic but how we learn to counter our natural instincts could be very much a learned thing.

    I have never looked into it but have any good studies been done to show the effectiveness of conflict resolution training? Does it actually work and if so how much?

    My thought: Even when I read books that might explain why my spouse acts/reacts and how I should respond accordingly I find its useful only on reflection. In the heat of the moment reason can go out the window and instincts almost take over.

    In conclusion I would say as an overarching principle if you want to understand why a person reacts a certain way start with the genes and go from there.

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