Conflict can be useful

2012-11-23 00:00

DOES the thought of confronting your boss about an increase give you palpitations? That might mean you’re a teddy or a tortoise, in terms of conflict personality type (see box), but the good news is you don’t have to stay that way.

Durban psychologist Claire Newton believes you can learn skills for handling stressful situations like this and others. She says many people have trouble dealing with conflict and cope in a typical fight or flight reaction, depending on their personality type.

Newton, who gave a presentation recently in Durban titled “Conflict to Co-operation”, says that most people are not taught how to handle disagreements in life.

From an early age, many children are taught to “give in” to domineering parents, which gives rise to simmering resentment, or they are taught that those who shout the loudest in an argument are often the winners.

As adults, many people still perceive conflict to be a bad thing.

“I guarantee that most people feel uncomfortable when a disagreement arises. They anticipate that it will have a bad outcome and already they are preparing to end the conflict by retracting their point of view, or they will not pursue the issue to avoid the conflict from escalating.”

Newton says that conflict is a totally natural thing.

“To expect that there will be no conflict is wrong. People are allowed to have different points of views on things like their taste in music, their dress sense, what they read and how they perceive the world.

“Every one of us is raised in a unique environment and we all have a right to have our own opinions, but when you voice them you have to remember that everyone else has the same right to have a point of view.”

Newton says that although people believe conflict is an external issue, we often experience inner conflict when we struggle to decide between two options.

“Conflict is commonly caused by a breakdown in values, a gap in expectations, where goals are unclear, a lack of assertiveness and different perspectives.”

Conflicts are destructive when they lead to physical violence and a major breakdown in communication. She said that body language is often a key indicator that a breakdown had occurred.

People show contempt by rolling their eyes, looking away when spoken to, walking out of a room or ignoring the person speaking. These signals show that one of the people involved in the conflict is not interested in listening to the other’s point of view.

Newton says that conflict can be destructive when there is a lot of emotional energy wasted, and it can also be damaging when it is not resolved.

“I have seen couples come for therapy and they say ‘we have been married for 30 years and we have never had an argument’. I always wonder which one of them is the one who is compromising and keeping all the anger simmering underneath.”

Newton believes conflict can be useful if it leads to debate and people feel they can openly discuss their ideas. In these instances, the conflict opens up issues of importance that have been buried, and ultimately leads to some kind of problem solving.

CLAIRE Newton says there are five personality types that typically emerge during conflict situations.



These people hate conflict and want to soothe and comfort anyone who is unhappy and disgruntled. They like to make things better and will usually keep their own needs suppressed to make someone else feel okay. They like to maintain relationships with colleagues and friends.



These people do not like conflict and when they see one coming, they hide their heads and wait for the storm to pass. It is difficult to get these types of people to engage with a problem because they don’t want to know.



People everyone avoids because they are extremely confrontational, aggressive and autocratic. They want their goals achieved at all costs. They are avoided at functions, have few real friends and are often bullies.



These people are cunning and know how to give and take in a conflict, and when to pick and choose a fight. They are able to maintain relationships with colleagues.



These people are respected colleagues and friends because they know how to fight fairly and they have integrity. They wait for the right time and they are assertive.

Newton says that people should be able to use the characteristics of all these animals in different situations. “Sometimes you need to be a teddy bear and allow yourself to soothe someone when you know they need comfort. At other times you need to be the bullying shark when it’s a situation of life and death.”

Any conflict situation has to be handled in a reasonable way and that means playing fair.

• Ask yourself what the objective of the conflict is and stick to that, don’t dredge up the past.

• Try to understand the issue from all angles.

• Identify areas where there is common agreement.

• Try to solve the problem, don’t just talk about it.

• End the discussion on a positive note.

All parties in a conflict situation need to be heard and one useful technique is to ask the opposing person to paraphrase what the person has just said. This makes sure that the lines of communication are clear.

Newton also suggests that time is made to resolve conflicts without interruptions. “There must be no television to distract, meetings, telephone calls, or children.”

She says it is important to stick to the issue and not to get personal.

“Sometimes you need to allow a really angry person to rant. They need to get it off their chest and they won’t listen to you until they have had their vent. You need to wait until they are calmer before engaging with them.”


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