Interpersonal Conflict and Violence

Charles (Chip) Hauss

August 2003

William Ury begins the first chapter of The Third Side with a simple story. Two friends of his were almost run over by a speeding car. One of his friends got angry and smashed the hood of the car with his fist. The driver, infuriated, stormed out of the car. It turns out that the driver was black; Ury's friends are white. So, this rapidly escalating conflict immediately also took on racial overtones. Then, an elderly black man came up and put his hands down as if to say, "OK, cool it." As Ury finishes the story, "the young man visibly struggled to control himself, then suddenly walked back to his car, got in, and drove off without another word."[1]

You might well ask why it makes sense to start with a story about a bad driver and three pedestrians in an article about intractable conflict. Indeed, this story has little in common with anything else in this data base.

However, in one page, Ury opens two doors. The first is to what he calls "the third side," the individuals or groups who can help solve a conflict. The second and more relevant door here is to the way interpersonal conflict and violence sheds light on the broader social and political issues which are at the heart of this project.

What Is Interpersonal Conflict

Howard Gadlin, Ombudsman at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) discusses how cultural differences can lead to different interpretations of the conflict.

In a very real sense, interpersonal conflict is the stuff of life.

We encounter it every day. My wife and I, for instance, routinely disagree about what to eat, whether we should go to the mall, our relationship with her daughter, if she should retire or not, and, perhaps most important of all, the amount of time I spend writing. I enter into conflict with my students over the grades I give them. And, even at the conflict resolution organization I work for, we have conflicts all the time over what projects who should take on, how we should work with the people who ask for our help, and even how we should clean up our office kitchen.

Interpersonal conflict truly is everywhere. We have road rage on suburban highways, battles of the bands, disputes between neighbors over property lines, arguments between workers and bosses. The list goes on and on.

Why Is Interpersonal Conflict Important?

Howard Gadlin, Ombudsman at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) gives some suggestions on distinguishing between interpersonal disputes and structural problems.

The importance of interpersonal conflict lies in how we handle it.

One of my colleagues at Search for Common Ground who has helped set up a local conflict resolution center uses the terms "flight, fight, or unite" to describe our options when we encounter conflict.

"Flight" is what scholars call the exit option. Sometimes we can just walk away from it. If someone acts aggressively toward me on Washington 's infamous Beltway, I can drive away. If my neighbor turns out to be an impossible, harassing jerk, I can move.

We certainly can fight. It's not the road rage deaths that are most worrisome here, though there are far too many of them. Spousal abuse, most violent crime, and most schoolyard fights are an outgrowth of interpersonal conflict. The rage seen in American (and other) homes, neighborhoods, workplaces, and schools is very frightening. To some, it reflects our very human nature of selfishness, greed, and a tendency toward violence.

Or, we can unite to solve our differences cooperatively. My wife and I have found ways to become better parents and step-parents respectively simply by talking through our differences of opinion. I can settle almost every grade complaint in a way that not only satisfies the student involved but makes him or her a better student and me a better teacher.

If the interpersonal conflict is intense, however, uniting requires help from what Ury calls a third sider, an individual or group who helps disputants find common interests that can serve as the basis for an agreement. Many families going through the kind of conflict that could lead to divorce seek the help of counselors. Occasionally, I have to turn to my department chair for help if I can't work out a grade complaint or other conflict with a student. Most American communities have some sort of community conflict resolution service. Mediators and arbitrators are used on a routine basis in American business. Some of them have such good reputations that they can charge hundreds of dollars an hour for their services. Finally, at least 5,000 American schools have peer mediation programs to help minimize the violence that grows out of the inevitable conflicts among young people.

Little black girl gets assaulted
Ain't no reason why
Newspaper prints the story
And racist tempers fly
Next day it starts a riot
Knives and guns are drawn
Two black boys get killed
One white boy goes blind

-- Tracy Chapman

The words of Tracy Chapman in the box at right come from her debut album. In its 11 tracks, she evocatively tells us about many of the aspects of interpersonal conflict in the United States and beyond -- racism, poverty, homelessness, spousal abuse, gang violence, despair, substance abuse, corruption, sexism, and racial profiling by the police.

Some interpersonal conflict is a micro-level version of the international and national disputes which are the focus of this knowledge base. In other words, flight, fight, and unite are the options we have in facing any intractable conflict. Interpersonal and international conflict are not the same, of course. However, in some ways it is easier to prevent international conflict from turning violent because collective decisions have to be made, often by hundreds of people.

What Can Individuals Do?

Howard Gadlin, Ombudsman at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) provides an example in which what at first appeared to be an interpersonal dispute was actually due to structural problems.

Not surprisingly, individuals can have their greatest impact in the ways that interpersonal conflicts unfold. Unlike national or international conflicts which are decided at sites distant from London, England, New London, Conn., or New London, South Africa, these erupt and are best solved as close to "home" as possible.

During the 1960s, the civil rights activist Eldridge Clearer claimed that "if you are not part of the solution, you part of the problem." He was, of course, referring to the struggle for equality by African-Americans in what was loosely called the Black Power movement. His statement is just as true of any interpersonal conflict, whether race is involved or not.

As these three terms, "flight, fight, and unite" suggest, an individual faced with an interpersonal conflict has three basic options. The first two are almost always counterproductive.

As we saw earlier, interpersonal violence is almost always counterproductive. To see that, consider the biblical story of David and Goliath which one of my colleagues uses to illustrate our options when facing intractable conflict.

In the biblical story, the normal-sized David slays the giant Goliath using a stone and a slingshot. As far as the Bible is concerned, the story ends there.

But does it? In today's world, David will probably get arrested and spend time in jail. Or, if Goliath isn't killed, he will get back up again and try to exact revenge against David. Even if he is killed, his giant friends will probably try to get back at David by hurling boulders at him. In other words, in most real world settings, interpersonal violence used in response to interpersonal violence produces even more interpersonal violence in return.

Flight does not provide a better option. The narrator in Tracy Chapman's song does not literally flee the conflict; she sits behind her wall and listens, probably in fear herself. "Flight" here does not necessarily mean physically running away from a conflict. Rather, we tend to put it on the back burner, delaying dealing with it, hoping that somehow it will just go away.

It seldom does.

In other words, individuals have a primary responsibility to choose the "unite" option and solve their problems cooperatively. And, today, it is not hard for them to learn how to do so. Most communities in the United States and many other countries have local mediation services which can help people settle disputes and offer training in basic conflict resolution skills. So, too, do many schools, police departments, and corporations.

What Third Parties Can Do

Conflict resolution is a growth industry. Mediators are now called on to help settle everything from wars between states to "wars" between divorcing spouses.

The growing community of mediators and other conflict resolution professionals still has to mature in at least two ways. First, it has to become much more visible so that people who currently do not know it exists learn of it and turn to it when a conflict arises. Second, it has to become more political and seek out ways to make win-win conflict resolution the norm "above" the interpersonal level.

What States Can Do

Most governments have already taken steps to reduce the most violent forms of interpersonal conflict, such as spousal abuse. Most observers, however, believe that states also have a long way to go in preventing violence and punishing those who commit it.

More importantly for our purposes here, states have barely scratched the surface when it comes to promoting win/win conflict resolution at any level, including the interpersonal. A number of American states have created consensus councils or other institutions designed to foster cooperation in public policy making. Many American states require the use of mediation in divorce cases and otherwise promote the use of alternative dispute resolution because it is usually cheaper and provides more satisfactory outcomes than litigation. As noted earlier, many public schools and universities have peer mediation programs.

Few governments at any level or in any country have done much to promote interpersonal conflict resolution in other forms. In particular, almost none have supported campaigns or other efforts to promote win-win conflict resolution as a general approach to settling disputes. As a result, adversarial processes remain the norm for interpersonal as well political intractable conflicts.

[1] William Ury, The Third Side. (New York: Penguin, 2000), 3.

Use the following to cite this article:
Hauss, Charles (Chip). "Interpersonal Conflict and Violence." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: August 2003 <>.

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