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What is Conflict?  Common and Practical Definitions

What is Conflict? Common and Practical Definitions

Author: marlene johnson


At the end of this tutorial, the learner will understand in a general sense the definition of conflict.

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What is Conflict?

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How often have you heard or maybe participated in a conversation that went something like this, I was so annoyed. Can you believe he did that? I mean, it's like, I told him, and he said to me, and I was just getting really upset. So, then he said, well if you're going to be like that, and then just walked out the door.

So, does that sound at all or look familiar. What we have here is conflict, and my name is Marlene Johnson, and I'd like to explore conflict, and what it is with you today in this tutorial.

So let's look at what is happening here. In this case, the person is describing a, conflict perhaps to a friend, and they're really talking about how they reacted to this conflict, what they said, what they did, what the other person said, how they felt. And this is typical because as human beings I know, I certainly identify with this. I see something through my own lens. I feel it emotionally, and you probably do too. So, when, as human beings, we tend to talk about conflict, we talk about it personally. We talk about in terms of our own reactions, and what we saw happening.

So, I think it's helpful to step back, and take a look here at the basic elements in all conflicts, not just in terms of our reaction to a conflict, but what is really happening here. Even this little scenario that I just enacted, where we don't even know what the conflict is. We do know that two people are having an interaction, and they're in some sort of relationship and it's not going very smoothly is it?

So, they are in conflict. Now, what is conflict? Well, in a very basic way, conflict is a form of relationship in which the members find their interactions in some way impeding their goals, their needs, their well being. Now, conflict always involves parties. What do we mean by parties? OK. Parties are individuals, two or more, involved directly in the conflict.

Now, these parties are always in a relationship. And a relationship is defined as an association between two or more people involving some sort of interaction. Now, this next definition is key because it's really at the root of conflict. These parties were in a relationship, have needs and interests. You know, needs and interests are defined as an action, a belief, or physical item, that a party perceives as important or essential to his or her satisfaction or happiness.

So, let's look at some examples of this a little bit more specifically than the little scenario I just gave you, where we have people reacting. Conflicts can emerge in a variety of situations, where people who are in these relationships, parties and relationships. The other needs aren't being met. It could be as such, two friends are driving down the road together, and one person wants the heat turned up because they're cold, and I need to be warmer. OK. If I'm that person, I need to be warmer. The other person in the car says no way, I'm going to open the window because I'm really hot in here. I need some air. Different needs. One person wants the heat up. The other person wants the window open, and the heat down. There in conflict over this.

Here's another example. Two people are in a relationship, very, I think, common example of conflict in a relationship over money. John works hard, and thinks he deserves a motorcycle. He's always wanted a motorcycle. He thinks he needs a motorcycle. It's a hobby of his. Alice says no. No way. You're not buying a motorcycle until we put money into savings. We need to put money into savings first.

So, she needs to have a little savings account. He needs the motorcycle. Their clashing over money. Conflict can happen at work. Let's say you are sharing the break room with a number of people, and you like to keep it clean. You always do the dishes. You make sure that that break room is clean. And there are individuals who never do the dishes. They leave it dirty. Like sometimes there's food rotting in the refrigerator.

You and maybe some of your other co-workers are in conflict. You need the break room kept clean. And others are not doing that. Now, conflicts like this can spread to groups. A part of it can be quite a few individuals involved together in a group. That it's at odds with another group. For example, you have an environmental group. They need to have land and resources protected in a certain way. And you have an industrial group, who perhaps wants to use the land and resources for another purpose. They're in conflict. And I think we all know, all we have to do is listen to the news, and we can see how this manifests with nations and globally.

We have two different nations with different interests, different needs. Sometimes, they can go to war over this. So, just to recap here, conflict is something we're all familiar with, and we all react to it personally. We'll see it to through our own lens. And we all describe it in terms of our personal reactions. But it helps to remember that conflict is really a relationship, people, parties involved in interacting in a particular way, where they feel that their needs and their interests are being challenged. So, I've enjoyed being with you today in this tutorial. I look forward to next week.

Terms to Know

A form of relationship in which members find their interactions in some way impeding to their goal, needs, or well-being.


An action, belief, or physical item that a party perceives as important or essential to his/her satisfaction or happiness.


Individuals involved directly in a conflict.


An association between two or more people, involving some form of interaction.