Cognitive Aspects of Conflict

The first element of individual conflict competence deals with the cognitive aspects of conflict, including improving current attitudes about conflict, appreciating the value of managing conflict effectively, and understanding how you currently respond to conflict. This chapter explores ways of improving cognitive skills in these areas.


In our programs and presentations, we often ask questions of participants to get them thinking about their current attitudes toward conflict. People clearly have thoughts and feelings about conflict, but these often go unexamined. Yet, these attitudes affect the ways that people act when conflict arises even if individuals have not thought about them. We find it helpful to get people thinking about their relationship with conflict, and one way is by having them explore their attitudes.

Exploring Current Conflict Attitudes

It would be helpful to consider your own attitudes about conflict. Do you think it is something bad, to be avoided? Are there positive aspects of conflict? What has affected your understanding and approach to conflict? When we run programs, we ask people a number of questions about the conflict to help them reflect on their attitudes. We share them next as if you were conducting a program with others. If you are doing this exercise by yourself, answer the questions based on your own thoughts and feelings toward conflict. In either case, we believe you will discover
some interesting answers!

  1. We suggest you begin by having people fi rst think about confl ict and then share words that come to mind to describe it. You will probably hear lots of words like stress, frustration, anger, and fear. Less frequently you may hear words like opportunity and resolution. Once you have solicited a number of terms, ask your participants how they would characterize most of the words they ’ ve just heard. If your group is like the hundreds that we have asked, they will describe the words as negative.

2. At this point, shift your inquiry to how people deal with conflict. You could ask a question such as, “ How do you or most of your colleagues respond to conflict at work? ” While a few people may say they react to it aggressively or move to resolve it, most of the answers will be something like, “ We avoid it. ”

  1. You may ask at this point, “ How well does the combination of viewing confl ict as negative and avoiding it work out? ” People usually chuckle at this point, as they begin to see how ineffective this approach is.
  1. We also suggest asking people, “ Why do you think conflict seems to be so diffi cult to manage? ” You will likely hear a variety of responses. “ It is emotionally distressing. ” “ I ’ m afraid I might hurt the other person ” (or its converse “ I ’m afraid they might hurt me ” ). Eventually, someone will probably suggest, “ I ’ ve never learned how to deal with conflict. ” You ’ ll see a lot of others nod in agreement with this statement. It is easy to follow up with, “ How many of you learned how to deal with conflict in school? ” Rarely will you see more than 1 percent of hands raised. Some people may joke that they learned how to deal with conflict on the playground. School conflict management programs have improved in recent years, so eventually we will see more people who did learn effective ways of dealing with conflict in school. We also ask our participants, “ How many of you learned to deal with conflict at work? ” A few more hands will go up but rarely more than 10 percent.
  1. We suggest one more preliminary question: “ How many of you believe that conflict is something that inevitably arises in the workplace? ” Nearly everyone usually agrees with this, largely because of their personal experiences. This point
    can be further emphasized by referring to the Center for Creative Leadership study we mentioned earlier that found that 85 percent of leaders encounter conflict on a regular or continual basis (Center for Creative Leadership, 2009).

6. At this point it may be helpful to recap: Conflict is inevitable. We generally use negative words to describe it (but there are a few positive words as We generally use avoidance techniques when it arises. It can be emotionally distressing, and we’ve never learned how to address it effectively. With all of that, participants readily agree that there is little doubt why conflict is such a vexing problem.

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