In order to analyze how to transform destructive conflict into a dispute with a positive outcome, let us begin by exploring the four major types of conflict (categorized by cause): data conflicts, relationship conflicts, value conflicts, and structural conflicts.
Data conflicts occur when people lack the information necessary to make wise decisions, are misinformed, disagree over which data are relevant, interpret information differently, or have competing assessment procedures. This type of conflict is usually the simplest to overcome, by adopting a process to ensure both parties perceive the data in the same way.
These problems often result in what have been called unrealistic or unnecessary conflicts since they may occur even when objective pre-conditions for conflict, such as limited resources or mutually exclusive goals, are not present. They occur due to the presence of strong emotion (e.g., jealousy, mistrust, hatred) and are created from perceptions, poor communication, stereotypes, and so on. Relationship conflicts often fuel disputes, causing them to escalate.
This type of conflict is caused by perceived or actual incompatible value systems. Values are beliefs people use to give meaning to life and to explain what is good, bad, right, or wrong. Value conflicts occur only when people attempt to force one’s set of values on another or lay claim to exclusive value systems, which do not allow for divergent beliefs.
Structural conflicts are caused by oppressive patterns of human relationships. These patterns are often shaped by forces external to the people in dispute. Often, the disputants have no reason to be in conflict other than the structural problem that is imposed on their relationship. Often, these conflicts can be overcome by identifying the structural problem and working to change it. Acceptance of the status quo can perpetuate structural conflict.
Figure 11.2.1 Types of Conflict
“Types of Conflict,” content by the Dispute Resolution Office, Ministry of Justice (Government of Saskatchewan), designed by JVDW Designs, is licensed under a CC BY 4.0 International License.
It is important to understand what type of conflict (data, value, relationship, or structural) you are dealing with before you can effectively work toward a resolution. The solution for each type of conflict will be different and must suit the type of conflict you are addressing. For example, it would be unlikely that you would resolve a relationship problem with a data solution.
Data and structural conflicts have external sources of conflict and are typically easier to resolve; this is done by changing something in the external environment. Conversely, relationship and value conflicts relate to internal sources of conflict and can be much more difficult to resolve. Understanding relationship and value conflicts requires a deep internal awareness and empathy for others. Resolving relationship and value conflicts may significantly challenge an individual’s personal perspectives, which generally makes the process more difficult. Typically, when we are under stress or in an escalated conflict we reach for data or structural solutions to resolve the conflict as these solutions require less time and effort.