The study of conflict. The nature of power in conflict

The problem of interpersonal conflict is worth studying, because it happens every day in each sphere of life. My research includes in itself common and private cases in order to see the possible ways of solving this problem. By studying definitions of such terms as conflict and power, it is essential to analyze the reasons of conflicts’ appearing and to consider the perceptions of power in conflicts

The complexity of human interaction creates the inevitability of human conflict. How conflicts are recognized and resolved depends on a complex interpersonal communication process known as confrontation. Confrontation involves a process of face-to-face communication through which conflicts are uncovered and managed.

Confrontation “is viewed as an interpersonal invitation to identify self-defeating and harmful defenses and to take advantage of opportunities to learn better ways of managing conflicts. Confrontation involves the skill of challenging an individual to identify ineffective defenses (interpersonal discrepancies, distortions, games, and smokescreens) and to achieve a sense of self-understanding resulting in a functional change in behavior.” (Cahn D.D., 1990, p.225)

 “Power is viewed as the ability of one person (or group) to influence or control some aspect of another person.” (Levinson, 1971, p.90).  Power is one of the central phenomena of human social life. Yet no sooner does one begin to reflect upon what power itself means than one is confronted by a fundamental problem: It becomes unclear whether power is a positive or a negative feature of human social relations.

The use of the term “power” within ordinary discourse seems to reflect a basic ambivalence about the nature of power. The power should be used to make an order in the relationships between parents and children or chiefs and employees.

It is applied to make the workers disciplined and in some cases to improve their abilities. Seen from this perspective, conflict is omnipresent in such relationships, particularly those involving young workers. Although in the case of conflict’s appearing a person which social or age status is higher often feels domination on his or her oppositionist. It leads to the actions of the person whose state is higher which may be unnecessary and even harmful. It depends on a concrete person and there are exceptions to this rule, but abuse of power happens frequently.

That’s why this question is worth regarding especially in the cases when the conflicts appear between bosses and workers.

 “Collaboration is defined as being non-hierarchical in nature and a ‘co-operative venture based on shared power and authority. It assumes power based on a knowledge base or expertise as opposed to power shared on role or function.” (Cahn D.D., 1990, p.11)

At my organization the conflicts between doctors and nurses appear routinely. There are different reasons for it. The last case was caused by advice that was given by nurse to a doctor. This correct advice was about the treatment of a patient. The doctor didn’t want to follow this recommendation only because of his obstinacy and I consider because of his wish not to have a look of an inexperienced specialist who listen to advice of a person whose state is lower than his. So, this conflict happened because of doctor’s perceptions of power. In this case the perception was connected with the desire to feel the power.

The conflict was not very sharp, that’s why the normal communication between them was rehabilitated soon. But sometimes doctors can express their perceptions by yelling and swearing at nurses. To my mind it can be called the abuse of power.

“The effectiveness of abuse results from normal interpersonal and intrapersonal processes occurring through everyday communication. In this view, psychological abuse is not intrinsic to specific behaviors, although certain acts (e.g., yelling or swearing at) are almost always abusive.”(Cupach, Spitzberg, 1994, p.292)

Unfortunately it takes place at the organization where I am working and I can’t but agree that such acts have a great influence upon people. The workers become nervous and stressed and it even can arouse a negative attitude towards job, not towards doctors. They are not anxious about his or her duties and sometimes it causes lack of conscientiousness and bad productivity. So, the abuse of power may be more harmful than violence, because the abuse of power turns to occur during normal, everyday interactions, it is also likely to be more prevalent than violence. The point at which prevalent becomes darkest or most harmful remains to be determined.

Both medicine and nursing are aware of the power and conflict within decision making. Medicine has ultimate authority and accountability in the decision-making process. Nursing perceives itself to have reduced power with which to influence and inform decision making. Medicine ascribes this to the subordinate position that nursing perceives themselves in; nursing believes that this subordination is continually re-enforced by medicine.

Moderating behaviors in conflict

The power and influence are intrinsic to all human relationships. The conflicts are also an inevitable part of communication, because every person has his or her own outlook that is almost unique. The reasons of conflict’s appearing are different, but both parties should realize that they can influence on the development of the conflict. Although in the case when one person has power upon another in conflict the consequences may be very serious and can be harmful for a subordinate person’s mentality and his further attitude towards communication.

That’s why this important social problem demands our attention. A concerted attack on the problem of nature of power in conflict should produce a major advance in the field of social psychology.

The studies of conflict resolution try to investigate the tools that could teach individuals how to communicate with other people and resolve communicational problems without violence or abuse. Modern programs include various schemes for all age and society groups to provide for effective communication. These programs have some similar features. As a rule, they include specific models that the people have to follow. For instance, the theory of communication includes the methods of setting ground rules, ability to listen to the opinion of others, finding a common ground, brainstorming and coming to an agreement.

Setting   ground   rules   suggests   a   group   of   people   work   out   definite regulations of communications that all the members of the community have to follow. They also have to put definite patterns that should be avoided – such as blaming, interrupting, crying out etc.

Ability to listen to the opinion of others is one of the most important features necessary to provide for effective communication. Persons need to listen to each other’s opinion and take it into consideration. It is necessary to pay attention to the interests and wishes of other people.

Finding a common ground may be also useful for communication. Shared interests often help people better understand each other. It would be helpful if the people set definite issues and facts that they agree upon and these issues are to serve as the basic ones for future agreements.

One   of   the   most   effective   mechanisms   of   solving the problems may be brainstorming. United efforts often help people find mutual understanding even if they have contradictory opinions. When a group of people works together upon solution of the problem, it allows finding the solution that would be profitable for all the members of the group.

Delivering discussions of individual opinion concerning solutions that were worked out by the group. It is necessary to exchange opinions and try to find a compromise that would be approved by everyone. In the course of discussion each of the persons involved into the dialogue should

represent his or her notion of the agreement that would be accepted by everyone.  The scheme of conflict management should consist of emphasizing superordinate goals, reducing differentiation, improving communication, reducing task interdependence, increase resources and clarifying rules and procedures (p. 229)

There are the ways to give effective solutions of how to resolve conflicts without violence and abuse. These methods are designed as to engage the opposite side into combined activity, which is to lead to forging the decision that would be satisfying for both sides that are opposite to each other. There are special programs that are helpful in resolving conflicts with colleagues at work.

These programs are of a great importance in psychological trainings of the employers, as mutual understanding and tolerance directly influence the working process and performance. It is necessary that the employers are aware of strategies that would be helpful in competitive environment, as it would provide for their emotional security and stability, and be helpful in working performance.

 “Co-workers who grate on each other’s nerves don’t clash with everyone at the office, just those they’re most like. Those who quarrel may actually have very similar personalities”. (qtd in Glicken) According to the results of the poll, concerning this problem, the employers having these problems were very much alike, which helped in pointing out the features that may produce conflict and finding effective solutions of how to resolve conflict cases.

Negotiation in conflict

In some conflict cases it is helpful to force the employers that quarrel with each other, work together in fulfilling the same task. The professor states that even in case the people have opposite opinions, joined activity resolves the conflict if these people act the same way. When the person sees that someone acts similarly to himself, the person feels more convenient and relaxed.

The example from my practice is the following. The dispute between my co-workers was so intense that it affected other employees and the productivity of the working process. One day, when the two employees were alone, they had it out in a blow-up that included insults about each other. What was surprising was that one of them said exactly the same things about his co-worker that he’d said about him. The pair was so surprised by their comments that they stopped fighting.

The first statement of the set of regulations suggests that it is necessary to resolve conflict just after it started. It is important to discuss the problem when it just occurred. As time passes the opposite sides accumulate negative emotions and ideas and may appear to be unwilling to start discussion. Sometimes it is necessary to ask for help one of the co-workers to set a meeting to discuss the situation. Each company has aged and wise people in its staff and these veterans with their experience may be helpful mediators. The system, assigning old employers to the young ones should be formalized. This would not only be helpful in resolving the conflicts, it would also prevent new conflicts.

When discussing the conflict, opposite sides should find out the sources of the conflict and use them in forging out the agreement. Sometimes simple analyses may be helpful in finding out why two persons cannot get along with each other. They should also visualize the situation from the point of view of the opposite side, as in this case they won’t be confused by their egos.

Before starting the discussion both persons should imagine positive effect of their discussion. Each side should think over the result that would satisfy the both, and play the future discussion in mind to find out the most apt remarks to use in future discussion. (Glicken)

When both persons discuss the situation they should try to control their emotions and restrict negativism that may disturb effective dialogue. Each side of the conflict should realize that the main purpose to be achieved is finding a way to settle the things down. This strategy helps people speak calmly and unemotionally observe the statements that previously aroused anger.

Both sides that are involved into the conflict should be sure that the opposite side also suffers with the negative consequences of the conflict and desires to resolve it as soon as possible. People often underestimate negative effect of the conflict on other people:

“It’s a curious thing to watch two people in conflict resolution. First the animosity is so thick, you could cut it with a knife. Gradually, they begin to recognize that the psychological harm caused by the conflict is really debilitating for both people.” (Glicken)

The person should recognize that settling down the problems in communication will provide for personal profits and benefits in professional sphere. It is evident, that if two people will direct their efforts to their professional activity, rather then to conflicts, this would significantly increase the performance. This also leads to emotional stability and feeling of security. If all these strategies do not help, the person should try to avoid the person he conflicts with. This will help reduce the bad effects of the conflict. Sometimes changing the workplace is the only way to resolve the conflict.

The last thing is to think over whether these tactics are helpful or not. If the case is too complex, assistance of professionals may be helpful. If the conflict happens with different persons in different places, this may be the problem that should be resolved by the professionals:

“Downsizings, mergers and other organizational change are common maneuvers nowadays, so focus on creating allies at work who will support you in the long-term.”

Successful career demands knowledge of how to avoid conflict situations and resolve the conflicts that occurred. The strategies of conflict-management are necessary to keep the emotional stability and successful professional activity.


1. Cahn D. D. (1990) Intimates in Conflict: A Communication Perspective. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates: Hillsdale, NJ.

2. Cupach W. L., Spitzberg B. H. (1994) The Dark Side of Interpersonal Communication. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates: Hillsdale, NJ.

3. Levinson, H. (1971) Conflicts that Plague Business. Harvard Business Review

4. McShane, Steven, Von Glinow, Mary Ann. Organizational Behavior. McGraw-Hill/Irwin; 3  edition (March 10, 2004)

5. Glicken, Morley. How to Resolve Conflicts With Your Co-Workers. Career Journal.

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