On Resolving Interpersonal Conflict

As a voluntary worker, I get to go on quite a few interesting workshops, and one that sparked a few light bulb moments for me was a short course on Conflict Resolution – the idea being to learn how to recognise the signals of conflict arising between people and how to handle it from there. It’s all about interpersonal relationships – fleeting, those in development,  or established ones – and conflict can arise at any time. Once I reflected back on some interpersonal conflicts of my own that frequently rendered me somewhat speechless and trying to fathom what on earth was going on, I realised the points addressed on the course could have come in very handy back then…

So what is interpersonal conflict?

Being in any situation where your concerns or desires differ from those of another person or persons.

And the most significant cause of this conflict arising is due to different psychological expectations being present. These are unseen and un-negotiated agreements which possess a strong psychological force. They are highly subjective, not explicit or written down, yet they exert a powerful influence on  behaviour because they capture what people really believe they will get from a particular relationship. So since this is the core factor operating in any conflict, frequently subliminally, I’m going to concentrate on this aspect.

A couple of differing expectation examples from my own life:

When I began working in a science lab as a young adult, the person teaching me the technical ropes was quite cool and antagonistic, and since I was in her company most of the time, it was pretty uncomfortable. Even though I went out of my way to be friendly and appreciative, she was grumpy and terse. After a couple of months I managed to work out why she was being hostile. We were having a conversation that led to how I felt about my job and I revealed that I was simply doing this work as I’d being trained to do in my previous lab job and that the gel plate techniques I was currently doing under her supervision was all I knew . Well her attitude visibly changed. She then knew that I was not some ‘expert’ that was going to take over from her, outshine her or oust her out somehow. I was astounded when I realised that this must be what she’d been thinking, and when she found out she actually knew so much more than me in relation to the work, she became relaxed and friendly (as I’d expected her to be in the first place). So there were differing expectations going on that made our relationship tense to begin with. If we’d talked about it at the beginning, this conflict could have been avoided – it seemed she wasn’t sure why her boss ‘professor’ had taken me on, so he hadn’t done a good job in this respect either.

Another example was when I joined an artists cooperative, run by the members themselves. We sold our ‘craft’ through a shop and had regular meetings to work together as a group to make decisions and allot tasks. What frequently cropped up here was that one founder member expected us all to come to the same decision whenever we put anything to a vote. So if you are familiar with  Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Social Contract, what this person was expecting was that those who differed would be persuaded by the majority in order for us all to ultimately agree and so the general will (all in agreement and the will of all) would be carried forward. This view basically means  no one is permitted to stay in disagreement, even if these disagreeing persons are fine with the democratic method of voting in that the majority prevail and those who have lost the argument/case, agree to abide by majority rule with good grace. So what happened? This ‘general will’ believer would expect for the discussion to continue until we all agreed…with the result that there were longer meetings, increased tensions, a feeling of being badgered/badgering, a feeling of being oppressed or oppressing. This person also would object to decisions voted on at a meeting, even when they were not present at that meeting. I used to get really hot under the collar about all this, and ultimately there was no trust whatsoever between the two of us because our differing expectations placed us poles apart. I once said to them ‘But we can’t always all agree’, the response they gave was ‘Yes, but it’s better if we do.’ Cue wide-eyed incredulity from me.

You can see it doesn’t just have to be eruptions of temper, shouting matches, overt sarcasm or other kinds of passive-aggressive projections, it can be quite subtle. Say friend A lends friend B some money. A expects B to pay it back when they can. B is positive it was a gift and is shocked and affronted when A wants repayment – all because they didn’t lay out their expectations at the beginning. Or person B lends person A a novel. B thinks they will read it straight away, then promptly give it back. Person A thinks they’ve got as long as they want to read it and there’s no hurry whatsoever to return it. What are these kinds of situations going to do to the friendship? These differing expectations are so insidious!

They come from our unmet needs, unresolved issues, family ‘norms’, past experiences, the way we deal with others. They reveal themselves in comments like:

But I expected you to…

I thought we would be…

I hoped…

Why didn’t you just…

That is just a given…

 How to handle these interpersonal conflicts born of underlying different expectations:

1. As far as possible clarify expectations, preferably before the conflict ensues.

2. Keep you body language open and relaxed and make sure you’re on the same level as the other person, preferably sitting down.

3. Consider this quote from Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning:

 ‘Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.’

So take that space to breathe, relax, recognise what’s happening and consider which of a range of responses works best for the situation and best for you.

4. Defuse someone else’s fury by listening to them and letting them vent, maybe ask them to sit down and make them a coffee. It can be that simple to help calm the situation. Let them get it off their chest, then if you are the cause of their anger, you can have a go at:

5. Being calm and open-minded and trying to understand where they are coming from and openly acknowledging this and their feelings, but then saying how you feel, and where you are coming from, before going on to trying to solve the conflict through one of these possibilities:

Cooperation – win/win for situational harmony

Compromise – I win some, you win some

Letting it go – if you’re better off that way,  or simply want to keep the status quo

6. Make sure you find out the exact context of the problem. We need this to more fully understand, empathise and clarify, because otherwise, we can project our own feelings or interpretations to fill the gaps and make the situation so much worse.

7. Be aware of your own stress triggers – what makes you personally angry or offended? What winds you up? What can’t you stand? The more self-awareness you have, the more you can observe the conflict objectively as it arises, and then consider your responses, instead of emotionally firing off your defences in fight mode, which will, in any case, result in you feeling quite vulnerable afterwards.

8. Learn to appreciate different perspectives from your own, so you have a kind of psychological flexibility and wider frames of reference to draw upon.

That’s it on this for now, but I’m going to come back to expectations again – on how our personal expectations can cause us internal conflict and how we might be far better off without them.

Happy relating!


(Pic from Pixabay)
(Gif from Giphy.com – hurrah, my first one!)



About lynnefisher

Writer and visual artist living in Scotland, INFJ type Writer's blog: lynnefisher.wordpress.com Art: lynnehenderson.co.uk Twitter @writeartblog Writers page Facebook https://www.facebook.com/lynnefisherheadtoheadhearttoheart/ Artists page Facebook https://www.facebook.com/lynnehendersonartist/
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4 Responses to On Resolving Interpersonal Conflict

  1. Interesting Lynne. These underlying expectations are often there in marriage too and years can go by before one or both parties realise they have an idea of outcome but it was never expressed and had been assumed. Before committing couples should answer a few questions like ‘What do you expect from this relationship. What type of life style do you envisage? Who will be the bread winner?’ etc.etc.
    That ‘space’ you wrote about is there but if the emotions have risen, like a trigger pulled, and the bullet fired there can be damage which has to be dealt with first and it can be hard to find that ‘space’.


    • lynnefisher says:

      Yes, Sylvia, you’re completely right about marriage/couple relationships operating like this too – in fact they are probably the most volatile when hidden expectations are dragged into the light due to what’s at stake. As always, its communicating that needs to be done, but as you say the space can easily be bypassed by the urgency of firing off in retaliation with ensuing ‘fall out’. I’ve certainly been there and done that! Thank you for your thoughts.


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