For most of us, the experience of conflict in interpersonal relationships is a negative one; but it does not have to be. Conflict, actually, can be positive or negative, constructive or destructive, based on how we approach, engage in and navigate the conflict. Disagreements with family members, friends and coworkers do not have to be relationship-damaging experiences. Arguments do not always have to end badly. Instead, constructive conflict can occur, and our relationships can be strengthened rather than weakened by the conflict.
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Destructive conflict occurs when two or more people engage in actions and behaviors that result in increased antagonism instead of conflict resolution. For example, when two coworkers begin to make verbal attacks and use threatening gestures during an argument, the conflict between them has become destructive. Constructive conflict, on the other hand, occurs when people express disagreement without hostility and with a commitment to effective resolution of the conflict. For example, two family members may discuss an area of disagreement until a mutually-agreed upon resolution is reached.
Features of destructive conflict include disparaging remarks and personal attacks, defensiveness and rigidity. Individuals who engage in destructive conflict may also exhibit signs of competitiveness during the conflict, or they may seek to avoid the conflict altogether. Features of constructive conflict include support and respect for others, as well as openness and cooperation. Individuals who engage in constructive conflict concentrate on the issues at hand and maintain a commitment to resolving the conflict successfully.
A number of factors can contribute to destructive conflict in personal and professional relationships. A history of unresolved conflict can significantly increase the potential for destructive conflict, and past experiences with conflict can also influence how people respond to disagreements and arguments. Constructive conflict often grows out of healthy and trusting interpersonal relationships among those involved. Isa N. Engleberg and Dianna R. Wynn, in "Working in Groups," explain that constructive conflict occurs in relationships where people "can disagree and still respect one another."
Destructive conflict often contributes to an ongoing cycle of anger, fear and isolation between individuals and within a group. When destructive conflict occurs, the people involved will feel a number of negative emotions as well, such as rejection, resentment and shame. Constructive conflict, on the other hand, has many positive benefits, including feelings of security and well being. Dan O'Hair, Gustav W. Friedrich and Lynda Dee Dixon, in "Strategic Communication in Business and the Professions" explain that when constructive conflict occurs, people adapt better to conflict situations and make more effective decisions toward resolution.
Conflict resolution skills, such as controlling verbal aggression and practicing active listening, can be learned. In fact, the more you learn why conflict occurs and how to resolve it effectively, the more adept you will become at negotiating conflict in personal and professional relationships. Improving your non-verbal communication skills alone, such as making appropriate eye contact, using encouraging facial expressions and maintaining calm vocal expressions during an argument, can contribute considerably toward defusing potentially destructive conflict situations.