Conflict is one of life’s few certainties, but it can look very different depending on the type. There can be conflicts between individuals, within groups, and between groups. Identifying the type of conflict – and the nature of what’s causing it – can help with better conflict management in organizations and between individuals. In this article, we’ll describe the four types of conflict, the three main sources of conflict, and how to effectively address tensions.
Understanding the four types of conflict (interpersonal, intrapersonal, intragroup, and intergroup) and most common causes of conflict (tasks, relationships, and values) can help ensure smooth resolutions.
What are the four main types of conflict?
Everyone has experienced conflict, but not every situation is the same. Some form within an individual’s head and involve no one but themselves. Others involve several individuals or entire groups. Here are the four main types discussed in conflict management theory:
Intrapersonal is another way of saying “internal.” This is the type of conflict that affects one person’s thoughts, feelings, and ability to make decisions. You may feel internal conflict regarding how to ask for a raise, how to solve a particular problem, or how to meet expectations. In your personal life, internal conflict can be existential and involve wrestling with big life decisions or the role you play in your relationships.
Interpersonal conflicts occur between two or more people. In workplaces, it often happens between colleagues who have different perspectives on an issue, but it can also happen between employees and employers, employers and customers, and other people. In someone’s personal life, interpersonal conflict often affects parents and children, romantic partners, siblings, and friends.
Intragroup conflict happens when there are multiple perspectives and disagreements within one group. In a workplace, that would mean clashing between members of the same department. Even if they have the same goals, there may be disagreements about how to get there or a personal issue that stalls productivity. Outside the office, intragroup conflict could look like disagreements among multiple family members. How is this different from interpersonal conflict? They manifest very similarly in someone’s personal life, but intragroup conflict usually affects more people within the family than interpersonal conflict.
Intergroup conflict occurs between different groups. In a work setting, that could mean a disagreement between departments, e.g. the marketing department and the product development team. Each group has its own perspective on how to sell the product, which creates tension and slows productivity. Intergroup conflict can also occur between sports teams, political parties, religious groups, and nations.
Interested in learning more about the types of conflict? This course helps learners identify the types of conflict, illustrate positive traits of conflict, and give examples of how to deal with conflict.
What are the causes of conflict?
Just about anything can cause interpersonal, intragroup, or intergroup conflict. Rather than listing all the possible causes of conflict, we can break it down into three categories: task, relationship, and values.
These are common conflicts at work. If you’ve ever disagreed about distributing time and resources, interpreting information, or finalizing a project, you’ve experienced a task-based conflict. Outside the workplace, task-based conflicts can include disagreements about household purchases, chore division, and other concrete “tasks.” Sometimes, these conflicts are simple to manage because the disagreement is clear. In a work setting, talking through disagreements can even lead to a better outcome as people offer new perspectives and ideas. However, what appears to be a task-based conflict may be hiding something deeper: a relationship conflict.
All relationships are complex, including ones in the workplace. Relationship conflicts stem from personality differences, behavioral differences, and communication styles. As an example, let’s say two people are assigned a project together. One is very extroverted and talkative while the other prefers to work independently and with only necessary communication. The extroverted worker may feel offended or ignored while the introverted person feels micro-managed or overwhelmed. The conflict has nothing to do with work tasks, but rather the personalities and working styles of the people involved. These conflicts can be tricky to manage because of their sensitive nature, but with empathy and good communication, relationship conflicts can be resolved.
Values-based conflicts have deep roots in identity, political beliefs, and religious beliefs. While these aren’t always discussed openly in the workplace, acceptable office-talk norms don’t typically prevent conflicts involving sexism, racism, homophobia, and so on. Conflict can still arise as people react to prejudice or speak on the issues most meaningful to them. Values-based conflicts can be highly emotionally charged as they challenge more than just opinions; people see their values as integral to their identities. Because they carry such high stakes for people, values-based conflicts should be managed with the appropriate care.
How do you manage conflict?
There are four main types of conflict and countless causes that usually fall into task, relationship, or values categories. How do you start managing the complexities? There are several things you should do regardless of the conflict, such as:
Start with self-reflection
Before trying to resolve a conflict, turn inward and consider what triggered the conflict for you. What specific feelings came to the surface and what would a resolution ideally look like? Having as much clarity as possible helps you analyze the conflict and better express your side to the other party.
Practice active listening
Self-reflection gives you clarity on what’s going on inside your head, but active listening gives you insight into the other person. Many conflicts would be resolved faster if everyone involved listened to each other. When emotions are high, it’s easy to make assumptions and react before you have all the information. Active listening keeps you focused on the other person. It also shows you respect them, which improves trust.
Generalizations include words like “always” and “never.” These are rarely accurate and – more importantly – they increase tension rather than ease it. The other person will want to defend themselves, and soon, you’re in an argument about whether or not they “always” or “never” do something. No one can win and it distracts from the actual conflict. Choose your words carefully and maintain focus on the specific situation. If you feel strongly about a pattern of behavior, use less accusatory words like “frequently,” “often,” or “rarely,” though even these may trigger defensiveness. Unless the conflict centers on the frequency of a behavior, you may be better off avoiding any talk about patterns.
Engage only when your emotions are regulated
Emotional regulation is the ability to manage your emotions even while experiencing a stressful situation. You’re not suppressing or denying your emotions; you’re responding in a way that lets you remain in control and present in your body. If you want to manage a conflict effectively, you should only engage when your emotions are regulated. If you’re in an unregulated emotional state, you’re more reactive and less likely to express yourself how you want. Ask to pause the conversation and return when you’re calmer.
Use a mediator
Many conflicts can be resolved with just the people involved, but some benefit from an objective third party. Mediators are professionals who guide individuals and groups through conflict resolution using various conflict resolution methods. In the corporate world, mediators are often hired to try and resolve conflicts before litigation. If the conflict is more personal and involves family or friends, someone outside the group with mediation experience may be able to help.