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WHY We Fight in the First Place (and Why We Need to Know Why)

So in case you don’t know I did a LOT of time in college studying conflict, both as an undergrad and as a grad student (back in the late 80’s and early 90’s. We didn’t even have cellphones then – can you imagine? How did we SURVIVE?)

That study was fascinating – I really enjoyed what I learned then. One of the most important things I gained was a practical definition of WHY we fight. It is an outstanding and useful definition. Brace yourselves – it’s a little dry, as only textbooks can be, but we’ll get past that quickly:

“Conflict is an expressed struggle between at least two interdependent parties who perceive incompatible goals, scarce resources and interference from others in achieving their goals.” (Hocker & Wilmot, 1997)

Alrighty, permit me to translate that. We fight when we:

1) want or need something.

2) we think there isn’t enough to go around,

3) think someone is getting in our way to get that thing we want or need,

4) we HAVE to work with that person TO get what we want

5) want it badly enough to finally tussle for it (metaphorically)

Or, to summarize even more, our needs and wants are blocked AND in limited supply, but we can’t get them until we negotiate our way to them with another person. So, you may be asking, why is this definition so great?

Let me count the ways.

It clarifies that conflict doesn’t happen with just anyone. In fact, conflict only usually happens with someone we have some relationship with, even if only a temporary one. This implies that most conflict is going to come from those we either choose to or HAVE to interact with on a regular basis. We rarely fight with strangers. We HAVE to, sooner or later, wrestle with those in our personal world.

(Which means, of course, that we’d better be somewhat prepared to deal effectively with conflict when it shows up.)

Many of us learned to see conflict as a failure of relationship health or function. Adults don’t fight, or shouldn’t fight. That’s not only incorrect, it’s wildly inaccurate. At some point I’m going to need to wrestle with you, my friend/partner/co-worker/boss/person in my life, and if I don’t wrestle with you the problem between us will begin to fester. (That doesn’t sound familiar, does it?)

Conflict means that we believe that someone is standing between something we need/want and us getting it. They may or not be in the way in reality (or they really are in the way, and we need to negotiate) but if we think they are then we’re ripe for some potential conflict. Part of what makes conflict so inevitable and necessary in ongoing relationships of any stripe are these perceived blockages. The longer we go without clarifying and resolving those blocks the more likely we are to fall into unplanned for (and potentially damaging) conflict.

Let’s say I’m racing to complete a deadline, and anxious to avoid the penalties, whatever they are in my mind, to missing that deadline. Let’s say further I need to choke down some lunch, but the nice guy that makes my sandwiches at Subway is nattering with another customer while SLOWLY making that person’s sandwich.

On any other day (without a deadline) I might be a little annoyed or frustrated at Nice Guy’s methodical and chatty pace, but today it’s BAD. I NEED MY SANDWICH NOW! Nice Guy’s slowness is getting between me and my sandwich. (This, by the way, explains all that less-than-stellar behavior we see on the highways and thoroughfares of our driving lives, doesn’t it?)

The sandwich order may not be the end of the world, but there are plenty of situations at work and home where we think we need something, and another person is standing in our way. How are we going to manage that if we’re avoiding conflict at all costs? How much additional pain, frustration and unnecessary friction are we creating in our avoidance?

And, oh yeah, what we want is in short supply – at least where we are. If I could just step next door and get a different sandwich I would do it. Except I can’t. Sandwich Guy’s Subway has me over a barrel, because it will take MORE time than I think I have to go somewhere else. In my view the resources I want are limited, and YOU, whoever you are, are limiting/hindering my access to those scarce resources.

It doesn’t have to be sandwiches! It could be 30 minutes of me time. It could be my favorite television show (although pads and DDR technology make TV show fights somewhat less likely these days. Again, how did people SURVIVE in the days of “MASH” and “Hill Street Blues”? It makes me wonder if the advent of the VHS recorder saved modern civilization…)

It could be your looming project deadline and your boss suddenly dropping a new project in your lap with a get-it-done-yesterday order. It could be your co-worker skipping that meeting you absolutely had to have to get to your next to-do item. It can be anything where I think I need it, you’re in the way in my thinking AND I can’t easily get it another way. Conflict, here we come, or at least I’m going to have to work with you somehow to get what I need.

Avoidance Only Takes Us So Far

Ever wonder why people “suddenly” blow up, apparently out of the blue? Now you know. Nobody every blows up out of the blue. They react when someone is, essentially, getting in their way.

As I mentioned earlier perpetual avoidance of conflict brewing is a strategy of limited duration. Sooner or later someone is going to “feel the burn” and have to face, in some fashion, the conflict they are avoiding. How will that go if we haven’t prepared for that potential conflict?

Well, most of us know, don’t we? Often things go sideways because, by the time we’ve reached the HAVE to confront the issue moment we’re usually upset, crazed and not in the best frame to have that difficult conversation.


1) Apply, briefly, the lens of this definition when you’re feeling scratchy or frustrated with someone. How are they interfering with you getting to what you want? Where are you thinking that resources are scarce and their goals are in the way of your goals?

2) Is that blockage real or perceived on your part? If real, what can you do to negotiate getting what you need? If perceived, what do you need to do in your thinking to change that perception?

3) How could the other person (people) be seeing this situation? How are YOU getting in the way of THEIR needs/goals? What possibilities exist to make this win-win?

Sometimes just asking these questions can change the situation, if only in our thinking. Sometimes we have to wade into the difficult conversation/risk the temporary conflict necessary to work through the issue or problem. But just understanding WHY we find ourselves in the neighborhood of potential conflict can do a great deal to help us think about it and manage it more effectively.


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