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Managing Relational Conflict (5 Classical Tactics)

Conflict between Captain America and Iron Man..
Even Captain America and Iron Man sometimes have beef.

Some people enjoy the spectacle of conflict when it involves others, but people rarely enjoy conflict when they’re the ones involved. Relational conflict owes to differences in personality, interests, worldviews and vision–which get magnified when emotional regulation and benevolent intentions are lacking. In order to put our best foot forward in a conflict, we need to know what tactics are available to us–and what tactics others might avail themselves of in pursuit of their own ends.

The term classical implies a historical basis. As we know, not every tactic is equally ethical, effective, or advisable, even if it has long been a part of people’s traditional arsenal. In sum, the five tactics are 1-) to conquer; 2-) to surrender; 3-) to compromise; 4-) to agree to disagree; and 5-) to go separate ways.

5 Classical Tactics To Manage Relational Conflict

1. The first tactic is to conquer.

In civilized society, this entails an attempt to overpower the other person’s will (“might is right”). Conquer is a common tactic employed when a power imbalance exists between people, in a legal setting, at work, or in socially constructed hierarchies. People who frequently employ this tactic get derided as “bullies,” and ridiculed for “taking advantage of others.” Using one’s power to damage others in the interest of self is a blatant violation of the golden rule. It also sows bad blood in the world that our future selves will have to reap.

Many people with whom we have conflict–family, friends, classmates, co-workers, etc.–are people we have to deal with in the future or on an ongoing basis. When people feel hurt or victimized, they carry resentment, and resentful people seek revenge in subtle and unsubtle ways. It follows that when we damage those around us, we damage ourselves, so this tactic is inadvisable, both on grounds of integrity and pure self-interest.

If you’re going to act in your self-interest, and you have other people around you, then you also want to act in their self-interest, because otherwise, they won’t like you. They won’t cooperate with you, and they won’t compete with you in a reasonable manner. And that’s going to be a catastrophe.

Jordan Peterson On Relationships

2. The second tactic is to surrender.

While attacking aims to diminish the other, surrender diminishes self. We surrender, not when we compromise, but when we refuse to assert our needs, wants, or opinions in the first place. Surrender is one way to neutralize a threat, and it may or may not have moral implications. It is a kind of personal sacrifice, above and beyond what can reasonably be expected. People surrender when they believe they cannot achieve a worthy goal due to the personal or structural dynamics of a situation. Or they believe that they can achieve their goal, but it would prove too costly.

People also surrender in order to placate someone they love. The idea is to deny one’s needs, wants, or opinions in the interest of the relationship. However, while surrender may spare us conflict in the short-term, it almost always kills us a little on the inside; and the effect of self-deprecation can grow like cancer over time. In good relationships, bilateral attempts are made to resolve conflict, so surrender as a tactic is far from ideal.

3. The third tactic is to compromise.

When we choose compromise, we pursue a solution that we know is less than our ideal outcome. When we compromise, we offer something that we value in exchange for a concession from the other party. “If you give me A, I’ll give you B.” Or “I’ll do activity A more, or activity B less, because of your express wishes. And here’s what I ask from you.” The essence of compromise is give-and-take. The closer to a 50/50 split, the better; however, perfect balance is rarely the case in reality. Someone with a heart of compromise typically does not split pennies, because doing so could jeopardize the outcome.

Compromise, to my mind, is the most noble tactic to pursue because it promises the most for all parties while relinquishing the least in return. In popular parlance, successful compromise is referred to as a “win-win.

4. The fourth tactic is to agree to disagree.

Some people are not willing or able to compromise for whatever reason. Unlike the tactic of compromise, no satisfactory resolution is reached when parties agree to disagree. Both parties acknowledge their outstanding differences and do their best to navigate the situation moving forward. Unlike the tactics of conquer and surrender, no one’s needs, wants, or opinions are outright quashed or relinquished; rather, they are identified, but a lack of agreement keeps them from being fulfilled. The essence of agreeing to disagree is adaptability.

Adaptability says, “I can’t change the person or situation, but I can change how I react.” People who genuinely agree to disagree take steps to mitigate conflict owing to their unresolved differences. Agreeing to disagree is far from ideal, but it enables people to continue doing life together.

5. The fifth tactic is to go separate ways.

When neither party surrenders or is conquered; when a compromise cannot be reached; and when both parties are not able to agree to disagree (personal intransigence or high recurrent costs), then parting ways is the only option that remains. It may be easy to exit a situation with acquaintances, coworkers, and people with whom we have little attachment or history. However, saying good-bye to friends and family can be a traumatic experience.

Then Abram said to Lot, “Let there be no strife between you and me, and between your herdsmen and my herdsmen, for we are kinsmen. 9 Is not the whole land before you? Separate yourself from me. If you take the left hand, then I will go to the right, or if you take the right hand, then I will go to the left.

Genesis 13:8-9

At the end of the day, peace of mind trumps all. If conflict cannot be resolved, then it ought to be managed with this imperative in mind.

For more, see the complete archive of articles on integrity.

An intellectually curious millennial passionate about seeing people make healthy, informed choices about the moral direction of their lives. When I’m not reading or writing, I enjoy hiking, web-making, learning foreign languages, and watching live sports. Alumnus of Georgetown University (B.S.) and The Ohio State University (M.A.).

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