June 12, 2015

Constructive Conflict

by John Dolan, PGY1 Pharmacy Practice Resident, Carroll County Hospital 

Conflict is a part of our daily lives. Whenever there are multiple people in a room, there will be multiple opinions. Conflict arises when there are differing needs, emotions, or perceptions. Conflict can arise from a threat to something tangible or — more commonly in a classroom — intangible, such as ideas, values, and beliefs. While hot-button issues often provoke different viewpoints, conflict is not always over “big issues.” Sometimes a deadline or how to organize group work can provoke a disagreement. Adult learners are just as likely to conflict with their teachers as other students.1 As a rowing coach, I often provide instruction to adults. They are doctors, lawyers, engineers, and teachers. They are intelligent and have different ideas and perspectives. Handling disagreements among the group can be a delicate matter.  Depending on how the conflict is managed, it can ruin a practice or lead to improvement.

Conflict can descend into animosity and personal animus, creating barriers to understanding and learning. My rowers are usually tired, in pain, and working hard.  It’s easy for them to react emotionally. When confrontation becomes the dominating theme, it can endanger the learning process, and alienate learners from each other. Therefore, it’s critical that both teachers and learners use confrontation in a constructive manner and minimize destructive conflict. It can be helpful to approach conflict resolution in adult education using the same tools successfully employed in business and politics.

Constructive confrontation forces us to re-examine our preconceived notions or beliefs, and gives us an opportunity to see something from another person’s viewpoint. It often resembles collaboration, because there is a dynamic tension in which there is give and take from both sides.  Conversely, individuals who engage in destructive confrontation are more concerned with “winning” and “losing.” Under these conditions, the responses can range from avoiding or withdrawing, to labeling, attacking, or controlling the dialog. Making sweeping generalizations like “[blank] always happens” or attacking with “you would say that” or speaking over the other party is a conflict that does not seek to build consensus or encourage dialog.

There are many conflict resolution models.2,3,4 You can attempt to “force” a win, “accept” a loss, or compromise. Some argue that one should not compromise, but rather “negotiate interests.” This is the foundation of Fisher and Ury’s “Getting to Yes” and the Harvard Negotiation Project.4 

Rahim and his colleagues argue that there is no “best” way to resolve conflict.2 Instead, they propose a model in which one is either motivated by concern for the self or concern for others. Once this is recognized, one must chose from one or more styles of conflict management such as compromising, avoiding, obliging, integration, and domination.2 

Regardless of the model, there are several common recommendations for making conflict constructive:
  • Create a safe space. All parties should remember that they are in a learning environment. There probably isn’t a “right” answer to the disagreement.  It is important to keep in mind that everyone is present to learn – including the teacher!
  • Seek understanding. Fully elucidate the other “side’s” perspective. Often when restated, we come to see that there is not always conflict in the belief, but rather a different path.
  • Define the problem. There is no point in arguing if you aren’t clear what you are disagreeing about. Too often students don’t take a step back and define their interests, goals, and beliefs.
  • Align. If you’ve clearly defined the problem and truly understand the other viewpoint, this is much easier to accomplish. Realize where each position happens to be congruent. Visualize conflict as a path from point A to point B. While the starting and ending point are the same, there are multiple ways to get there – and conflict arises where these paths diverge.  Sometimes we watch video of a good race to have a common goal.
  • Pause. Taking a moment to breath can make all the difference. It will be perceived as thoughtfulness – and can trigger reflection. Reacting too quickly can lead to misunderstandings, and further widen the gulf between two perspectives. I give my rowers a water break before we talk.
  • Use “I” statements. Be careful about assuming someone’s identity, even with good intention. Instead of “You said…”, say “I understand your point to be…” Ground statements in observable facts, if possible. I videotape practice to provide an objective viewpoint.
  • Agree to disagree. Help students understand that total agreement is not always possible if they remain wedded to their beliefs.3,4
As Socrates said, “Know thyself.” Understanding how each student approaches conflict can also be useful. I’ve learned that there are many different personalities in a boat. Successful conflict management is based on having the proper tools and knowing each rower. Consider using a tool such as the Thomas-Kilmann Inventory5, the Kraybill Conflict Style Inventory6, or the Mouton-Blake Managerial Grid Model7 to assess each student's innate styles of conflict management.

Dealing with conflict is a ongoing process; the participants are continually reevaluating themselves and each other. The path might start at “A,” but there is not always an endpoint to a discussion or disagreement. In order to foster constructive conflict, educators must recognize this and constantly search for ways to align their students’ paths. 


  1. Johnson DW, Johnson RT. Conflict in the Classroom: Controversy and Learning. Review of Educational Research. 1979 Winter;49(1):51-69. Abstract available from: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1169926
  2. Rahim M. Toward a Theory of Managing Organizational Conflict. The International Journal of Conflict Management. 2002;13(3):206. Abstract available from: http://psycnet.apa.org/psycinfo/2003-00976-004
  3. Walker M, Harris G. Negotiations: Six Steps to Success. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentiss Hall; 1995.
  4. Fisher R, Ury W. Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In. 3rd ed. New York, NY: Penguin Books; 2011
  5. Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument [Internet]. Sunnyvale, CA: CPP, Inc; 2009 [cited May 13, 2015]. Available from: https://www.cpp.com/products/tki/index.aspx.
  6. Style Matters: The Kraybill Conflict Style Inventory [Internet].: Riverhouse Press; 2015 [cited May 13, 2015]. Available from: http://www.riverhouseepress.com.
  7. Blake R, Mouton J. The Managerial Grid III: The Key to Leadership Excellence. 3rd edition ed. Gulf Publishing; 1994.

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