Group Communication, Conflict and

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What is conflict? Is it the clash of personalities? Is it a difference of opinion? Is it a misunderstanding? Is it the attempt to right a wrong? Is it a contest for scarce resources? Group members engage in conflict for all these reasons. It seems that everyone knows conflict when they see it. Yet, when individuals experience conflict, they find it difficult, at best, to understand it and deal with it. The same is true for those who study it.

How and Why Groups Engage in Conflict

Group communication researchers pay special attention to how conflict is expressed, created, and managed through communication. While they recognize numerous causes for conflict, they focus on the variety of ways in which group members use messages to express conflict. Researchers' special interest lies in how people use messages to manage the "causes" of conflict, such as the scarcity of resources, differences between personalities, differences between ideas, and even differences about how to handle differences.

Group communication researchers are keen to learn the ways in which communication itself contributes to conflict. Consider how group members' beliefs about conflict can differ depending on their habits for handling conflict. One group member may handle conflict through avoidance. Such a person will change topics, become quiet, or avoid contact when he or she anticipates that conflict will occur. That person probably believes that talk, instead of solving conflict, will only makes it worse. Thus, from this perspective, talking about conflict only draws attention to the things that cannot be changed (e.g., personalities, scarce resources, habits). Another group member may handle conflict through confrontation and persuasion. Such a person will raise questions, challenge what others say, and will generally speak up when conflicts emerge. That person probably understands that personalities differ and resources are usually unequally distributed. However, this group member sees talk as a way to remove misunderstanding between group members and to influence group members to act differently. Group communication researchers investigate how communicating about conflict changes the conflict circumstances and whether talk ends or continues a conflict.

How messages are used to resolve conflicts is a central concern in the study of group communication. This focus has consequences. What group communication researchers know about conflict concentrates on the conflict between group members, the conflict styles of individual group members, and the conflict management techniques that serve as a vehicle for resolving conflict. The result is a preference for studying conflict styles of group members and how to make conflict productive by turning it into cooperative decision making. The assumption is that conflict is an inherently bad thing that should be eliminated. How conflict happens in groups and how groups influence the conflict behavior of their members are two things that are not as well understood. Such a shift in focus draws attention to conflict as a source of growth, innovation, and quality decision making.

Conflict can be useful if it brings about needed change, test ideas, challenges illegitimate authority, or leads to increased cohesiveness. Group development researchers generally agree that groups go through a conflict phase. B. Aubrey Fisher (1970), in particular, suggests that groups can cycle through many conflict phases during decision making. During the conflict phase, group members are testing their ideas and opinions against each other, but they are doing even more. It is during the conflict phase that opinion leaders emerge. The conflict phase helps group members learn what their roles will be, how decisions will be made, and what the group will value. These are important issues that the group must continuously negotiate.

How individuals prefer to handle their own conflicts shapes the understanding of how conflicts happen. Avoiders, for example, tend not to see talk as a useful way to solve conflict, while competers see talk as a useful way to resolve conflict but not necessarily as a way to cooperate. Thus, group communication can help people understand their own habits and views of conflict. This can help individuals and groups learn how better to handle the conflicts that they face.

Conflict Styles and Tactics

The term "conflict style" refers to a person's inclination to act in a particular way when faced with conflict. Styles differ in terms of how much concern a person shows for self (competitiveness) and how much concern a person shows for the other (cooperativeness). According to the classic description of conflict styles set forth by Robert Blake and Jane Mouton (1964), five styles can be distinguished in this way: forcing, smoothing, withdrawing, compromise, and collaboration. Forcing involves high competition and low cooperation on the part of an individual. Smoothing is the opposite because it involves low competition and high cooperation. Withdrawing involves low competition and low cooperation. Compromise involves moderate competition and moderate cooperation. Collaboration, which is often taken to be the ideal style, involves high competition and high cooperation. These five styles are popular in training literature on conflict management because the distinctions help people understand and adapt to how others engage in conflict. It is generally believed that no one style is best but that each style has advantages and disadvantages. For example, collaboration seems best but is very time consuming. A competitive style seems bad because it escalates the conflict, but escalation is sometimes needed to move the conflict forward.

There is controversy over whether styles are the most accurate way to describe how people engage in conflict. First, critics point out that styles refer to what people believe they do in conflict rather than what people actually do. Second, critics point out that styles refer to individuals rather than the groups and contexts, which ignores the fact that people can behave quite differently depending on the group norms or context.

The term "tactics" refers to specific conflict behaviors and provides a useful alternative to the term "styles." When people deny a situation or make noncommittal and irreverant remarks, they are avoiding conflict; that is, they are staying away from issues or concerns that are important to the group members. Alan Sillars (1980) distinguishes avoidance tactics, like those just described, from competitive and collaborative tactics. Competitive tactics include personal criticism, rejection, hostile jokes, and denial of responsibility. Competitive tactics engage people in overt conflict and often contribute to conflict escalation. Collaborative tactics include descriptive statements, concessions, supportive remarks, and soliciting statements. Collaborative tactics engage people in overt conflict but enable participants to cooperate in resolving the conflict.

The identification of tactics makes it possible to understand how a conflict unfolds when people in conflict communicate. Studying tactics draws attention closer to the messages that group members use to engage in conflict. Tactics help researchers see how conflicts escalate and de-escalate due to the types of messages that are exchanged. In addition, tactics can be used to understand how messages can be used to change the escalation of conflict into cooperation. For example, if one group member uses personal criticism, hostile jokes, and other competitive tactics, another group member may use descriptive statements, concessions, and other collaborative tactics to make the discussion more productive.

How People Should Engage in Conflict

Imagine a leading member of a social club proposing that member dues be raised. When the person makes this proposal, another leading member disagrees and points out problems with the proposal. The person who proposed the measure defends the position against what feels like an attack. The person who is opposed to the measure continues to disagree by picking on very fine details of the proposal. The disagreement escalates until the group and the meeting stand in a stalemate. What should be done? What often happens in a discussion about positions, as in this example, is that people begin to feel that they are being attacked personally, rather than that their ideas are being attacked. A discussion can turn into a hostile exchange of barbs or into a steely silence quite quickly.

Group communication researchers have addressed the question about how people should engage in conflict. The central idea has two parts. Group members should minimize relational conflict and encourage conflict about ideas. Such advice suggests that it is better to "separate the person from the problem" and "to be tough on ideas and easy on people." This advice could be applied to the situation of the social club.

The messages exchanged by the two leaders in the example escalated the relational conflict and made their ideas secondary concerns. Their discussion became focused on creating the impression of winning or at least avoiding looking like a loser to the other group members. The attack on the proposal led to defensiveness on the part of the proposer, who in turn made the proposal look good in the face of criticism. This only gave the other leader more ground on which to attack. A cycle of defense-attack followed. Most communication research advice suggests that situations like this one should be avoided for the sake of group relations and the group's ability to accomplish its goals. These situations can be avoided by fostering cooperation in the face of an escalating conflict.

The solution, according to most communication research, would involve separating the people from the problem. Thus, another group member should intervene and say, "Let's have the whole group examine this proposal along with some other proposals members may have." This gives the discussion back to the group and draws attention away from the two combatants. The next part of the solution is to be tough on ideas and easy on people. Thus, another group member should intervene and say, "Okay, now that we have more proposals, let's identify the pros and cons for each one." This gives everyone permission to be hard on the issues but soft on the people.

Numerous techniques have been developed over the years to foster "productive" conflict (i.e., conflict that is neither too hot nor too cold and that is neither too hard on the people nor too soft on the issues). These techniques that are designed to help groups cooperate include graduated and reciprocal initiatives in tension reduction (GRIT), reflective thinking, problem-purpose-expansion technique, and facilitation/mediation.

GRIT was proposed by Charles Osgood (1962). It is a method intended to foster cooperation during conflict. The method involves at least one party making cooperative, even conciliatory, moves, without letting down his or her guard. The strategy helps counter the hostile and aggressive moves of the other party. In using GRIT, one person competes for a period of time and then begins to cooperate. When the person begins to cooperate, it must be announced to the other party. This communicates that one could compete but chooses to cooperate, thus suggesting that the other party should follow this approach as well.

Reflective thinking was first proposed by John Dewey (1910). It was later developed by group researchers such as Dennis Gouran (1982) to serve as a way to improve problem solving. Reflective thinking is a five-step procedure that helps groups thoroughly analyze a situation and develop a solution: (1) define the problem, (2) analyze the problem, (3) suggest possible solutions, (4) select a solution, and (5) plan implementation. This procedure helps participants focus their interaction and cooperate on rational problem solving.

The problem-purpose-expansion technique was proposed by Roger Volkema (1983). The technique is designed to help conflicted parties avoid an overly narrow discussion that misses opportunities for resolution. It is easy for conflicted groups to become obsessed with a particular description of the problem. Volkema's technique encourages parties to be creative in developing different ways to understand a problem. They then brainstorm solutions for each different way of understanding the problem. This generates creativity and opportunities for cooperation.

Groups can also use experts, such as mediators and facilitators, to help manage conflict. Mediators and facilitators know a variety of techniques, understand different models for analyzing group communication, and possess experience in helping groups. Facilitators generally specialize in helping groups communicate better when faced with a complex problem to solve. They are especially useful because they help groups avoid destructive conflict that can emerge in decision making. Mediators specialize in helping groups once conflict has been expressed and begins to debilitate the group. Mediators help groups resolve conflicts and restore the ability to work together.

See also:Group Communication; Group Communication, Decision Making and; Group Communication, Dynamics of; Group Communication, Roles and Responsibilities in; Organizational Communication.


Blake, Robert R., and Moutin, Jane S. (1964). The Managerial Grid. Houston: Gulf Publishing.

Dewey, John. (1910). How We Think. Boston: Heath

Fisher, B. Aubrey. (1970). "Decision Emergence: Phases in Group Decision Making." Speech Monographs 37:53-66.

Folger, Joseph P.; Poole, M. Scott; and Stutman, Randall K. (1997). Working Through Conflict: Strategies for Relationships, Groups, and Organizations, 3rd edition. New York: Longman.

Gouran, Dennis. (1982). Making Decisions in Groups. Glenview, IL: Scott, Foresman.

Hocker, Janice, and Wilmot, William. (1991). Interpersonal Conflict, 3rd edition. Dubuque, IA: Wm. C. Brown.

Osgood, Charles. (1962). An Alternative to War and Surrender. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Sillars, Alan. (1980). "Attributions and Communication in Roommate Conflicts." Communication Monographs 47:180-200.

Volkema, Roger. (1983). "Problem Formulation in Planning and Design." Management Science 29(6):639-652.

Mark Aakhus