Interpersonal Conflict Resolution

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Most of us understand conflict as a negative aspect of social interactions and therefore are inclined to avoid it if possible. Yet theorists contend that conflict is an inevitable part of human association and, to some extent, a necessary one (Straus 1979). In fact, conflict, either intrapsychic or interpersonal, is a pivotal concept in theories of human development (Shantz 1987). Even with its acknowledged importance in human development, however, research on conflict has been relatively recent. This may perhaps have been due to the perception of conflict as largely a negative occurrence and the equating of conflict with aggression (Shantz 1996). If interpersonal conflict is not aggression, what is it? How do individuals respond to interpersonal conflict? What is our theoretical understanding of individual behavior in interpersonal conflict, and what are the factors that are related to how individuals resolve conflicts with others? This entry addresses the above questions with a focus on childhood and adolescence. The term conflict will refer to interpersonal conflict unless otherwise stated.


Interpersonal conflict is an event that occurs between two individuals in the course of interactions. Thus, it requires at least two individuals for conflict to occur; conflict is not an attribute of a single individual (Shantz 1987). According to conflict theory, which draws from symbolic interactionism, exchange theory, and systems theory, conflict is defined as "a confrontation between individuals, or groups, over scarce resources, controversial means, incompatible goals, or combinations of these" (Sprey 1979, p. 134). From the sociolinguistic perspective, conflict is a "social activity, created and conducted primarily by means of talking" (Garvey and Shantz 1992, p. 93). Thus, the main elements of conflict are an interactional context, which is at least dyadic, and the presence of behavioral opposition (Joshi 1997).

An important condition for sustained interactions is the maintenance of interpersonal equilibrium. Conflict causes disequilibrium, and the individuals involved in the conflict can use different ways to move the interactions to an equilibrium. These different ways are conflict resolution strategies and can be defined as "sets of behaviors that seem to subserve a social goal. They may be either conscious, planned means to forseeable ends (as these terms usually connote), or unconscious, automatic or habitual behaviors that have the effect of subserving goals" (Shantz 1987, p. 289).


There are two theoretical models that attempt to explain how individuals respond in conflict situations—the social information processing model and the interpersonal negotiation skills model. The social information processing model focuses on the intraindividual cognitive processes that take place in social situations. The INS model, on the other hand, describes the developmental changes in conflict resolution strategies that cooccur with cognitive changes.

Social Information Processing. According to the social information processing model (Dodge et al. 1986), individuals go through a set of steps in which they process social information contained in social situations. However, the person is generally not aware of these information-processing steps. The individual must respond skillfully at every step to successfully negotiate the situation. The first step is to encode the social cues in the situation, which means that the person assesses the situation in terms of what exactly is happening. The next step is to interpret the cues in the light of previous knowledge, thus forming mental representations of the cues. Thus, the understanding of the situation—why is this conflict happening? why is the other person behaving in this way?—is constructed. Once the cues are interpreted, the individual must generate possible ways of responding to the situation, which in conflict situations would be conflict resolution strategies. This is followed by the choice of an appropriate response, and finally the individual must enact the chosen response behaviorally.

A revision of the model (Crick and Dodge 1994) highlighted the role of arousal regulation, especially between the steps of cue interpretation and generation of strategies. This means that the emotions experienced by the individual may influence the goals and responses generated, and eventually chosen. Thus, the social information processing model focuses on the intrapersonal processes that underlie interpersonal conflict resolution.

Interpersonal Negotiation Strategies Model. The interpersonal negotiation strategies (INS) model (Selman and Demorest 1984; Yeats et al. 1990) draws from both the cognitive-developmental and the information-processing perspectives. It predicts that cognitive development is accompanied by an increased sophistication in the ability to coordinate the social perspective of the self and the other. Three factors implicated in the choice of an interpersonal negotiation strategy determine the developmental level of the strategy—the understanding of the self's and the other's perspective, the purpose of the strategy, and the affective control, or the way in which individuals understand and balance the affective disequilibrium. A fourth factor, the orientation, determines the type of strategy that the individual uses, namely, self-transforming or other-transforming. Children move through four developmental levels of social perspective taking—undifferentiated/egocentric, differentiated/subjective, self-reflective/reciprocal, and third-person/mutual. At the undifferentiated/egocentric level, children are not able to differentiate between the thoughts and feelings of self and the other. Their strategies, therefore, tend to be unreflective and impulsive, using either force or obedience. The differentiated/subjective level is characterized by the recognition that different persons have different perspectives on the situation. However, children understand the perspectives only from one person's point of view. The next level, called the self-reflective/reciprocal level, is the level at which a child is able to mentally step outside the self and take the other person's perspective. Children also understand that people's actions do not have to reflect their thoughts and feelings. Finally, at the third-person/mutual level, the individual is truly able to take a third-person perspective and understand the situation in terms of mutual goals.

One of the strengths of this model is that it views interpersonal negotiation strategies in an interpersonal context, juxtaposing the understanding of the self in relation to the other. However, the focus remains on the individual, not on the interpersonal process of conflict resolution.


Age. There appear to be developmental trends in the use of certain conflict resolution strategies. In the case of aggression as a strategy, the evidence is somewhat contradictory, especially during preschool years. Some findings indicate the use of aggression (Dawe 1934), while others indicate a predominant use of insistence and rare use of aggression (Laursen and Hartup 1989). Overall, the use of power assertion decreases with age and the use of compromise increases with age. The use of compromise, however, may be restricted to hypothetical situations (Laursen and Collins 1994). Thus, adolescents may offer compromise as a solution to hypothetical situations but may report using disengagement as often as compromise (Collins and Laursen 1992). For example, a study of conflict occurring in family talk (Vuchinich 1990) revealed that adolescents are more likely to use standoff (disengagement from the conflict) or withdrawal (physical disengagement from the situation). The use of disengagement may be evident as early as middle childhood (Joshi 1997). Also, the use of compromise may emerge during middle childhood (Joshi 1998). Longitudinal studies are needed to confirm developmental patterns evinced by cross-sectional studies.

Gender. The clearest gender differences are in the use of aggression, with girls being less likely to use physical aggression than boys. During middle childhood, girls may be more likely to end conflicts with friends with disengagement (Joshi 1997). Using the INS framework, an investigation of adolescents reporting hard-drug use suggested that boys are more likely to use other-transforming strategies, whereas girls use both self-transforming as well as other-transforming strategies (Leadbeater et al. 1989). Overall there appear to be no clear gender differences other than in the use of aggression.

The Relationship. The relationship as the context of the conflict is another factor that influences how the conflict is resolved. Relationships that are defined by kinship norms may be considered by individuals as a "safer" context in which to disagree and argue, since there is no immediate threat of dissolution of the relationships (Berscheid 1985; Laursen 1993). Thus, adolescents may be more likely to use compromise with friends than with adult family members (Laursen and Collins 1994). Another dimension along which relationships vary is the distribution of power. Peer relationships are more egalitarian, while a hierarchy typifies parent–child relationships (Maccoby and Martin 1983). We could, therefore, hypothesize that children are more likely to use negotiation and compromise with peers than with parents. How does the resolution of conflict differ between peers and between parents and children?


Research on conflict resolution with peers reveals some general patterns. In one of the earliest observational studies on conflict resolution, Dawe (1934) found that in naturally occurring conflicts in 2- to 5-year-olds, the use of aggression increased with age. Aggression was expressed in behaviors such as pushing, pulling, and striking. Talking during conflict also increased with age. Children resolved most conflicts themselves. When preschoolers' conversations were examined, Eisenberg and Garvey (1981) found that children used verbal strategies such as insistence and repetition, reasoning, and asking for explanations. Subsequent observations of preschoolers (Killen and Turiel 1991) indicated that in a natural setting as well as a lab setting, children ended more conflicts without active resolutions. Laursen and Hartup (1989) found somewhat similar results from their observations of preschoolers. Insistence was the most frequently used strategy, negotiation and aggression were rarely used, and most conflicts were resolved without adult intervention.

At an older age (7 years), children report using predominantly direct strategies (50 percent), such as leaving the scene of interaction, using physical force, or getting help from a third person (Shantz 1993). About 28 percent of the strategies reported were conventional, such as saying "please" or apologizing, and about 20 percent of the strategies used involved reasoning and/or compromise. As mentioned earlier, the use of compromise increases during adolescence but may be restricted to hypothetical situations.


Children, at least until middle childhood, may not be able to understand that friendships can be both supportive and conflictual (Berndt and Perry 1986). Conflict between friends and nonfriends does appear to proceed differently, especially the strategies used to resolve the conflict. An observational study (Hartup et al. 1988) of young children (approximately 3.5 years to 5.5 years of age) revealed that the frequency with which children used disengagement strategies, such as mutual turning away, was greater with friends than with nonfriends. This resulted in different outcomes, with equality occurring with greater frequency with friends than with nonfriends. Also, conflict with friends was more intense than conflict with nonfriends.

In another study, Hartup and colleagues (1993) found that 9- and 10-year-olds showed differences in management of conflict with friends and nonfriends in a closed-field situation, that is, "a situation in which the children cannot choose with whom, what and where their interaction will occur and how long their interaction will last" (p. 446). Children in a dyad were taught conflicting versions of a board game. In this situation, friends disagreed more frequently than nonfriends, and their disagreements lasted longer. Conflict resolution per se was not a focus of the study.

Regarding conflict resolution strategies specifically, young adolescents aged 11 to 14 years showed a greater skill at generating alternatives for resolving conflicts by reacting to hypothetical situations with friends than with nonfriends (Caplan et al. 1991). Similarly, in another study investigating differences in conflict resolution strategies used with friends and acquaintances, Vespo and Caplan (1993) found that children were more likely to use conciliatory gestures with friends than with acquaintances.

At least three reasons can contribute to differences in young adolescents' conflict resolution skills with friends and nonfriends (Caplan et al. 1991). First, friendship is characterized by intimacy and tolerance. Second, children learn and practice conflict resolution in the context of friendship. Third, friendships shape young adolescents' understanding of conflict and expectations regarding outcome (p. 105).

Thus, no clear patterns emerge regarding developmental changes in conflict resolution strategies, except for a decline in the use of aggression. Perhaps individuals use a range of strategies depending on contextual factors, such as the issue of the conflict. Whether this is true is an important question that needs to be answered. Research has indicated that children who are able to resolve conflicts skillfully are more likely to be socially better adjusted (Asher et al. 1982). Theoretically, the use of compromise is considered both desirable and developmentally more sophisticated. How is it, then, that compromise is not one of the strategies frequently used until adolescence? Skillful conflict resolution may be more a matter of the using a strategy more appropriate for a particular conflict than of using a particular conflict resolution strategy.


The context of family relationships is a powerful influence in the development of social skills. Interactions with different family members foster the development of the ability to understand others' feelings (Dunn 1988). During the second year of life, children begin to get into conflict with their parents and siblings with increased intensity and frequency (Dunn and Slomkowski 1992). During the elementary school years, children are most likely to use assertion or insistence at the beginning of a conflict and end the conflict with submission (Joshi 1997). As noted earlier, adolescents may use standoff or withdrawal in their conflicts with parents and siblings (Vuchinich 1990). There is a need for replication of these findings to trace developmental trends, if any, in the use of conflict resolution strategies with family members.

While individuals might use different strategies to resolve conflicts in different relationships, it could be argued that conflict resolution skills learned in the family may transfer to other contexts. Every relationship is embedded in a network of relationships, and thus it must affect and be affected by other relationships (Hartup and Laursen 1991; Hinde 1981; Lewis et al. 1984). How does conflict resolution in one context relate to conflict resolution in another?


Studies indicate that patterns of interactions with parents serve as models for children that they can use with peers (Parke et al. 1992). The level of conflict in the family was found to be predictive of adjustment in school (Tesser et al. 1989). Most of the research related to conflict resolution between parents and children uses parental disciplinary style as the indicator of parents' conflict resolution strategies with children. Also, these studies are conducted within the social information processing framework. Overall, the findings indicate that children who experience power-assertive styles of discipline are likely to misinterpret social cues and use ineffective conflict resolution strategies (Dodge et al. 1990; Hart et al. 1990; Weiss et al. 1992). However, these studies examine conflict resolution at a more general level, with some emphasis on aggression. When the correspondence between the conflict resolution strategies parents use with children and strategies that children use with peers is examined, some interesting findings are revealed (Joshi 1997). First, parents use different strategies depending on the issue of the conflict. Second, both children and parents use more than one strategy to resolve conflict. For example, a child may use assertion to begin with and then resort to reasoning, and if the conflict does not get resolved, eventually withdraw from the conflict. The use of multiple strategies makes the one-onone mapping of conflict resolution strategies used in two contexts a difficult task. The one correspondence that was found was between the last strategy that mothers used with children and the last strategy that children used with peers. Specifically, children who used reasoning as the last strategy with a friend had mothers who used reasoning as a last strategy with them (Joshi 1997).


One of the features of the research and theory in the area of interpersonal conflict resolution, at least during childhood and adolescence, is that it focuses more on intraindividual processes than it does on interindividual processes. We still need more research on how individuals involved in a conflict situation influence each other's behavior. The risk of focusing on the individual lies in its inevitable outcome—that the strategy that the person uses comes to be denoted as the person's attribute, which is a stable characteristic. If we know that individuals may use different strategies in different conflict situations, and that they use a combination of strategies, then it would be erroneous to describe conflict resolution styles in terms of single strategies. Thus, the important variables that need to be examined along with conflict resolution strategies are the issue of the conflict, the relationship between the individuals, and the strategies of the other individual.

The conceptualization of interpersonal conflict resolution as a process will be better accomplished by measurement that reflects process. Therefore, interpersonal interactions must be characterized by the assessment of the behavior of one person as contingent on the behavior of the other person. This would require the development of newer models that would predict individual behavior in conflict based on the aforementioned contextual variables.

Besides achieving the goal of depicting conflict resolution with greater accuracy, the study of contextual variables will help us better understand what exactly constitutes general conflict resolution skills. This knowledge will be particularly useful in planning interventions for individuals who find interpersonal conflict situations challenging.


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Anupama Joshi

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Interpersonal Conflict Resolution

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