Introduction: Interpersonal conflict reflects the differences, incompatibilities, or disagreements between individuals in a particular relationship whether between coworkers, friends, or romantic partners (Rahim, 2001). It is widely presumed that social support through interpersonal relationships provides a succor of refuge in times of overwhelming crisis or stress. In effect, interpersonal conflict has a logical outcome of increased stress. In fact, seeking emotional social support (e.g. emotions, ventilation), is one of the five most coping mechanism in handling stress (Carver, Scheier, & Weintraub, 1989). However, positive outcomes had also resulted from interpersonal conflict and stress (Katz & McNulty, 1994). Consequently, interpersonal conflicts may be associated with specific psychological and physical dynamics that brought the individual positive outcomes. This paper aims to determine the positive dynamics involved in bring about positive outcomes between conflicting parties both individually and as interacting individuals, such reflection and growth, perceptions of power and control, and distance regulation. Moreover, it will also briefly discuss the most common impacts of interpersonal conflict to the body and the mind as well as some relevant coping techniques.
Promotion of reflection and growth: Essentially, interpersonal conflict invites the parties to take a second look at the relationship, encouraging self-reflection or co-reflection. It promotes better interaction, creating a new system in which the relationship is invited to be in order to restore the equilibrium at a new level (Katz & McNulty, 1994). Thus, it encourages internal change as currently held beliefs and needs are challenged and clarified. This opportunity to change internally consequently invites both parties to grow individually as a person and together as beings in interpersonal relationship. When resolved, the conflict further sharpens the sense of self-identity and solidarity. The differences, when respected and accepted, sharpen personal identity.
Promotion of power and control: Different interpersonal relationships promote different perceptions of power. However, the most important and valuable perception of power are those coming from conflicting parties, be they individuals or groups. Interpersonal relationships between colleagues at work, for instance, often take an integrative form wherein coworkers within a working unit or department tend to band together to achieve their common goals. In this form, both parties in the relationship are expected to contribute something in the relationship (Wilmot & Hocker, 2006). The same is true with friendship and romantic relationships when the sources of conflict are external to the relationship. However, when the sources of conflict exist between the parties, the perception of power tends to be distributive as either party in the conflict employ power to gain control over or against another. An increased deterioration of interpersonal relationships consequently escalates concerns over power and with growing overtness. “Stop trying to control me,” a spouse may tell the other. Or, the co-worker declares, “We’ll see who the boss is around here!” Or, a female friend shouts at her female friend, “Just who do you think you are?” Dissatisfaction in the relationship tends to be three times more likely to escalate episodes of conflict and focus on power than those who are satisfied. To resolve this power struggle, conflicting parties need to refocus their minds from distributive perception of power to the integrative standpoint. In this way, the couple, for instance, will recognize that any external problem that triggered the conflict (e.g. work stress) can be managed when they view themselves as an integral unit with a unified power to confront the problem more effectively.
Regulation of distance: The attachment theory presumes that human beings have a biological drive for mutual proximity (Kaitz, Bar-Haim, Lehrer, & Grossman, 2004). Since infancy, they possess a system of behavioral attachment the automatically responds to the presence of distress. However, this inborn attachment system gets increasingly thwarted as the infant grows to a point that they learn to distance themselves even from their caregivers. These changes overtime later define the adult spatial concepts, e.g. closeness, proximity seeking, separation, distance, and avoidance. However, among adults, the stress-induced triggering system among infants is replaced by unique adult feelings about emotional closeness, which effectively define their attachment styles. Thus, the physical distance between interrelated adults (e.g. coworkers, friends or romantic partners) shapes significantly the quality and tone of the interpersonal relationship and their encounter in this context. It helps regulate a level of intimacy that is safe, comfortable, and appropriate. When interpersonal conflict occurs, this physical distance, often including psycho-emotional distance, gets regulated in order to adjust to what is newly defined distance or proximity that is safe, comfortable, and appropriate. Married couples sleeps with their backs towards each other or even sleeps in separate rooms. Co-workers take different routes in the corporate hall to avoid each other. Friends stops calling each other for days. This distancing will continue until the conflict is resolved or at least its negative effect worn down through time.
Effects on the body and mind: Interpersonal conflict has a strong impact on people, even more distressing than other types of stressors, such as work demands, home overloads, financial problems, and transportation problems (Reynolds, et al., 2006). Physically, interpersonal conflict is very effective in increasing cardiovascular tension, and, among those overinvolved in relationships, poor health conduct, poor metabolic regulation, and poor acquiescence with health regiments. Psychologically, it has been known to cause anxiety and depression. Hammen (2003) opined that women are exposed to difficult stressors in most of their formative years (from their identity development through childbearing and childrearing, which apparently can explain their higher incidence with depression than men. These depression-inducing years can lock women into this maladaptive environment contributing to recurrent, if not chronic, depression. In fact, highly stressful life events precede depressive episodes. However, stressful life events only affect the person negatively when they match to the person’s unique vulnerabilities (Cogswell, Alloy, & Spasojevic, 2006). Otherwise, their impact will be minimal to nonsignificant.
Coping strategies in interpersonal conflict: Portello and Long (2001) noted that multiple stressors among female employees in the workplace include threats to self-interest, threats to social relationships, level of perceived control over the stressor, and cognitive appraisal outcomes whether primary or secondary. Primary appraisals are those that have direct or indirect impacts on psychological distress and often mediated the effects of differences among individuals. Of the two known coping strategies, disengagement coping often result from stressors, like threats to self-interest, inadequate perceived control over the stressor, and more upsetting appraisals. This coping strategy is understandable due to its direct threat to the person. This directness merits a self-protective strategy, which only disengagement can quickly turn off the threat. Those that demand engagement coping include threat to social relationships and more control. This means that threat to work interpersonal relationships cannot be effectively managed by disengagement coping. Instead, the person at work needs to increase engagement with other coworkers in order to effectively resolve this stressor. However, following the transactional framework of Richard Lazarus vulnerability to occupational stressors may also be mediated by the person’s affectivity state. A person who is negatively affective, who possesses pervasive disposition to experience a broad spectrum of negative moods (e.g. anger, anxiety, and depression), tends to negatively look at stressors and experiences more interpersonal conflicts, less forgiving appraisals, and often maladaptive coping behavior. Thus, negative affectivity pushes the person to perceive other people in the relationship with pessimism, resulting to awkward as well as distrustful interpersonal relationships. This absence of trust between coworkers increases the likelihood of interpersonal conflict and, thus, heightened occupational stress levels. The higher the negativity affectivity, the greater will be the number of potential flashpoints in the relationship between coworkers.
Conclusion: Evidently, positive developmental effects had been documented in interpersonal conflicts among already known negative outcomes. The conflicting parties learn to reflect upon their individual physical and mental dynamics during the episodes, learn important insights essential for their personal growth, manage power perceptions and utilization, and modulate physical and mental distance. Negative physical and mental (e.g. depression or anxiety) outcomes were also noted. Moreover, the coping strategies are available to effectively manage outcomes. However, variances in the vulnerabilities of a person to specific areas of interpersonal conflict and in the effectiveness of their coping strategies determine the long-term gains or losses from interpersonal conflict and stress. Oftentimes, though, the resolution of conflict and the manner of its resolution leaves behind a legacy of growth or wounds that will influence any future relations between the parties involved, particularly their attitudes toward each other at times in an irretrievable manner.
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