Defining Interpersonal Conflict and Violence

William Ury begins the first chapter of The Third Side with a simple story. Two friends of his were almost run over by a speeding car. One of his friends got angry and smashed the hood of the car with his fist. The driver, infuriated, stormed out of the car. It turns out that the driver was black; Ury’s friends are white. So, this rapidly escalating conflict immediately also took on racial overtones. Then, an elderly black man came up and put his hands down as if to say, “OK, cool it.” As Ury finishes the story, “the young man visibly struggled to control himself, then suddenly walked back to his car, got in, and drove off without another word.”[1]

You might well ask why it makes sense to start with a story about a bad driver and three pedestrians in an article about intractable conflict. Indeed, this story has little in common with anything else in this data base.

However, in one page, Ury opens two doors. The first is to what he calls “the third side,” the individuals or groups who can help solve a conflict. The second and more relevant door here is to the way interpersonal conflict and violence sheds light on the broader social and political issues which are at the heart of this project.

What Is Interpersonal Conflict

In a very real sense, interpersonal conflict is the stuff of life.

We encounter it every day. My wife and I, for instance, routinely disagree about what to eat, whether we should go to the mall, our relationship with her daughter, if she should retire or not, and, perhaps most important of all, the amount of time I spend writing. I enter into conflict with my students over the grades I give them. And, even at the conflict resolution organization I work for, we have conflicts all the time over what projects who should take on, how we should work with the people who ask for our help, and even how we should clean up our office kitchen.

Interpersonal conflict truly is everywhere. We have road rage on suburban highways, battles of the bands, disputes between neighbors over property lines, arguments between workers and bosses. The list goes on and on.

Why Is Interpersonal Conflict Important?

The importance of interpersonal conflict lies in how we handle it.

One of my colleagues at Search for Common Ground who has helped set up a local conflict resolution center uses the terms “flight, fight, or unite” to describe our options when we encounter conflict.

“Flight” is what scholars call the exit option. Sometimes we can just walk away from it. If someone acts aggressively toward me on Washington ‘s infamous Beltway, I can drive away. If my neighbor turns out to be an impossible, harassing jerk, I can move.

We certainly can fight. It’s not the road rage deaths that are most worrisome here, though there are far too many of them. Spousal abuse, most violent crime, and most schoolyard fights are an outgrowth of interpersonal conflict. The rage seen in American (and other) homes, neighborhoods, workplaces, and schools is very frightening. To some, it reflects our very human nature of selfishness, greed, and a tendency toward violence.

Or, we can unite to solve our differences cooperatively. My wife and I have found ways to become better parents and step-parents respectively simply by talking through our differences of opinion. I can settle almost every grade complaint in a way that not only satisfies the student involved but makes him or her a better student and me a better teacher.

If the interpersonal conflict is intense, however, uniting requires help from what Ury calls a third sider, an individual or group who helps disputants find common interests that can serve as the basis for an agreement. Many families going through the kind of conflict that could lead to divorce seek the help of counselors. Occasionally, I have to turn to my department chair for help if I can’t work out a grade complaint or other conflict with a student. Most American communities have some sort of community conflict resolution service. Mediators and arbitrators are used on a routine basis in American business. Some of them have such good reputations that they can charge hundreds of dollars an hour for their services. Finally, at least 5,000 American schools have peer mediation programs to help minimize the violence that grows out of the inevitable conflicts among young people.

Little black girl gets assaulted
Ain’t no reason why
Newspaper prints the story
And racist tempers fly
Next day it starts a riot
Knives and guns are drawn
Two black boys get killed
One white boy goes blind

— Tracy Chapman

The words of Tracy Chapman come from her debut album. In its 11 tracks, she evocatively tells us about many of the aspects of interpersonal conflict in the United States and beyond — racism, poverty, homelessness, spousal abuse, gang violence, despair, substance abuse, corruption, sexism, and racial profiling by the police.

Some interpersonal conflict is a micro-level version of the international and national disputes which are the focus of this knowledge base. In other words, flight, fight, and unite are the options we have in facing any intractable conflict. Interpersonal and international conflict are not the same, of course. However, in some ways it is easier to prevent international conflict from turning violent because collective decisions have to be made, often by hundreds of people.

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By Chip Hauss


[1] William Ury, The Third Side. (New York: Penguin, 2000), 3.


Chip Hauss