Constructive Management of Conflict inGroups

Rex C. Mitchell, Ph.D.

Note (2002): Although the original version of this article wasoriginally written over twenty-four years ago, I have only found it appropriate to make minorchanges since then. I still affirm and advocate all the points and suggestions in it, many of which Ihave not dealt with in other articles.

Conflict is inevitable in groups, and its management (and mismanagement) has strong effectson group dynamics. Therefore, it is critically important for specialists in group work to understandconflict and how to manage it constructively.

This article provides a concise overview of important conflict management concepts andstrategies for those working in group settings. Presented first is a brief conceptual basis forunderstanding conflict and group members' behavior when in conflict, followed by specificrecommendations for managing and making use of conflict in groups.


There are many varied definitions of conflict in the literature. One colloquial definition is thatconflict occurs when two people try to occupy the same "space" at the same time. This spacecould range from the simple case of a physical space, such as the last open seat on a crowded bus,to psychological space, in which each party believes that there are incompatibilities in what thevarious parties want. for example, conflict may emerge when two members of a group want to bethe most powerful member. A good definition is offered by Thomas (1976): "conflict is theprocess which begins when one party perceives that the other has frustrated, or is about tofrustrate, some concern of his [sic]" (p. 891). This definition deals with the type of conflict thatoccurs between individuals and in groups.

Conflicts often evoke strong feelings. Typical reactions are that conflict is something to beavoided, that conflict needs to be settled as rapidly as possible, and that participants in a conflictsituation are likely to leave with negative feelings. Even among professionals who deal withvarious aspects of human behavior, a negative view of conflict predominated until relativelyrecently (Kelly, 1970). There now is emerging a more balanced view of conflict; it is seen ashaving the potential of either positive or negative effects, or both, depending on how it ismanaged.

Properly managed, conflict can be associated with a range of positive effects. It can causeproblems to surface and be dealt with in a group, clarify varying points of view, stimulate andenergize individuals, motivate the search for creative alternatives, provide vivid feedback, createincreased understanding of one's conflict style, test and extend the capacities of group members,and provide a mechanism for adjusting relationships in terms of current realities. There also aremany possible negative results from conflict, including reduced cooperation, trust, and motivation.The goal of conflict management, then, is to increase the positive results, while reducing thenegative ones.


It is important for group specialists to be aware of important variables that may influenceconflict behaviors as a basis for intervening productively in conflict situations. The followingmodel is a slight modification of the process model of Thomas (1976, 1979). It has proven usefulin practice, and it is an underlying foundation for this article.

Conflicts are considered to occur in cycles or episodes (Baxter, 1982; Pondy, 1967; Walton,1969). Each episode is influenced by the outcomes of previous episodes and also influences futureepisodes. The model of a conflict episode has six components or stages.

The first stage represents each individual's entering state, which is determined by suchvariables as his or her behavioral predispositions, pressures from the social environment, conflictexperiences with significant others, and previous conflict episodes with the other group members.Typically, some stimulus (the second component) occurs that initiates or catalyzes an episode,although it need not be an explicit event.

The entering state and stimulus lead to frustration (the third stage of the model). Frustrationmay result from a wide variety of stimuli--for example, active interference with one groupmember's actions by another, competition for recognition, the breaking of an agreement, or thegiving of an overt or imagined insult.

The fourth step (conceptualization) is vitally important. The conceptualization of the situationby each group member forms the basis for his or her reactions to the frustration and subsequentbehavior. This step in the episode could be roughly thought of as each party answering andreacting to the imagined answers to such questions as: What's going on here? Is it good or bad forme? Why is this other person doing this to me? An example of a conceptualization is: "You justcan't trust that (type of) person." A dispute between a group member and the leader might beconceptualized by the leader as "this guy is acting out his counter dependent position and trying totake over the group" and by the member as "I must push this issue for the sake of the groupbecause nobody else has the guts to stand up to this arrogant show-off."

Each party in a conflict develops his or her own implicit conceptualization of the situation.Each conceptualization is usually very different from that of the other person in the conflict and isunknown or not understood by the other; it may be unclear even to the person who has theconceptualization. The ways each party conceptualizes the problems and episode have a great dealof influence over the chances for a constructive outcome, the behaviors that will result, and thekinds of feelings that will be created during the conflict episode. Therefore, it is important that theconceptualizations of an event be explored in the group.

The fifth step in the conflict model is behavior and interaction (i.e., a sequence of behaviorsbetween the two parties). The initial behavior is determined heavily by the conceptualization. Thebehaviors of each party have an effect on the subsequent behavior of the other. This interactiontends to increase or decrease the level of conflict.

The sixth and final step in the conflict episode model is the outcome or result of the conflictepisode. The outcome refers to the state of affairs that exists at the end of the episode, includingdecisions, actions taken, agreements made, and feelings of the participants.

Subsequent episodes may happen, with similar or different issues. The process describedabove is repeated for each episode, with the outcome of previous episodes affecting the enteringstate of each party in subsequent episodes.


The behavior of the participants is one of the steps or events in the conflict model described inthe preceding section. A key determinant of behavior is the primary orientation (mode of dealingwith conflicts) of each group member. A useful model of conflict response modes is given byThomas and Kilmann (1974) and Thomas (1976, 1979).

Thomas and Kilmann (1974) categorized a person's orientation in two dimensions: theperson's emphasis on satisfying his or her own concerns and the emphasis on satisfying theconcerns of the other. This scheme can be used to describe ways that group members and leadersbehave in response to conflict, thus providing a helpful tool for group facilitators and members.Thomas and Kilmann (1974) defined five dominant orientations or modes of dealing with conflicts(competing, accommodating, collaborating, sharing, and avoiding), as depicted in Figure 1.

modes diagram

Similar models of response to conflict have been given by Blake and Mouton (1964),Lawrence and Lorsch (1967), and Hall (1969). Recent research and thinking about suchfive-mode conflict response models have been provided by Cosier and Ruble (1981), Jones andMelcher (1982), Lippitt (1982), Musser (1982), Shockley Zalabak (1981), and Thomas andKilmann (1978).

The competing orientation or response mode ofThomas and Kilmann (1974) involves an emphasis on winning one's own concerns at the expenseof another--to be highly assertive and uncooperative. This is a power-oriented mode, with effortsto force and dominate the other, typically in a "win-lose" fashion.

Accommodating is both unassertive and cooperative,concentrating on appeasement and trying to satisfy the other's concerns without attention to one'sown concerns. There is a note of self-sacrifice in this mode, with selfless generosity, yielding tothe other, and acquiescing.

Collaborating is a mode with great emphasis onsatisfying the concerns of all parties--to work with the other party cooperatively to find analternative that integrates and fully satisfies the concerns of all. This mode is both assertive andcooperative. It also requires a relatively large immediate investment in time and energy to do suchjoint problem solving.

Avoiding reflects inattention to the concerns of eitherparty--a neglect, withdrawal, indifference,denial, or apathy. It is neither assertive nor cooperative.

The remaining orientation, compromising, (sharing,or bargaining), is intermediate in both assertiveness and cooperativeness. It reflects a preferencefor partial satisfaction of the concerns of both parties. It might mean trading concessions, splittingthe aifference, or finding a satisfactory middle ground.

Each of us tends to be better at and more comfortable with certain types of behavior inconflict situations. This does not mean that we always respond in the same way. In terms of thefive modes just described, however, most individuals tend to make predominant use of one or afew of the modes, while making relatively less use of the remainder. Each of the modes has value;none is intended to be good, bad, or preferable in all situations. One worthwhile goal for groupmembers is to increase their repertoire of responses to conflict, with the flexibility to use variousmodes in different situations and in appropriate ways. Both Musser (1982) and Shockley-Zalabak(1981) supported this contingency view.

In a group, it is of value to help participants become aware of and provide feedback to eachother about their responses to conflict. Because a group can be viewed as a microcosm of largersettings, the learnings can be transferred to situations outside the group. It also is important tohelp group members realize that all the response modes have value.


Recommendations for Facilitators

The following recommendations are made without drawing any distinctions among differenttypes of group settings or various labels for formal groups (e.g., encounter groups, T-groups,sensitivity training groups, laboratory method, etc.). This is done because the recommendationsare quite independent of group style and also because group labels are used with various meaningsin the literature.

Conflicts occur at various stages in a group's development and center around a variety ofconcerns. In early stages of a group, members begin experimenting with each other and "testingthe water" by expressing negative feelings about other group members and the leader. At laterstages in a group's evolution, periodic conflicts may become more intense (Cohen & Smith,1976). These later types of conflict are what Bormann (1975) called "secondary tension areas."These occur frequently in successful groups, but with mostly positive consequences, such asclarification of goals, sharpened understanding of differences and issues, release of hostility, andhelp in stimulating interest (Forsyth, 1983).

There are several recommendations for group leaders. Often, one of the early efforts by agroup facilitator is to help the group develop norms for dealing with confrontation and conflict.These norms typically include acceptance of and encouragement for conffict, as long as thedifficulties are faced openly and honestly. The facilitator can both model and communicateconceptually about such norms. Also, the leader can provide reassurance and reinforcement oropenness by group members, especially the participants in a conflict episode.

Second, the facilitator can help the members give and receive communicative signals that arereliable and accurate by making interventions to ensure that each party understands the other.Summarizing, clarifying, focusing questions, and cuing active listening by each party are examplesof the interventions that would help this to occur.

Particularly in the earlier stages of a group's development, negative remarks often are indirectand focused away from the object (Corey, Corey, Callanan, & Russell, 1982). It is usuallyappropriate to encourage two changes: (a) replacing indirect confrontation with directconfrontation (e.g., replacing "people aren't being honest about what is really bothering them..."with"Sue, you just... ") and (b) moving the focus to and responsibility for statements to thespeaker, rather than to elsewhere in the group (e.g., "I feel ... " rather than "You are a ... "). Whenintervening to promote such changes, it usually is most productive to work primarily with theperson expressing the negative feelings, although it is also appropriate to check out the reactionsand feelings of the other person receiving the criticism, as well as those of other groupmembers.

A fourth recommendation is to help the members deal with their different conceptualizationsof a conflict situation and events in the group. Often, the parties will conceptualize a situationvery differently, even when they have access to the same information about the situation. Forexample, one member may see another member's active behavior as "he's trying to take over thegroup," while the active member may believe "I'm just trying to be helpful." Individuals haveunique internal frames of reference from which they interpret events and form conceptualizations.A useful book by Culbert and McDonough (1980) that deals with this area is worth attention bythose wishing to develop skills in conflict management.

An area closely related to the previous recommendation is to help the group members inconflict synchronize their efforts toward resolution of the difficulty (Walton, 1969). It is likelythat the two parties may make initiatives and be willing to deal with issues at different times; theymay interpret differences in timing as rejection and indications of bad faith. An important role ofthe facilitator is to help the individuals synchronize the timing, focus, and extent of their overturesand responses. In general, the synchronization of timing is facilitated by helping the participantsunderstand each other's conceptualization.

In most groups, there are some members who thrive on conflict and seem to enjoy it. Suchmembers present challenges for the group and its leader. Frequently, those who thrive on conflictmay be trying to satisfy a drive for identity, a drive for a sense of adequacy, or a drive for power.They may "overparticipate but are not changed" (Kemp, 1970, p. 263). Others may enjoy conflictfor its seeming vitality and energizing qualities for themselves. Members with either of thesemotivations tend to share a lack of commitment to the group and a lack of intention or effort tochange. A third reason that some members overuse conflict, without constructive outcome, is thatthey are not adept at any other modes of behavior.

There are no quick, singular solutions for group members with these types of difficulties;however, there is another recommendation. Direct, constructive confrontation by the facilitator orother group members may be necessary to help some individuals take responsibility for themselvesand make sufficient commitment to even consider change. In the case of a participant who seemsto need conflict because it is energizing to him or her, the group leader might say:
After a hassle with you, I feel like I've allowed myself to be suckered into a game withoutan ending. It's as though you enjoy conflict for conflict's sake and don't really want tounderstand or deal with it.

Conflicts with the group leader also occur for some members. Especially in the early stages ofa group, such conflicts are important and influential in developing the future course of the group.It is particularly important that the leader demonstrate interest in receiving and understandingnegative feedback and show a willingness to learn from it, when appropriate. It also is importantfor the leader to avoid the trap of dropping his or her leadership responsibilities and responding tothe challenge to become "just another member." Balancing these two sets of factors is complexand crucial.

A useful model for renegotiating conflicts and working through disruptions in relationshipswas given by Sherwood and Glidewell (1973) and Sherwood and Scherer (1975). This cyclicalmodel offers a process for dealing with changes, "pinches" (discomforts), and disruptions in theroles of and relationship between individuals.


There is also the specific issue of "casualties" or "injuries" in encounter groups, particularlyraised by the widely publicized work of Lieberman, Yalom, and Miles (1973). Kaplan, Obert, andVan Buskirk (1980) and Bramlette and Tucker (1981) questioned the degree of hazard ofcasualties suggested by Lieberman et al. (1973). Each of these m-ore recent sources reportedfewer severe adverse consequences of groups than did Lieberman et al. (1973).

More important, for present purposes, are the recommendations of Kaplan et al. (1980) aboutways for group leaders to safeguard against the mismanagement of conflict, which those authorsregarded as the primary source of potential injury in groups. Their recommendations for managingconflict constructively to minimize the chances of casualties can be summarized in six categories:

  1. Screening and training of group leaders to ensure competence (especially preparing leadersto circumscribe conflicts among group members and refrain from abuses of their power as formalleaders)
  2. Employing regulation and quality control by peer leaders
  3. Excluding from participation in groups those particularly susceptible to injury
  4. Ensuring that individuals participate only after informed choice (i.e., participating aftergaining a reasonable understanding of what will be occurring in the group)
  5. Making sure that group relationships are sufficiently developed before potent criticisms aregiven
  6. Providing external sources of support, especially when parties of unequal formal power arein the same group.


The importance of group specialists in managing conflicts must be reemphasized. Whenmanaged effectively, conflict can lead to many positive results, and the negative effects can beminimized. There are various ways to respond to conflict, and no single type of response is bestfor all people and situations. Two goals for individuals in conflict are to gain greater awareness ofhow each tends to respond and to increase the range and flexibility of the responses to make themmore appropriate and effective for each circumstance.

Many fruitful areas exist for further research and thinking. Are there differences in prevalentconflict modes in various stages of development of an ongoing group? To what extent dodominant response modes depend on the various members of a group? Assuming that groupleaders also have one or a few dominant conflict response modes, how do these tendencies affectgroup process and the likely responses of group members to conflict? What techniques can bedeveloped to help individuals increase their range and flexibility of responses to conflict?Attention to these and related questions is encouraged.


Baxter, L.A. (1982). Conflict management: An episodic approach. Small GroupBehavior, 13, 23-42.
Blake, R.R., & Mouton, J.S. (1964). The managerial grid. Houston: Gulf.
Bormann, E.G. (1975). Discussion and group methods: Theory and practices (2nded.). New York: Harper & Row.
Bramlette, C.A., & Tucker, J.H. (1981). Encounter groups: Positive change or deterioration?More data and a partial replication. Human Relations, 34, 303-313
Cohen, A.M., & Smith, R.D. (1976). The critical incident in growth groups: Theoryand technique. La Jolla, CA: University Associates.
Corey, G., Corey, M.S., Callanan, P.J., & Russell, J.M. (1982). Grouptechniques. Monterey, CA: Brooks/Cole.
Cosier, R.A., & Ruble, T.L. (1981). Research on conflict-handling behavior: Anexperimental approach. Academy of Management Journal, 24, 816-831.
Culbert, S.A., & McDonough, J.J. (1980). The invisible war: Pursuing self-interests atwork. New York: Wiley.
Forsyth, D.R. (1983). An introduction to group dynamics. Monterey, CA:Brooks/Cole. Hall, J. (1969). Conflict management survey: A survey on one's characteristicreaction to and handling of conflicts between himself and others. Conroe, TX:Teleometrics International
Jones, R.E., & Melcher, B.H. (1982). Personality and the preference for modes of conflictresolution. Human Relations, 35, 649-658.
Kaplan, R.E., Obert, S.L., & Van Buskirk, W.R. (1980). The etiology of encounter groupcasualties: "Second facts." Human Relations, 33, 131-148.
Kelly, J. (1970, July-August). Make conflict work for you. Harvard BusinessReview, 48, 103-113.
Kemp, C.G. (1970). Perspectives on the group process (2nd ed.). Boston:Houghton Mifflin. Lawrence, P.R., & Lorsch, J.W. (1967). Organization andenvironment. Boston: Harvard University Press.
Lieberman, M.A., Yalom, I.D., & Miles, M.B. (1973). Encounter groups: Firstfacts. New York: Basic Books.
Lippitt, G.L. (1982). Managing conflict in today's organizations. Training &Development Journal, 36 (7), 67-74.
Musser, S.J. (1982). A model for predicting the choice of conflict management strategies bysubordinates in high-stakes conflicts. Organizational Behavior & HumanPerformance, 29, 257-269.
Pondy, L.R. (1967). Organizational conflict: Concepts and models. Administrative ScienceQuarterly, 12, 296-320.
Sherwood, J.J., & Glidewell, J.C. (1973). Planned renegotiation: A norm-setting ODintervention. In J.E. Jones & J.W. Pfeiffer (Eds.), The 1973 annual handbook forgroup facilitators (pp. 195-202). La Jolla, CA: University Associates.
Sherwood, J.J., & Scherer, J.J. (1975). A model for couples: How two can grow together. Small Group Behavior, 6, 11-29.
Shockley-Zalabak, P. (1981). The effects of sex differences on the preference for utilization ofconflict styles of managers in a work setting: An exploratory study. Public PersonnelManagement Journal, 10, 289-295.
Thomas, K. (1976). Conflict and conflict management. In M.D. Dunnette (Ed.), Handbookof industrial and organizational psychology (pp. 889-935). Chicago: Rand McNally.Thomas, K.W. (1979). Conflict. In S. Kerr (Ed.), Organizational behavior (pp.151-181). Columbus, OH: Grid.
Thomas, K.W., & Kilmann, R.H. (1974). Thomas-Kilmann conflict modeinstrument. Tuxedo, NY: XICOM.
Thomas, K.W., & Kilmann, R.H. (1978). Comparison of four instruments measuring conflictbehavior. Psychological Reports, 42, 1139-1145.
Walton, R.E. (1969). Interpersonal peacemaking: Confrontations and third partyconsultation. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

| Selected Writing | Mgt. 456 Menu | University Site Home Page | My Consulting Web Site |
* Or press the BACK button on your browser to return to youraccess point *

Last modified April 17, 2002Copyright 1978-2002 Rex Mitchell