Why do people fight?

by Sam on June 17, 2009

Analysis: When Ben Franklin opined that death and taxes were the only inevitable things in life, he was a bit short of reality. There’s one more certainty in our existence–conflict.

There are at least three reasons for this. First, we live in a world of ever increasing complexity, stress, and diversity where the status quo is continually confronted and challenged. Second, conflict is a natural by-product of human relationships. We each bring our own unique values, beliefs, and needs to the table, and it’s not always that those values, beliefs, and needs are compatible with others. Finally, we work in a world that imposes limits. We often get less than we want; so we sometimes compete with each other to get the best we can, given the options offered and the constraints imposed.

Before I answer the question above, let me say that conflict is not always a bad thing, and is often a good thing. Without it, ideas that need to be challenged might go unchecked; troubles in the dark that are harming us might never be brought to light of day; opportunities for creative problems solving might disappear. In the words of Thomas Jefferson, “A little rebellion now and then is a good thing.”

Answer: People fight for many reasons. Consider these dozen origins of interpersonal discord.

1.   Prejudice/bias. Strife within organizations is sometimes traced to “personalities.” This is one person agitated by another based simply on how he/she feels about that person. That judgment could stem from another person’s habits, style, values, beliefs, appearance, race, origins, relationships with others, past behavior, and a universe of other personal qualities.

2.   Nastiness/stubbornness. Some people go through life with a chip on their shoulder and seem to search for combatants. This might arise from an unhappy life that has soured them toward the people around them. It can also be a reaction to pain that is situational or buried in the past. It can also be motivated by a powerful need to be right that comes from who-knows-where.

3.   Sensitivity/hurt. This occurs when a person, because of insecurity, a history of emotional trauma, or excessive conflict in his/her life, easily feels attacked by criticism or other interpersonal directedness. You may know people who are a ticking time bomb of emotion.

4.   Emotional/mental instability. Several years ago a medical study reported that of all the adults in the United States who are not under any form of treatment for a behavior disorder, 18% of them should be. In other words, one in five of the people you live with and work next to are diagnosably emotionally disturbed or mentally ill.

5.   Differences in perception/values. A great deal of conflict results from the varying ways people view the world. These incongruent views are traceable to differences in upbringing, culture, race, experience, occupation, socioeconomic class and, above all, people’s faith or lack thereof.

6.   Differences over facts. A fact is a piece of data that can be quantified or an event that can be documented. Arguments over facts need not last very long since they are verifiable. But a statement like, “It is a fact that you are insensitive to my feelings,” is neither documentable nor quantifiable, and so is actually a difference in perception. (See #5)

7.   Differences over goals/priorities. An argument about whether a hospital should be known more for the quality of its teaching, patient care, or research is a disagreement over goals. Such differences can be constructive or destructive. A debate over the competing merit of each approach during a strategic planning meeting is good. But, such differences of opinion carried into the hospital could spell disaster. In other words, before any team begins to do its work, differences over goals and priorities must be resolved.

8.   Differences over methods. Two sides may have similar goals, but disagree how to achieve them. For example, what are the best practices for providing outstanding patient care? Debates resulting from differences in methods, if conducted honestly and responsibly, can be a healthy tonic to a family, team, or organization.

9.   Competition for scarce resources. Two managers might argue over who has the greatest need for an assistant, whose budget should be increased more, or how to allocate recently purchased laptop computers. In our world it is becoming increasingly true that want exceeds wherewithal.

10.  Competition for supremacy. This occurs when one person seeks to outdo or outshine another person in order to gain acceptance. You might see it when two employees compete for a promotion or for decision making authority in your organization. When I embrace one of my standard poodles, the other instantly appears out of nowhere for the same show of affection.

11.  Unfulfilled expectations. Many of the root causes listed above contribute to one person not fulfilling the expectations of another. Unfulfilled expectations are the ultimate cause of divorce, firings, and other forms of relational breakdown. Expectations go unmet because they are unreasonable, inappropriate, too numerous, or unstated–the most frequent culprit.

12.  Misunderstanding. So much of what looks at first glance like one of the eleven causes described above often turns out to be communication breakdown. Interpersonal communication, if not attended to with care, is as likely to fail as to succeed. And when it does, a receiver’s unwarranted inferences about a sender’s intent often create interpersonal conflict. One of the best examples of this is the inaccuracy inherent in email as a medium of exchange for important ideas.

In the most important relationship to you, which of the twelve causes are most often at the root of the conflict and disagreement the two of you experience? Next week’s Ask will describe what you can do as an influencer of others to minimize and prevent these roots from taking hold.

Aphorism: A thick skin is a gift from God. ~Konrad Adenauer

Approaching: Is there a “coming attraction” on this list that you can’t wait for? Shoot me an email for a sneak preview.

6/24: How can I keep fights from breaking out?
7/1: What is the best way to fight?
7/8: When (and how) should I step in to break up a fight?
7/15: What are the most inspiring thoughts about leadership?
7/22: How can I do a better job of delivering criticism?
7/29: Who, me–a praise miser?
8/5: How can I use praise more effectively to motivate others?
8/12: Why do so many performance appraisal systems fail to improve performance?

Action (yours)

Do you have an Ask for Sam about leadership, team building or communications? Email that question to him at sam@asksamdeep.com. He will respond to you either by email or telephone. Please include your telephone number with your Ask.

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