Comparing Positive & Negative Conflict

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  • 0:01 Conflict
  • 0:42 Negative Conflict
  • 2:28 Positive Conflict
  • 4:25 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Conflict is always going to be a part of our lives, but that doesn't mean it always has to be negative. Explore the differences between negative and positive conflict, and test your understanding with a brief quiz.


Where there are people, there is conflict. There's your inspirational quote for the day. But it's true. Conflict is something that we all have to deal with throughout our entire lives, and that's okay. Yes, conflict can be overwhelming and frustrating and painful at times, but it can also create the space for innovation, education, and growth. Remember those growth spurts you had as a kid? Not always comfortable, were they? Well, conflict is the same way. It may suck at the time, but if you handle it right, you'll be surprised just how much you can grow.

Negative Conflict

When most of us think about conflict, we automatically think of negative conflict, conflict in which issues are not addressed in a productive manner. This may be yelling and screaming, or ignoring and pouting, or whining and moaning, nothing pleasant about it. In general, negative conflict contains a few key characteristics. Conflict is negative if differences are not addressed, expectations are not controlled, the disagreement focuses on assumptions rather than facts, or the individuals involved have no desire to find a solution.

To understand these traits of negative conflict, it's important to understand where conflicts come from. Conflicts arise between people or groups who need to interact but have some obstacle that makes this difficult. Those are the two main features of a conflict. If the parties involved don't have to interact, then conflict is often avoided, and if there is nothing preventing them from interacting positively, well, there's no need for conflict. But, people are very rarely completely on the same page. So, there's usually something standing between them and complete productivity. Perhaps the two people or groups have incompatible goals; one wants to be quick but the other wants to be thorough. Or maybe they have different communication styles. One person is very direct and decisive, while the other is more indirect and less assertive. Any of these situations could prompt a conflict, and since we are emotional creatures, the default reaction is generally to take offense. Negative conflicts are easy to get into, but they're not the only possible outcome.

Positive Conflict

In general, conflicts have one of four outcomes. In a lose-lose scenario, both parties leave the issue unresolved. This is your classic negative conflict. However, there is also win-lose or lose-win, in which only one person has their needs or issues resolved, while the other does not. Although one person walks away happier, this is not a great situation either, since one person must forfeit his or her needs. That tends to lead to resentment. The final outcome is win-win, where both parties have their needs met and issues resolved. That's what we're shooting for. We call this a positive conflict, a dispute that is managed and contains a productive outcome.

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