DISAGREEMENT IS NOT CONFLICTLots of people use the words disagreement and conflict interchangeably.  To do this ignores very important differences between these two types of interactions between people.

When you disagree with someone, it is about something.  It’s about who is going to do what task at work; it’s about where to get the car serviced; it’s about how to discipline a child; it’s about which movie to see this evening.  Disagreements are about content, the what in your interaction with another person. ID-10088140

The defining element of a disagreement is that you are talking to each other.  Because you are talking to each other, you can negotiate a resolution of the disagreement.  You can compromise, one of you can make an accommodation to the other, or you can agree to disagree.  And, most importantly, after the disagreement, you are both still talking to each other.

That is not usually the case when there is a conflict between you and another person.  When you are in conflict with someone, the assumptions you are making about each other are hidden and the feelings are strong.  In a conflict, you are not talking, you are yelling, avoiding, or talking over each other.  In a conflict:

  • Issues will not be resolved
  • Misunderstandings are not resolved
  • No benefits accrue to the relationship through negotiation of issues

While disagreements are resolved through negotiation, conflict is managed through self-reflection and personal accountability.


The first clue is how you are feeling.  Too often, when you feel angry, for instance, you are set to “blame” the other person, e.g. “I am angry because you are not doing your fair share of the work.”   That is, something you have done has caused me to feel angry at you; and it’s normal for me to feel angry at you.   This scenario of thinking others “cause” us to be angry (hurt, fearful, pissed, anxious, etc.) and describing this as normal is really the basis for having a conflict.  It is more accurate to describe an angry (hurt, fearful, pissed, anxious) reaction as ‘automatic’ rather than ‘normal’.  Calling such emotional reactions ‘normal’ is typically used to justify acting out that emotion rather than reflecting on the situation.ID-10067169 (1)

If you act when you are feeling angry, hurt, fearful, pissed toward someone, you are setting up the situation to have a conflict.  Usually what happens is, you react (act badly) by yelling, shutting down, etc., which increases the likelihood the other person will feel angry, hurt, fearful, etc. and react in turn.   Now you two have a conflict.  Whatever the issue (not doing an assigned task, e.g.), the conflict is now about how you both are feeling toward each other and the negative assumptions you are making about each other.  The issue now is that he is a shirker and she is off on one of her emotional binges. This is now a conflict about who is right, who has injured the other, who is the worse employee.  It is not a disagreement about work loads.

The method to resolve conflict is for each person to be self-reflective and personally accountable for his/her part in the breakdown of the interaction.


Enhance your emotional intelligence

Certain emotions such as anger and fear along with the catchall emotion of hurt, tell you that you are reacting personally to the interpersonal situation.  Such emotions are associated with the release of the corticotropin-releasing hormone (CHR) along with other hormones and neurotransmitters including epinephrine (adrenaline), norepinephrine, and dopamine, all of which ready you for a fight or flight response.  Daniel Goleman who developed the idea of emotional intelligence, views such emotions as a quick response system that pushes you to react to a person or situation without appropriate reflection on what is going on interpersonally.  If you act on these emotions, you will not behave well.

Recognize your personal take on the situation

Your ‘quick response system’ will also make a quick ‘interpretation’ of the situation that will be based more on your own history than on the current situation.  That is, you will ‘characterize’ the other person’s action in terms of what it means to you personally.

In the example, “I am angry because you are not doing your fair share of the work.”, you are characterizing the others behavior as “unfair”.  This is your experience of the situation, taken without talking to your co-worker about how he/she sees the situation.  Others rarely, if ever, experience their own actions in the same way that you characterize it.  That sense of “unfairness” in the example above is your personal experience of the situation.  And, you should examine what about ‘fairness/unfairness’ is significant for you on a personal level.  One way to be self-reflective about how things feel personal to you is The Downward Arrow Technique (If You Lose Your Pen, You will Die).  A good quick use of this technique is at (http://jayspence.blogspot.com/2012/07/the-downward-arrow-technique-if-you.html), try it.

Learn to describe not characterize

Now that you get it…i.e., “I am angry because you are not doing your fair share of the work.” indicates your personal experience of a situation, what is the alternative?  Given that you recognize your personal take on the situation, and have given yourself time to reflect, you are in a position to assess the way in with the situation is problematic for you.  Once you identify the problem, you can describe it to the other person leading the way to a negotiation of a possible disagreement.

In the situation presented, you may see that your co-worker is not doing all the work assigned to him/her, is not completing work assigned, is doing other than assigned work.  The problem is that this affects the work of others, including you, in the office.  All of these assessments are descriptions of what may be occurring that are creating a problem for you at the work situation.  All of these descriptions pose ways to address the work problem.  Such descriptions of problems open that way for negotiation.

It may not always work out; negotiation may not be possible because the other person reacts or does not want to negotiate work tasks.  You may have to go some other route, e.g. speak to a manager, go to human resources, etc.  However, you have acted well, congratulations!


The same principles of disagreement and conflict apply to intimate relationships, even more so because you want this relationship to continue.  Take a look at this post Conflict in Marriage for how these ideas apply to your marriage.


It really takes a lot of effort to be emotionally intelligent and to recognize your own personal take on situations.  The more you can do this, the better interpersonal relationships you can have.  Even if others do not always respond well to your efforts, you know you have done well.  And, perhaps most importantly, it stops the development of a conflict between you and the other person.

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