How Conflict Causes Stress


Why proper techniques can save the day.

Key points:

  • Conflict is a leading contributor to elevated stress levels
  • Everyone can improve the manner in which they deal with conflict and be better off

Some people go to great lengths to avoid conflict. They suppress their own opinions, hide information from others or avoid contact. Whilst this strategy may work at the workplace where you can manage to fly under the radar, it’s very difficult to achieve in a close relationship. By constantly evading conflict, one slowly starts to develop feelings of resentment and bitterness, which slowly starts escalating. Over time, unresolved conflict, especially in a close relationship, inevitably leads to a significantly increased level of stress.

On the other side of the scale, there are individuals who easily engage in conflict at the drop of a hat. This is because they are not intimidated by others and are used to function in a volatile or hostile environment. In the process they benefit by blowing off steam. This helps them to vent their anger and get rid of frustration. However, in the process they often damage interpersonal relationships, especially with individuals more inclined to avoid conflict. Whilst initially being totally unaware of this happening, the long term consequences eventually become obvious when partnerships and relations turn pear shaped, causing stress.

Unless you are a recluse who lives in isolation, accept that conflict is a part of everyday life. In principle, conflict is simply a process of negotiation by means of communication. For a moment, let’s compare it to a game.

The players

Killman uses the following metaphors to illustrate how different personalities approach conflict:


These individuals believe it is easier to hide. They therefore deliberately steer clear of issues or situations that may cause potential tension. They also often avoid individuals that they are in conflict with. In essences, turtles are poorly equipped to deal with hostile emotions. Turtles tend to believe that it’s hopeless to try to resolve an issue, even if this means abandoning a close relationship, a career or a personal ambition. This approach is self-limiting and stumps career, income and personal development.


Sharks believe it is easier to attack. Their style is therefore to threaten or bully their opponents. They consider their own goals significantly more important than the task of preserving relationships. Their ambition is to achieve their own objective at any cost, without any real concern for someone else’s opinion or situation. Sharks often don’t mind if other people dislike or even despise them. In their worlds this is a minor inconvenience.

Teddy Bears

They value interpersonal relationships as significantly more important than achieving their own personal goals. To be liked and accepted by others is of great importance. They believe that conflict cannot really be discussed in a productive manner without harming a relationship and will therefore rather avoid it just so that they can live in harmony with others. To preserve a relationship, Teddy Bears will easily abandon their own personal goals, often at their own disadvantage.


They are concerned about their own goals as well as their relationship with other people. They are therefore more strategic and diplomatic in their approach and will naturally seek a compromise with others. With a bigger picture in mind, foxes are quite willing to sacrifice some of their goals and will try and persuade the other party to do the same.


Like foxes, they place a high value on their goals as well as their relationships, but are more philosophical in their approach. They differ from foxes in the sense that they often regard conflict as an opportunity to strengthen relationships. This trait makes owls more empathetic and nurturing.

The game

Besides the players, the game is also important. This is where strategy becomes important. Steven Covey describes the following strategic outcomes:


This authoritarian type approach is unfortunately the most common conflict-resolution style. It originates from the way we have been conditioned by society, our parents and our peers. It is based on the binary belief of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, as defined by ‘either’ ‘or’ idea. If I am ‘right’, it therefore means that you must be ‘wrong’. The legal system takes this one step further. According to “fairness” principles, the party that is “right” must be rewarded, whilst the party that is “wrong” must be punished. This leads to the rather simplistic view that one can only achieve your goal at the expense of another.

To prove that you are “right”, especially when in reality, many versions, possibilities and interpretations of the real facts exist, can be rather tricky. Any technique to prove a point is therefore used. This includes aggression, intimidation, criticism, pulling rank and sarcasm, all highly ineffective forms of communication. Since the “losing” party’s needs are not addressed, win-lose conflict resolution within a relationship is frequently superficial and short term. For the “winner”, it may prove a hollow victory over the long term in the sense that it almost always has a negative effect on a relationship. In fact, win-lose usually paves the way for far worse conflict at a later stage.


This is the subservient, opposite of win–lose. Based on their conditioning, lose-win individuals naturally believe they will not get their way and that it is easier to give up and accept defeat in order to avoid more tension or hostility. These individuals are easily intimidated by more forceful or aggressive personalities, and often lack the courage to express themselves in company. In many ways, lose–win outcomes are worse than win–lose, as individuals tend to bury multiple emotions of disappointment, resentment and disillusionment. As a consequence, this may lead to cynicism and fragility, making lose–win individuals quick to resort to the “victim” role whilst accusing their opponents of being “bullies”. These suppressed feelings rarely disappear, usually bubbling up at some later stage in life to either ruin a new relationship, or present as a psychosomatic illness.


When two win-lose players become gridlocked and cannot achieve their personal goals at the other’s cost, wounded egos unleash a highly destructive consequence which results in dissatisfaction, anger or resentment. This is because both parties see the outcome as a personal loss, triggering the desire to get even by taking revenge, even if it requires costing more money, time and effort. Lose-lose is the philosophy of destruction. It often comes at significant personal cost as well as the potential to lose even more in future.


When both parties have a sincere and firm commitment to find a mutually-satisfying agreement, they are able to focus on a solution that will satisfy both parties. In the process emotions calm down and cognitive processes become more active. The ideal solution is usually shaped by three sets of needs, namely ‘yours’, ‘mine’ and ‘ours’. As a result, the future relationship is strengthened and respect is maintained. Win-win seeks mutual benefit in a cooperative, rather than a competitive arena. ‘Our’ solution is better than ‘mine’ or ‘yours’. Win-win is based on the abundance mentality, namely that there is enough for everyone to share.

No deal

If win-win fails, no-deal becomes the next best option. This is where both parties agree to disagree without judgement, resentment or anger. Disappointment may be present, but as a singular emotion, is not dominant enough to damage a relationship.

Applying the game to real life

We live in a world filled with hatred, suspicion and anger. Yet, all around us, various admirable and inspirational deeds are done by individuals who improve the world and the lives of others with kindness, compassion and understanding. This requires emotional control. Through the many daily hardships, we face at the coalface of life, we become stressed, overwhelmed and over-reactionary. Feeling cornered and pressurised, we get ready to take up arms and fight for our rights. Eventually the process blows out of proportion, facts become distorted and emotion escalates out of control. This all leads to significant stress.

With advanced conflict situations, especially with a romantic partner or spouse, a condition called ‘emotional flooding’ occurs as a result of the severe emotional turmoil suffered by both parties. When this happens, reason and hope fly out the window and conflict reaches a point of no return. Research has indicated that the majority of relationships at this stage of decay will inevitably dissolve. In such cases, the best possible solution is a ‘no-deal’. Unfortunately, this often results in ‘lose-lose’.

On the other hand, if there is still some hope, it is will always prove worth your while to try and resolve conflict by taking some proactive steps toward a ‘win-win’ solution. If this cannot be achieved, opt for the second best option, namely ‘no-deal’. Avoid ‘win-lose’ and ‘lose-win’, if you can, and ‘lose-lose’ like the plague.

Conflict is predominantly an emotional process. This means that if you think, rather that act, you will have a significant competitive advantage. To do so, you need to plan and speak properly. Like with any emotional skill, this will require some practice.

Strategic guidelines

Take charge

Always remember that you are the master of your own destiny, not the hapless victim of circumstances.

Consider your objective as well as the degree to which you want to preserve a relationship. What are the consequences of harming or perhaps totally ruining the relationship in question? Stay rational and objective. Consider the ideal outcome. Once this has been decided, proceed to the next step. All this will require is to have a conversation. This will require appropriate timing. Poor timing, or a conversation that may lead to confrontation in an inappropriate setting or in presence of others, can make the process unpredictable and may therefore be a recipe for a disaster.

Control your emotions

During any form of communication, it is important to prevent emotional escalation and avoid aggression. A conversation is no different. Accept the responsibility for managing your own emotions. If you remain calm, the other person will most likely also remain calm. If your intention is to be productive, this simple strategy will make it significantly easier for you to achieve your objective.

Control the other party’s emotions

Most people totally underestimate the role they play in influencing other people’s emotions. Just as one can easily provoke the other party, one can also help control their emotions. A good place to start is to mind your manners. Minimise the other party’s defensiveness by not saying anything personal or derogatory. Do not blame or accuse the other party, and do not to plead innocence, even if you believe that you are blameless (a rare occurrence). These highly ineffective communication techniques usually prove to be rather destructive.

Control the conversation

Listen to the other person point of view without interrupting or criticising them, no matter how exasperated or frustrated you may feel. If at any stage of the conversation the other party gets the notion that you are not listening or not getting their point, pattern interrupt will ensue. This means that the conversation may rewind back to start at the beginning. A good technique to reassure the other party that you are getting their point of view is to ask questions, rather than make premature assumptions or insinuations. Afterwards, verbally summarise all the main issues as accurately as possible by repeating what they have told you. Although this process may seem irritating and repetitive, it is crucial to a positive outcome, so pay attention to it. Communicate your thoughts and feelings about issues, rather than people. Remain calm at all times by keeping the ‘bigger picture’ in mind. Focus on achieving a positive outcome.

“Nothing in life is to be feared. It is only to be understood.” Marie Curie

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