Fighting the Good Fight: The Benefits of Conflict


Watch any movie or TV show or read any book and you’ll know that the active ingredient to any story is the conflict. Conflict is what tests the hero.

What happens if the heroes avoid conflict at all costs? Well, in most cases, their world usually falls down all around them, and either they are forced into the conflict, becoming heroes, or the story ends very, very badly.

This isn’t just true of good entertainment; our lives are built around conflicts, big and small. There has been research on the benefits of conflict for decades, not only psychologically but also socially and professionally. Conflict contributes to social change. In a large group, conflict can help find the best resolutions, keeping the group from making a hasty or reckless decision.

Most importantly, close relationships can’t be sustained without a little conflict. When two people come into each other’s lives, there’s bound to be a bumping up of ideas and desires. Partners in strong relationships won’t always agree, but they will have a constructive process for resolving differences. Conflict helps a couple to work through the issues, and more importantly, it can teach people a lot about themselves and others in the process.

So what are the best ways to handle conflict?

Don’t be the wrecking ball or the doormat.

The two ends of the spectrum—people who are addicted to conflict and those who are allergic to it. Someone who is conflict-negative avoids conflict at all costs, or if faced with conflict, will handle it destructively. Conflict-negative people are prone to withdrawing, out of fear of rejection or shaming, and will conceal their true feelings to avoid a conflict. Shutting down might seem easier than risking a potential conflict, sometimes at the expense of clinging to a lie or deception rather than being authentic. Avoiding conflict in this way will often make it difficult for others to trust them. None of this leads to improved wellbeing.

However, someone who is conflict-positive might encourage conflict with others in order to reach a constructive means of maximizing the potential of a situation. This is different from a person who takes conflict too far, to the point of aggression—a conflict addict.

A conflict-positive person seeks to resolve the conflict constructively so that everyone involved can benefit from the resolution and that the relationship is strengthened as a result.

Aggressive, Passive-Aggressive, or Assertive?

Some people thrive on an aggressive form of conflict because it makes them feel powerful or more alive, or that backing down is a form of losing, even if they are wrong. But that’s not what it means to embrace conflict in a healthy way.

Have you ever suppressed feelings only to make underhanded comments that border on hostile? This is being passive-aggressive, which can happen when anger or resentment builds up in a conflict-negative person, and it’s a type of emotional manipulation.

Being assertive doesn’t mean being aggressive. But it takes courage to stand up for yourself or ideas, to be authentic, even if conflict may ensue. If being assertive is new to you, keep these points in mind:

  • Be honest. It doesn’t help to lie and manipulate, especially since the goal should be agreement and cohesion. Lying will only break trust, if not now, then further down the line. And the conflict gives you the chance to put your ideas and your needs out into the open. Especially in a relationship, being able to assert your wants and needs helps to keep your authenticity—and individuality.
  • Listen. Don’t try to bully people into your way of thinking.
  • Be flexible. Conflict is a great teacher of flexibility. When you really listen to other people’s ideas, you may find that your own ideas can be shaped by someone else’s input.
  • Practice emotional control. Try to keep the conflict about the issues rather than about the other person or group. Stay away from personal attacks and try to keep from taking the conflict personally in turn.
  • Be understanding. Conflict shouldn’t be about winning—it should be arriving at something better. In romantic relationships, you are building a new life out of two separate lives. Remember that open communication leads to understanding, especially since you aren’t likely to agree on everything.

Finding it hard to balance conflict and aggression? Or maybe you find yourself shutting down at the first sign of any conflict? Individual counseling may illuminate harmful patterns and help you deal with conflict in a positive way.

Erika Kao, PhD may be reached 858-472-8959 or visit CA Licensed Psychologist 20112

Disclaimer: In no manner does this column serve to diagnose or treat readers with any psychological disorders or imply a client-provider relationship between Dr. Kao and any reader. No such relationship exists until a client-provider agreement has been signed by client and provider.