Conflict Communication Theories

Anne Maydan Nicotera. Encyclopedia of Communication Theory. Editor: Stephen W Littlejohn & Karen A Foss. Sage Publications. 2009.

In the early 1970s, communication scholars entered the field of conflict theory, dissatisfied by ways previous scholars had treated interactants as solely rational and strategic, communication as binary (communicate or not communicate), and conflict as necessarily destructive. Two implicit assumptions made it impossible to reveal the process or function of communication in conflict: that conflict results from insufficient or ineffective communication and that cooperation is inherently superior. Communication theorists, rather, espoused a view of conflict as an inevitable and necessary social process that when managed well contributes to creativity, cohesiveness, relational growth, and productivity. Most communication theorists prefer the term conflict management to conflict resolution because the former suggests an ongoing communication process focusing attention on interaction, whereas the latter suggests episodes that must be dealt with as they occur, focusing attention on the discrete content of each episode. The title of a widely cited book, Working Through Conflict, captures the essence of communication theorists’ presumptions about conflict communication. Not only do individuals communicate to “work through” conflicts; they also accomplish work “through conflict.” This entry reviews conceptual issues in the development of communication conflict theory, overviews early models that form the foundation of contemporary communication conflict theory, and summarizes four continuing traditions of communication conflict theory. A great deal of the information herein is drawn from the 2006 Handbook of Conflict Communication.

Uniting Conflict and Communication

Communication and conflict are interdependent, simultaneously defining each other. In 1973, Leonard Hawes and David Smith discussed the conceptualization of conflict along three dimensions: goal, strategy, and time. They delineated prospective and retrospective approaches to goals. The common approach at the time was prospective, assuming individuals have clear, direct goals; conflict is defined by contradictory goals. The retrospective approach assumes that goals are meaningful only after behaviors are enacted; communication defines the nature of a conflict rather than goals. The second dimension, strategy, refers to resolution versus management of conflict, mentioned previously. The difference lies in the assumption of conflict as destructive or constructive. The third dimension, time, refers to the assumption of whether conflict is episodic or continuous—a temporary disruption to be eliminated or a normal, vital, and integrating aspect of interaction to be managed. Different combinations of assumptions on these three dimensions lead to different conceptualizations of conflict. Prior to the entry of communication scholars, theoretical treatments presumed prospective goals, resolution strategies, and an episodic time frame. This approach was very limited. Communication scholars were called on to take the opposite view (retrospective goals, constructive outcome, and continuous time frame).

In 1978, another communication scholar, Brent Ruben, developed a system-theoretic view that embodies this opposite approach. He argued for a pragmatic or transactional view of communication, presumed by a retrospective view. A prospective view of goals implicitly assumes a mechanistic sender—> message—> receiver = effect view of communication. Ruben’s perspective rejects both this linear view and the prospective view of goals. Ruben also distinguished paraconflict (symbolic) from conflict (observable action). As symbolic, conflict is defined as constructive or destructive by how it feels to the individuals. As action, conflict is defined as constructive or destructive by how it functions for the system. Ruben did not allow for an episodic conceptualization because he viewed communication as continual and inevitable. Conflict is defined as the discrepancies between the demands and/or capabilities of the system and the demands and/or capacities of the environment. Conflict is the way a system survives, because adaptation (communication) is constant; conflict and adaptation are inseparable.

Conceptualizing Conflict and Communication

By the 1980s, communication scholars had consensus on a definition for conflict that allows for a prospective, constructive, and continuous view of conflict: the interaction of interdependent people who perceive the opposition of goals, aims, and/or values and who see the other party as potentially interfering with the realization of these goals. Three important features make this definition important to communication theorists: interaction, incompatibility, and interdependence.

Early Conflict Models

Although they rejected basic presumptions underlying much of previous theory, communication conflict theorists found much to build on. The most influential of these early models were game theory and social exchange, integrative and strategic bargaining, the dual-concern model, and mediation competency models.

Game Theory and Social Exchange

Rooted in economic modeling, game theory provides a mathematical system for modeling conflict and predicting conflict behavior. Game theory analyzes rationally conducted conflict between players, each of whom pursues well-defined interests and chooses from among alternative actions. Players construct strategies to maximize gain and minimize loss. The underlying premise is that players are consistently rational; a player will necessarily attempt to maximize his or her gains. Game theory failed to capture the social and interactive nature of human intentionality and conflict. The assumption that humans are consistently rational and the inability to account for relational interdependencies are major factors in communication theorists’ dissatisfaction. Game theory treated communication as simple information exchange, usually binary (communicate or not). Game theory was unable to account for ambiguities in intentionality, changes in the process, or variations in psychological and relational processes.

Although game theory research in communication declined by the 1980s, its economic presumptions resurfaced in social-exchange models of conflict and negotiation. Social-exchange models presume that disputants hold rational motives to maximize self-interest, which is rooted in symbolic and multiple social resources. Furthermore, the interaction itself can be a social resource. Also unlike game theory, exchange theory allows theorists to account for reciprocity.

Integrative versus Distributive Bargaining

Integrative negotiation models, introduced in the 1960s, were a key advance in the study of bargaining. Previously, negotiation theory focused on distributive processes, in which participants view their goals as zero sum (one party’s gain is another’s loss). Integrative bargaining is often summarized by the phrase win-win; it advocates joint problem solving rather than competition. Communication theorists used models of integrative and distributive negotiation to develop theories of collective bargaining, mediation, and interpersonal conflict. They conceptually differentiated between strategies and tactics. Strategies are broad plans of action (e.g., problem solving); tactics are specific messages that enact strategies (e.g., information sharing). According to Linda Putnam, in the late 1980s, communication theorists examined the functions of strategies and tactics and how conflict negotiation evolves over time, studying communication patterns and the multiple and various functions served by messages. Communication scholars brought a dynamic view of conflict in their application of integrative and distributive bargaining models.

Dual Concern

The dual-concern model focuses on conflict management styles, predispositions, and behavioral tendencies. The two dimensions are concern for self and concern for others. When these dimensions are arranged to form quadrants, five basic conflict styles can be identified—one in each corner and one in the center. Robert Blake and Jane Mouton developed the original model of management style, the managerial grid, in 1964. Their five conflict styles are forcing (high concern for results, low concern for people), confronting (high concern for results, high concern for people), smoothing (low concern for results, high concern for people), withdrawal (low concern for results, low concern for people), and compromising (moderate on both). In the 1970s, Ralph Kilmann and Kenneth Thomas created an instrument to measure the five conflict styles.

Numerous communication theorists developed dual-concern models and instruments. These models differ in conceptualization of the dimensions and styles, and several collapse the styles into three categories that mirror integrative, distributive, and avoidance behaviors. Early dual-concern models were meant to exemplify typical conflict behaviors that can be predicted for individuals across time and conflict episodes. As this body of theory developed, many scholars enriched it, examining communication competence, emotional valence, hidden tactics, changes in strategy over time, contextual influences, and personality. The dual-concern model is criticized for its cultural bias, reliance on self-report, inability to account for ongoing interaction, and linear approach to the relationship between conflict and communication, yet it continues to be a dominant approach to understanding conflict and communication.

Mediation Competency

Unlike negotiation, in mediation a third party intervenes to help manage the conflict. Relying on negotiation research, early communication mediation theory examined competent mediators’ strategies, tactics, phases, and communication patterns. According to Linda Putnam, the earliest of this work focused on persuasion, examining bluffing, coercion, and influence. Tricia Jones pioneered the study of communication and mediation in the 1980s; her taxonomy of mediation communication strategies and tactics allowed her to discover that mediator communication fulfills three basic functions: facilitation, substantive direction, and procedural control. Previously, communication theorists had relied on labor-management mediation theories that did not account for the richness of interaction and relational communication.

Also at this time, William Donohue developed competence models based on appropriate timing of interventions used by mediators. His most important conclusions were that immediate intervention following an attack avoids conflict escalation and that mediators who adjust to disputants’ emotional intensity are most successful. Communication theorists’ interest in mediator interventions continues to grow, examining such things as peer and community mediation, perceptual and structural factors, transformational processes, empowerment, and meaning creation.

Continuing Traditions

Continuing traditions of communication conflict theory can be organized into four basic contexts: interpersonal, organizational, community, and intercultural/international. Theory and research are conducted on three basic levels of analysis: cognitive, interactional, or institutional.

The Interpersonal Context

The term interpersonal conflict refers to the context of personal relationships, with a large literature focusing on dating and marital relationships. Ted Huston’s social-ecological model views the environment, individuals, and relational processes as interconnected levels of analysis, each of which varies on a time frame from molar (broad historical/social processes) to micro (individual events). John Caughlin and Anita Vangelisti integrate relational conflict communication theory and research into this model by organizing the literature into categories: conflict behaviors and relational outcomes, individual influences on relational conflict, and contextual/environmental influences.

William Donohue’s relational order theory specifically applies to mediation of marital conflict. Disputants’ relational messages about their feelings for one another and perceptions of power and status create relational frames constraining negotiation. Relational order theory predicts that development of consistent relational frames allows the ability to find common ground on substantive issues. Four basic relational frames arise from combinations of high and low levels of interdependence and affiliation. The mediator must resolve relational paradoxes and find ways to move the partners toward a frame of high interdependence and affiliation.

Ascan Koerner and Mary Anne Fitzpatrick’s model of family conflict socialization integrates family relationship schemas, family communication patterns, and family conflict behavior in a process of mutual interdependence and reinforcement. Individuals develop mental representations of family members and relationships. These schemas create shared social reality. Shared social realities create family communication patterns with specific conflict behaviors. These behaviors impact the development of the schemas that are at the root of the process.

Psychologist John Gottman’s cascade model predicts divorce from a cascading of interrelated processes: complaining and criticizing, contempt, defensiveness, and withdrawal. These negative expressions are associated with emotional flooding: When overwhelmed by their partner’s negative behavior, people find it difficult to listen and process information, and they alleviate negative emotions by attacking, defending, or withdrawing. Expressions of contempt and disgust are particularly damaging. Expressions of positive emotion can protect against flooding. Communication scholars Laura Guerrero and Angela LaValley advocate for communication theories (expectancy violations and communication competence) to expand the cascade model by examining the relations among conflict, emotion, and communication.

Michael Roloff and Courtney Waite Miller constructed a rich framework integrating current knowledge of conflict and social cognition. Social cognition/knowledge includes frames, beliefs, scripts, rules, and problem appraisal. Roloff and Waite Miller posit that negative events set off cognitive processes (mindful activity), which mediate between social knowledge and cognitive and social effects. The cognitive processes considered include expectation violation, attributions, accommodation, influence goals, and sentiment override (how messages are interpreted based on the emotional state of the relationship). The effects in their model consist of thinking about conflict, information processing, and storytelling (narrative construction).

Daniel Canary developed a model of strategic conflict driven by the idea that competent conflict behavior is mindful. The relationship between conflict instigation and message production is mediated by three factors: individual differences (especially locus of control); interpretations of the conflict (understood through attribution theory); and instrumental, self-presentation, and relational goal assessment. Goal control is the extent to which individuals understand what they want and are sensitive to their partner’s goals. Canary describes message production along two dimensions: levels of directness and cooperativeness. A comprehensive list of specific conflict strategies and tactics is integrated into these four categories: direct cooperative, direct competitive, indirect cooperative, and indirect competitive. Message production is followed by the other person’s response. This part of the model allows researchers to examine patterns of communication that lead to various outcomes. Patterns and outcomes can cycle back to any previous events in the model.

The Organizational Context

Organizational conflict usually refers to that which takes place in the context of the workplace or institutional setting, and there is an enormous body of theory and research in this area. The management of organizational conflict has been examined on three fundamental levels: dyadic, group, and institutional. At the dyadic level, theory and research that examine processes of interpersonal conflict in the workplace largely follow a conflict styles approach based on the dual-concern model. At the workgroup level, three traditions have been identified, according to M. Scott Poole and Johny Garner. These three traditions are the instrumental, which focuses on the impact of conflict on group performance and related outcomes; the developmental, which treats conflict as a natural part of group development; and the political, which views conflict as a struggle for power.

At the institutional level, a sizable body of work examines the transition of organizational conflict management programs from those that focus on dispute resolution to broader and more proactive conflict management systems. Based on a comprehensive review of literature, David Lipsky and Ronald Seeber have developed a comprehensive organizing framework from which to understand this shift. Organizational conflicts manifest themselves in three forms: disagreements, disputes, and litigation. Managing these three forms of conflict differs according to several factors: the responsible party, the type of conflict, the techniques used, the nature of the outcome, and the extent of third-party involvement. Alternative dispute resolution programs have been steadily on the rise as large organizations increasingly face the rising human and economic cost of disputes and litigation. Such programs, however, do little to prevent conflicts from escalating to dispute or litigation because they typically do not intervene prior to this escalation. Lipsky and Seeber’s organizing model of the research in this area elucidates both the shifts happening in the practice of organizational conflict management and the deeper social processes at play.

The Community Context

Community conflict refers to conflict in the public arena, focusing on communities defined by physical collocation. Community conflict is more polarizing than interpersonal and organizational conflict because the parties lack intimacy and coordinated activity. Barnett Pearce and Stephen Littlejohn developed a theory of moral conflict: When individuals with incommensurate moral orders interact, intractable conflict can result from mutual frustration and entrenchment. Conflict rooted in the worldviews of the opponents is difficult to manage; the logics of the paradigms do not permit cross-translation. Parties become locked into a dispute, perceiving no other choice. Their language differs; even similar terms have disparate meanings. Neither side understands the other, and both fail to see why the other rejects their case. These dynamics lead each to describe the other as misguided, ignorant, evil, or sick. The theory has been developed through a series of descriptive case studies, including the U.S. Religious Right movement and the abortion debate. Moral conflicts cannot be solved through traditional dispute resolution; they must be transcended through a process of dialogue. Transcendent communication creates new frames, transforms relationships, and creates opportunities to explore the power and limits of multiple worldviews.

Dialogue theories have their own rich tradition. Kevin Barge has described the relationships among dialogue, conflict, and democratic practice, highlighting three important theoretic movements that bring these things together: community mediation, public participation and dialogue, and appreciative inquiry (a social constructionist perspective on community development, emphasizing the positive core of community life). Dialogic democratic practice faces the dilemmas of several tensions: inclusion-exclusion, deliberative-relational, and macro-micro. Dialogue theories explore how dialogic communication manages conflict and builds community. Dialogue theories include those that are encompassed in the intercultural/international context, as well.

Other areas of theory in community conflict include environmental conflict, racial/ethnic conflict, crisis negotiation, and critical approaches. Theories of environmental conflict explore public participation in environmental decision making. Racial or ethnic community conflict theories examine the potential for positive community-building outcomes from the conflict management process surrounding ethnic identity, minority groups, racial hate incidents, and inter communal ethnic conflicts. Crisis negotiation, including hostage negotiation, is a unique context for community conflict theory, focusing on the communicative dynamics of conflict as they are complicated by the potential for injury or death of the involved parties. Finally, critical approaches to community conflict take a cultural studies perspective: Conflict is a defining feature of all social systems and threatens identity. Culture, as a site of conflict, becomes an arena in which changing meanings are negotiated.

The Intercultural/International Context

Intercultural/international conflict refers to conflicts between two or more different cultural or identity groups. Many communication theories are directly concerned with or have direct applications to intercultural conflict management. Those with separate entries in this volume include anxiety/uncertainty management theory, expectancy violations theory, cultural types theories, face negotiation theory, accommodation theory, and co-cultural theory. International communication and peace theories also address conflict. Many of these include treatments of racial or ethnic conflict; the field of social psychology also has a rich tradition of ethnic and intergroup conflict theory. Other important theories in the intercultural/international context include integrated threat theory (ITT) and the cultural values dimensional (CVD) grid.

ITT, developed by Walter Stephan and Cookie White Stephan, assumes that feelings of fear or threat cause prejudice and identifies four antecedent conditions (intergroup conflict history, intergroup knowledge gap, type and frequency of intergroup contact, and societal/group membership power status) that escalate or de-escalate the levels of four types of threat (intergroup anxiety/anticipated consequences, rigid stereotypes, tangible/realistic threats, and values/symbolic threats). Threat escalation creates biased intergroup attitudes (e.g., prejudice) and intergroup conflict cycles, outcomes that then feed off one another.

The CVD grid, developed by Stella Ting-Toomey and John Oetzel, draws from key ideas in anxiety/uncertainty management theory, ITT theory, expectancy violations theory, cultural types theory, and power distance. Power distance refers to cultural values for status differences and social hierarchies. Small power distance (SPD) cultures value equal power distributions, symmetrical relations, and reward systems based on merit. Large power distance (LPD) cultures accept unequal power distributions; asymmetrical relations; and reward systems based on rank, role, and status. The CVD grid posits that the individualism-collectivism dimension of cultural types theory interacts with power distance values to create four cultural approaches to conflict: impartial (individualistic, SPD), status-achievement (individualistic, LPD), communal (collectivistic, SPD), and benevolent (collectivistic, LPD).


The study of conflict and communication is broad and diverse at the same time that it espouses a core set of presumptions. These presumptions include the inevitability and constructive nature of conflict, the dynamic nature of goals, and the mutually constitutive relationship between communication and conflict. Regardless of the context in which conflict theories are generated, communication scholars have consensus on these basic issues.