10.1 Understanding Conflict

Learning Objectives

  • Define interpersonal conflict.
  • Explain the types of conflict resolution styles.
  • Explain the importance of effective conflict management.
  • Explain the types of unsupportive messages that are commonly used in conflict situations.

A behavioural question job applicants often hear during a job interview is, “How would you handle a conflict situation with a customer or coworker?” Would you know how to answer this question appropriately and thoroughly? It is a good question because conflict indeed happens in the workplace. The potential for conflict exists anywhere two or more motivated people interact. When otherwise good people lose themselves in an argument, knowing how to deal with such situations is a vital workplace skill to prevent workplace violence (Thompson et al., 2022).

Interpersonal conflict occurs in interactions with real or perceived incompatible goals, scarce resources, or opposing viewpoints. Interpersonal conflict may be expressed verbally or nonverbally, ranging from a nearly imperceptible cold shoulder to a very obvious blowout. Interpersonal conflict is, however, distinct from interpersonal violence, which goes beyond communication to include abuse.

Conflict is inevitable in close relationships and can take a negative emotional toll. It takes effort to ignore someone or be passive-aggressive; the anger or guilt felt after blowing up at someone are valid negative feelings. However, conflict is not always negative or unproductive. Numerous research studies have shown that the quantity of conflict in a relationship is not as significant as how the conflict is handled. Additionally, when conflict is well managed, it has the potential to lead to more rewarding and satisfactory relationships (Canary & Messman, 2000).

Conflict Resolution Communication Style

In addition to verbal and nonverbal communication, people communicate with others using three styles. A passive communicator puts the rights of others before their own. Passive communicators tend to be apologetic or tentative when speaking and often do not speak up if they feel they are being wronged. Aggressive communicators, on the other hand, come across as advocating for their rights despite possibly violating the rights of others. They tend to communicate in a way that tells others their feelings do not matter. However, assertive communicators respect the rights of others while also standing up for their ideas and rights when communicating. An assertive person is direct but not insulting or offensive. Assertive communicators convey information that describes the facts and the sender’s feelings without disrespecting the receiver. Using “I” messages such as “I feel … ,” “I understand … ,” or “Help me to understand … ” are strategies for assertive communication.

This method differs from aggressive communication, which uses “you” messages and can feel as if the sender is verbally attacking the receiver rather than dealing with the issue. For example, instead of saying to a coworker, “Why is it always so messy in your patients’ rooms? I dread following you on the next shift!” an assertive communicator would use “I” messages to say, “I feel frustrated spending the first part of my shift decluttering our patients’ rooms. Can you help me understand why keeping things organized during your shift is challenging?” Assertive communication is an effective way to solve problems with patients, coworkers, and healthcare team members.

Language and Conflict

At the interpersonal level, unsupportive messages can make others respond defensively, leading to feelings of separation and actual separation or dissolution of a relationship. It is impossible to be supportive in our communication all the time, but consistently unsupportive messages can hurt others’ self-esteem, escalate conflict, and lead to defensiveness. People who regularly use unsupportive messages may create a toxic win/lose climate in a relationship. Six verbal tactics that can lead to feelings of defensiveness and separation are global labels, sarcasm, dragging up the past, negative comparisons, judgmental “you” messages, and threats (McKay et al., 1995).

Common Types of Unsupportive Messages

Global labels. “You are a liar.” Labelling someone irresponsible, untrustworthy, selfish, or lazy calls their whole identity into question. Such sweeping judgments and generalizations are sure to escalate a negative situation.

Sarcasm. “No, you did not miss anything in class on Wednesday. We just sat here and looked at each other.” Even though sarcasm is often disguised as humour, it usually represents passive-aggressive behaviour through which a person indirectly communicates negative feelings.

Dragging up the past (gunnysacking). “I should have known not to trust you when you never paid me back that $100 I let you borrow.” Bringing up negative past experiences is a tactic people use when they do not want to discuss a current situation. Sometimes people have built up negative feelings that are suddenly let out by a seemingly small thing.

Negative comparisons. “Jade graduated from college without any credit card debt. I guess you are just not as responsible as her.” Holding a person up to another person’s supposed standards or characteristics can lead to feelings of inferiority and resentment. Parents and teachers may unfairly compare children to their siblings.

Judgmental “you” messages. “You are never going to be able to hold down a job.” Accusatory messages are usually generalized overstatements about another person that goes beyond labelling but do not describe specific behaviour in a productive way.

Threats. “If you do not stop texting back and forth with your ex, you will regret it.” Threatening someone with violence or some other negative consequence usually signals the end of productive communication. Aside from the potential legal consequences, threats usually overcompensate a person’s insecurity. These types of messages can lead to conflict. If warranted, it is important to understand how you respond to the conflict to work toward a more productive style.

Key Takeaways

  • Conflict is inevitable
  • Conflict does not always have to be perceived as negative
  • Assertive communication is preferable when communicating during a perceived conflict situation
  • Unsupportive messages to be avoided during conflict include global labels, sarcasm, digging up the past, negative comparisons, judgemental language and threats.


  1. Review the list of unsupportive messages and reflect on which ones you commonly use personally and professionally. Why do you use them?
  2. How might you handle conflict differently in a personal and professional context?
  3. What is the difference between passive, aggressive and assertive communication?


Canary, D. J., & Messman, S. J. (2000). Relationship conflict. In C. Hendrick & S. S. Hendrick (Eds.). Close relationships: A sourcebook (pp. 261–270). SAGE.

McKay, M., Davis, M., & Fanning, P. (1995). Messages: Communication skills book (2nd ed.). New Harbinger.

Thompson, S., Zurmehly, J., Bauldoff, G., & Rosselet, R. (2022). De-escalation training as part of a workplace violence prevention program. The Journal of Nursing Administration, 52(4), 222-227.

Attribution Statement

Content adapted, with editorial changes, from:​

Lapum, J., St.-Amant, O., Hughes, M., & Garmaise-Yee, J. (Eds.)(2020). Introduction to communication in nursing. Toronto Metropolitan University Pressbooks. https://pressbooks.library.ryerson.ca/communicationnursing/

Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

Professional Communication Skills for Health Studies Copyright © 2023 by Chute, A., Johnston, S., & Pawliuk, B. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book