10.3 Approaching and Responding to Interpersonal Conflict

Learning Objectives

  • Explain what to consider when approaching conflict and resolution.
  • Describe four conflict triggers.
  • Explain the STLC [stop, think, listen, and communicate] model as a conflict management strategy.

Approaching and Responding to Conflict

While many of us think of conflict as unfavourable, it is not inherently so, and you can use effective interpersonal communication skills to manage conflict constructively. This could potentially transform a negative situation into something positive and cathartic. However, it is essential to note that conflict involves more than one person, and the other person or people may not have the knowledge or skills for effective communication. Despite this, having just one person knowledgeable in conflict management skills can help de-escalate the situation and better resolve the conflict. This section outlines how to approach a conflict situation and how to apologize in situations where you have wronged another person effectively.

Approaching Conflict

To effectively approach someone about a conflict, consider the strategies below.<

Before approaching someone, define the problem and your goals, and brainstorm potential solutions you think will solve the problem. Also, consider how, when, and where you will approach the other person with the problem. Usually, it is best to approach someone privately versus in a public location around other people.

Take ownership
Recognize that the conflict consists of at least two people. Whether it is a disagreement or hurt feelings, both people play a role in the conflict.

Be assertive, not aggressive
Being assertive means stating the message clearly and directly while respecting the other person. Aggressiveness entails attacking another’s self-esteem, blaming, expressing hostility, and name-calling. Behaving aggressively is unlikely to yield the results you want.

Start with facework
Facework strategies avoid embarrassing, blaming, or ascribing motives to the other person. Using these strategies when approaching conflict can help reduce defensiveness in the other person. Some good facework starters include ‘You may not have meant it this way…’ or ‘You may not be aware of this, but…’.

Describe the conflict in terms of behaviour, consequences, and feelings
When you approach the other person, include the behaviour(s) involved in the conflict, the consequences of said behaviour, or how it makes you feel (or both).

  • Behaviour(s)
    Tell the other person what the behaviour is and when it occurred. In other words, what did the person specifically do or say, and when did this occur? Be sure the behaviour description is specific, objective, and observable, with no meaning, interpretation, or significance attached. For example: “Your voice was raised last night when we were discussing finances …” versus “You were being a jerk last night.” “You did not respond to my texts yesterday” versus “You are ignoring me.” Starters include “I noticed recently that …”
  • Consequences
    Describe why (s) you are bothered by the behaviour(s) or what happens in your life or someone else’s life due to the behaviour you described. Starters: “This bothers me because …” “What happens when …”
  • Feelings
    Describe the emotions you are experiencing due to the interpretation you attached to the behaviour. Be sure to say things like “I feel …” rather than “You make me feel …” or “You hurt my feelings.” Starter: “I feel (emotion) …”

Use “I” statements
As mentioned in previous sections, “I” statements are essential in communication. (For example, “I interpret this behaviour x to mean …”  versus “you are inconsiderate”).

Be sure the other person understands your problem
Invite them to paraphrase and ask additional questions. Do not be offended or deterred if they have trouble understanding the problem, respond defensively or angrily, try to deflect responsibility, or need some time to respond. Remember, not everyone has learned practical communication skills, and needing time to process the information they receive should be expected.

Phrase your preferred solution in a way that focuses on common ground
Try to identify solutions that meet the goals/needs of both parties. This means utilizing the collaborative approach. Also, avoid framing your solution to make it seem like the only or even the best solution. Instead, solicit potential suggestions from the other.

Responding to Conflict

When another person approaches you about a conflict, consider the strategies below.

Listen to what the other has to say
If you are in a situation where another person approaches you with an issue, you can usually help de-escalate the situation by listening to what the other person says. Sometimes this can be hard, as our immediate reaction may be to deny or to become defensive or emotional. However, try to listen objectively and demonstrate effective listening skills such as using back-channel cues, asking questions, and paraphrasing to show understanding. When you do this, you can gain more information and better understand the other’s perspective and feelings, which will enable you to address the situation constructively.

Validate what the other person has to say
You do not need to agree, but you can show that you recognize and understand the other person’s feelings and thoughts about the situation. Doing so can help neutralize tension and enable you to offer your own or a different perspective and work towards identifying solutions via the collaborative approach to conflict.

Take ownership and apologize if necessary
Sometimes conflict occurs because you have done something that has negatively impacted another person in some way, whether intentional or unintentional. When this happens, it is necessary to offer a sincere apology to alleviate hurt feelings or prevent the situation from escalating. In some situations, not apologizing, or apologizing ineffectively (e.g., “my bad”), can exacerbate the situation. Non-apologies or ineffective apologies can be problematic by escalating a simple mistake or misunderstanding into a full-scale conflict. They can result in long-term feelings of resentment or the issue being brought up later (often repeatedly).

Ask the other person for preferred solutions or engage in problem-solving to identify solutions
Ask for suggestions and work together to brainstorm solutions that might meet your needs. Be creative and think outside the box when possible. Evaluate proposed solutions and decide on the necessary actions needed to move forward. Be sure to reflect on how you will keep yourself and others accountable for implementing solutions.

Reflective Communication — Conflict Triggers

A key to handling conflict effectively is to notice patterns of conflict in specific relationships and to generally have an idea of what causes you and others to react negatively. Four common triggers for conflict are criticism, demand, cumulative annoyance, and rejection (Christensen & Jacobson, 2000).


You know from experience that criticism, or comments that evaluate another person’s personality, behaviour, appearance, or life choices, may lead to conflict. Comments do not have to be meant as criticism to be perceived as such. If Gary comes home from college for the weekend and his mom says, “Looks like you put on a few pounds,” she may view this as a statement of fact based on observation. However, Gary may take the comment personally and respond negatively to his mom, starting a conflict that will last for the rest of his visit. However, in many cases, you can consider alternative ways to phrase things that may be taken less personally, or you may determine that your comment does not need to be spoken at all. Most thoughts about another person’s physical appearance, especially when negative, do not need to be verbalized. Ask yourself, “What is my motivation for making this comment?” and “Do I have anything to lose by not commenting?” If your underlying reasons seem valid, perhaps there is another way to phrase your observation. If Gary’s mom is worried about his eating habits and health, she could wait until they are eating dinner and ask him how he likes the food choices at school and what he usually eats.


Demands also frequently trigger conflict, especially if the demand is viewed as unfair or irrelevant. It is important to note that demands are rephrased as questions may still be perceived as demands. The tone of voice and context are important factors here. As with criticism, thinking before you speak and before you respond can help manage demands and minimize conflict episodes. If you are demanding, include more information in the exchange to make your demand more precise or more reasonable to the other person. Consider making a request instead in a way that honours the other person’s interpersonal and facial needs. If you are being demanded of, responding calmly and expressing your thoughts and feelings are likely more effective than withdrawing, which may escalate the conflict.

Cumulative Annoyance

Cumulative annoyance is a building of frustration or anger that occurs over time, eventually resulting in a conflict interaction. For example, your friend shows up late to drive you to class three times in a row. You did not say anything the previous times, but on the third time, you said, “You are late again! If you cannot arrive on time, I will find another way to get to class.” Cumulative annoyance can build up like a pressure cooker, and as it builds up, the intensity of the conflict also builds. Criticism and demands can also play into cumulative annoyance. You likely have let critical or demanding comments slide, but if they continue, it becomes difficult to hold back, and most of us have a breaking point. The problem is that all the other incidents come back to your mind as you confront the other person, intensifying the conflict. You have likely been surprised when someone has blown up at you due to cumulative annoyance or when someone you have blown up at did not know there was a problem building. You are more likely to succeed with conflict management if you address the problematic behaviour without judgment. Remember to employ empathy and listening skills if you are the subject of someone else’s built-up frustration.


No one likes the feeling of rejection. Rejection can lead to conflict when one person’s comments or behaviours are perceived as ignoring or invalidating the other person. Vulnerability is a component of any close relationship. When you care about someone, you verbally or nonverbally communicate. You may tell your best friend you miss them or plan a home-cooked meal for your partner working late. The vulnerability that underlies these actions comes from the possibility that our relational partner will not notice or appreciate them. When someone feels exposed or rejected, they often respond with anger to mask their hurt, which ignites a conflict. Concepts discussed throughout this book, such as empathy, perception checking, and listening skills can be helpful here.

Conflict Management Strategies

Many researchers have attempted to understand how humans handle conflict with one another. The first researchers to create a taxonomy for understanding conflict management strategies were Walton and  McKersie (1965). They were primarily interested in how individuals handle conflict during labour negotiations. The Walton and McKersie model consisted of only two methods for managing conflict: integrative and distributive. An integrative conflict strategy is a win-win approach to conflict whereby both parties attempt to come to a settled agreement that is mutually beneficial. A distributive conflict approach is a win-lose approach whereby conflicting parties see their job as winning and ensuring the other person or group loses. Most professional schools teach that integrative negotiation tactics are generally the best ones. Over the years, several different conflict-handling patterns have arisen in the literature. Still, most of them agree with the first two proposed by Walton and McKersie, but they generally add a third dimension of conflict: avoidance.

The STLC Conflict Model

Cahn and Abigail (2014) created a straightforward conflict resolution model during the conflict. They called the STLC Conflict Model because it stands for stop, think, listen, and communicate.


The first thing an individual needs to do when interacting with another person during conflict is to take the time to be present within the conflict itself. Too often, people in a conflict say whatever enters their mind before they can process the message and think of the best strategies to send it. Others end up talking past one another during a conflict because they simply are not paying attention to each other and the competing needs within the conflict. Communication problems often occur during conflict because people tend to react to situations when they arise instead of being mindful and present during the conflict. For this reason, it is always important to take a breath during a conflict and first stop. Sometimes these “timeouts” need to be physical. Maybe you need to leave the room and go for a brief walk to calm down, or maybe you just need to get a glass of water. Whatever you need to do, it is important to take this break. This break takes you from a “reactive stance into a proactive one” (Cahn & Abigail, 2014, p. 79).


Once you have stopped, you can think about your communication. You want to think through the conflict itself. What is the conflict really about? Often people engage in conflicts about superficial items when there are genuinely much deeper issues that are being avoided. You also want to consider what causes led to the conflict and what possible courses of action can conclude the conflict. Cahn and Abigail (2104) argue that four possible outcomes can occur: do nothing, change yourself, change the other person, or change the situation.

First, you can simply sit back and avoid conflict. Maybe you are engaging in a political conflict with a family member, and this conflict will just make everyone mad. For this reason, you opt to stop the conflict and change the topic to avoid upsetting people. If you are asked at a work party what your impression is of our current premier, would you respond with, “Do you want me to answer that question?” You are aware that everyone else in the room would completely disagree with your opinion, so this is likely a can of worms that does not need to be opened.

Second, you can change yourself. Often, you are at fault and start conflicts. You may not realize how your behaviour caused the conflict until you step back and analyze what is happening. It is very important to admit that you have done wrong when it comes to being at fault. Nothing is worse (and can stoke a conflict more) than when someone refuses to see their part in the conflict.

Third, you can attempt to change the other person. Changing someone else is easier said than done. Just ask your parents/guardians! Our parents/guardians have attempted to change our behaviours at one point or another, and changing people is very hard. Even with the powers of punishment and reward, change often only lasts as long as the punishment or the reward.  As long as people are punished, they will behave in a specific way. If the punishment is taken away, so is the behaviour. Lastly, you can just change the situation. Having a conflict with your roommates? Move out. Having a conflict with your boss? Find a new job. Having a conflict with a professor? Drop the course. Admittedly, changing the situation is not necessarily the first choice people should make when thinking about possibilities, but often is the best decision for long-term happiness. In essence, some conflicts can not be settled between people. When these conflicts arise, you can try and change yourself, hope the other person will change (they probably will not), or just get out of it altogether.


The third step in the STLC model is listening. Humans are not always the best listeners. Listening is a skill, and unfortunately, this skill is desperately needed and often forgotten during a conflict situation. When you feel defensive during a conflict, listening becomes spotty because you focus on yourself and protecting yourself instead of trying to be empathic and seeing the conflict through the other person’s eyes. One mistake some people make is to think they are listening, but in reality, they are listening for flaws in the other person’s argument. You may use selective listening to devalue the other person’s stance. In essence, you may hear one minor flaw with what the other person is saying and then use that flaw to demonstrate that everything else must also be wrong. The goal of listening must be to suspend judgment and attempt to be present enough to interpret the other person’s message accurately. When you listen in this highly empathic way, you can often see things from the other person’s point of view, which could help us come to a better-negotiated outcome in the long run.


Last but certainly, not least, you communicate with the other person. Notice that Cahn and Abigail (2014) put communication as the last part of the STLC model because it is the hardest to do effectively during a conflict if the first three are not done correctly. When communicating during a conflict, you should be hyper-aware of your nonverbal behaviour (eye movement, gestures, posture, and so on). Nothing will kill a message faster than when accompanied by ineffective nonverbal behaviour. For example, rolling one’s eyes while another person is speaking is not an effective way to engage in conflict resolution. It is important to be assertive and stand up for your ideas during a conflict without becoming verbally aggressive. Conversely, you have to be open to someone else’s use of assertiveness without tolerating verbal aggression.  Mediators are often used to help call out people when they communicate in a verbally aggressive fashion. As Cahn and Abigail (2014) note, “People who are assertive with one another have the greatest chance of achieving mutual satisfaction and growth in their relationship” (p. 83).

As with all the aspects of communication competence discussed so far, you cannot expect that everyone you interact with will have the same knowledge of communication that you have after reading this book. But it often only takes one person with conflict management skills to make an interaction more effective. Remember that it is not the quantity of conflict that determines a relationship’s success; it is how the conflict is managed. One person’s competent response can de-escalate a conflict.

Key Takeaways

  • Interpersonal conflict is an inevitable part of relationships that, although not always negative, can take an emotional toll on relational partners unless they develop skills and strategies for managing conflict.
  • Perception plays an essential role in conflict management because you may be biased in determining the cause of your own and others’ behaviours in a conflict situation. This necessitates engaging in communication to gain information and perspective.
  • You can handle conflict better by identifying patterns and triggers such as demands, cumulative annoyance, and rejection and by learning to respond mindfully rather than reflexively.
  • Conflict management strategies can be either integrative, distributive, or avoidance.
  • The STLC model: Stop; Think; Listen and Communicate, can be used as an effective conflict resolution strategy.


  1. Which conflict triggers discussed (demands, cumulative annoyance, rejection, one-upping, and mindreading) do you find most often trigger an adverse reaction from you? What strategies can you use to manage the trigger better and more effectively manage conflict?


Cahn, D. D., & Abigail, R. A. (2014). Managing conflict through communication (5th ed.). Pearson.

Christensen, A., & Jacobson, N.S. (2008). Reconcilable differences. Guilford.

Dsilva, M. U., & Whyte, L. O. (1998). Cultural differences in conflict styles: Vietnamese refugees and established residents. Howard Journal of Communication, 9(1), 57–68. https://doi.org/10.1080/106461798247113

Oetzel, J., Garcia, A. J., & Ting-Toomey, S. (2008). An analysis of the relationships among face concerns and facework behaviors in perceived conflict situations: A four-culture investigation. International Journal of Conflict Management, 19(4), 382–403.

Walton, R. E., & McKersie, R. B. (1965). A behavioral theory of labor negotiations: An analysis of a social interaction system. McGraw-Hill.

Attribution Statement

Content adapted, with editorial changes, from:​

Gerber, P. J., & Murphy, H. (n.d.). I.C.A.T. Interpersonal communication abridged textbook. Libre Texts. [Licensed under CC-BY-SA 3.0].

University of Minnesota Libraries Publishing. (2013). Communication in the real world [Adapted]. https://open.lib.umn.edu/communication/

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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.

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