Conflict can be quite productive!

I’ve always thought of myself as someone who embraces conflict as a way to do something greater because of the struggle, and Folger, Poole, and Stutman (2013) weren’t kidding when they suggested that “conflicts are confusing”, and the results of conflict often are not what either party expected (p. 3).  “Actions have consequences quite different from what is intended because the situation is more complicated than we assumed” (Folger, Poole, & Stutman, 2013, p. 3).  Taking that into consideration, one might agree that the perceived incompatibility experienced by either party on an issue demonstrates how easy it is for one to be taken off course when working towards a desired outcome.  As the authors demonstrate the features of conflict defined, the topic of incompatibility is of particularly importance because this is where the magic happens, so to speak.  When two or more parties fail to see things the same way, they are opening up the possibility of something new to emerge, or, something superior to the original thought.  Folger, Poole and Stutman (2013) relate the following:  “The key to working through conflict is not to minimize its disadvantages, or even to emphasize its positive functions, but to accept both and to try to understand how conflicts move in destructive or productive directions” (p. 4).  Conflict need not be something negative, it may actually be something positive for the individuals, or the organization, if handled well.

The authors of this book present the topic of interdependence is explored as a facet of conflict.  Interdependence is important to consider because it certainly is the way most adults experience life, in both business and at home.  According to Folger, Poole and Stutman (2013), “The greater the interdependence among people, the more significant the consequences of their behaviors are for each other” (p.5).  I agree with this statement, and I have observed the reality of this in my own life and work.  A conflict with a close coworker or spouse maintains a deeper impact on my experience, and often is accompanied by stronger emotional responses as well.  When conflict is not handled well with someone in a closer interdependent relationship, the sting lingers longer than when it occurs with a partial collaborator.   For this reason, I believe the authors explore the connection that communication has with conflict, conveying clearly, “Communication is important because it is the key to shaping and maintaining the perceptions that guide conflict behavior” (Folger, Poole, & Stutman, 2013, p. 5).  Communication is always crucial in the battle of the wills, which is how many view conflict.  Shifting the negative connotation of the word conflict requires some work, which relies heavily upon the approach to communicating desired change in the midst of what Hocker and Wilmot (2014) define conflict as, this  "expressed struggle between at least two parties who perceive incompatible goals, scarce resources, and interference from others in achieving their goals" (p. 13).  At times, the perceptions are far more incompatible than the reality, yet in other cases, the incompatibility is real.  Healthy communication practices certainly go a long way to pave the road of successfully reaching amicable conclusions. 

Conflict can be productive, if all parties agree to step into the dialogue with pure intentions.  Folger, Poole, and Stutman (2013) stress the importance of this approach, “In productive conflicts, all parties believe  they can attain important goals.. . Productive conflict interaction results in a solution satisfactory all and produces a general feeling that all parties have gained something” (p. 9).   They continue to point readers towards the key to working through conflict:  “not to minimize its disadvantages, or even to emphasize its positive functions, but to accept both and to try to understand how conflicts more in destructive or productive directions” (Folger, Poole, & Stutman, 2013, p. 4). 

How has your perspective influenced the productivity of conflict?


Folger, J.P., Poole, M.S., & Stutman, R.K. (2013). Working through conflict: Strategies for relationships, groups, and organizations (7th ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson.

Hocker, J., & Wilmot, W. (2014). Interpersonal conflict (9th ed.). New York, NY: McGraw Hill.


Holly McIlwain

As the director of Leadership Development Practice for Talerico Group, Holly spends a lot of time helping individuals understand how perspective, intention, and communication impact the ability to productively resolve conflicts.