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Distinguishing Disputes From Conflicts

Literature, website, and promotion reviews illustrate that concepts dispute and conflict are most often used interchangeably. This results in inaccurate analysis of a situation, and inappropriate or blanket application of interventions. I propose that disputes and conflicts are different phenomena, more than points of degree of intensity on a continuum, and more than an association with accumulation and quantity. The braided filaments of time, content, emotion, and relationship connectedness distinguish disputes from conflicts.


TIME – Tenses in communication set the time. The present tense (“No! I guess I don’t see it. I see a very different kind of situation.”), which is also linked with the very recent past (yesterday, this past Friday), distinguishes disputes. The past tense (“Haven’t we had this discussion before, like only a million times!”) serves as markers of conflicts.

CONTENT – Specific contested facts (events, elements, viewpoints, perceptions, and perspectives); uncontested assumptions; competing and seemingly incompatible ideas, interests, and issues; disagreements; differences of opinion or points of view; heated discussions; and debates characterize disputes. Dispute is the English translation of the Latin, dis-putare, meaning ‘to clean.’ The implication inherent in the word dispute is the sorting through, cleaning up, and clarifying of facts, ideas, opinions, and views. A specific present environment or context (committee meeting) and a generalized content (working through, sorting through, deciding on, clarifying, and disagreeing on the rules and regulations or cultural by which to choose a consultant, what criteria to include, what receives priority) mark disputes.

EMOTION – Frustration, annoyance, and exasperation often signal the first notification of and experience of dispute, and are the early, low voltage feelings of anger. The experience of frustration is central to the distinction of dispute, for a congruency exists in the meaning of the two words. To frustrate is to thwart, to foil, to circumvent, to interfere with, to check, to make an effort come to no avail, to nullify, to defeat, all of which refer to notions of competition and incompatibility. A literature review on our accepted definitions of conflict reveals this conceptualization of frustration is congruent with our most common and accepted notions of conflict.
Frustration surfaces from the initial awareness of and as the initial steps in problematic pattern recognition. Pattern recognition is something that human beings do relatively well. We categorize sameness and difference, and establish thinking and acting shortcuts for responding. Such routinized and normalized shortcuts form the basis for habits. Habits form the basis for successful best practices in problem solving, and as such have a life cycle of effectiveness. One person’s best practices frequently challenge another person’s best practices. Individuals (organizations and institutions) often become blind to their own habits and keenly aware of others, especially when habits begin to cause difficulties. Thus, we hear a generalized complaint in response to problematic habits.

“Rae! What do you mean the report is going to be late again?
Do you expect me to always cover for you?”

That moment when an individual voices a complaint to another acts as a moment-of-truth, or a tipping point. It brings into focus and makes visible a habit that an individual likely is blind to, or has justified in some way, and that others find problematic.

A complaint is the manifestation of a dispute. Ineffective habits have interfered with efficient working conditions, delayed time-lines, stymied goals and interests, and blocked bids for success. The frustration expressed in always, never, forever and ever, all the time, and every time flags attention that routinized and normalized problematic patterns of behaviors have been identified – and signals the past/present marker and request for change. Inherent in complaints are unmet expectations, unfulfilled needs, and violated norms of fairness, civility, and respect. These constitute cues of RELATIONSHIP CONNECTEDNESS.

Implied in the complaints of disputes (“late again”, and “always cover for you”) is that anyone and everyone would find such thinking and acting unacceptable as evaluated against a socially defined standard – including the person that has violated these standards should they experience similar behavior from someone else. Alluded to is the connectedness of individuals, and the attempts they make to accommodate, compromise, coordinate, and cooperate to accomplish effective outcomes for and with each other (“cover for you”). Hinted at is the creeping in of mistrust, the withdrawing of empathy, the establishment of boundaries, and the jeopardizing of the relationship (“always”). Cloaked in the content of any message is the language of emotion and the state of the relationship.
The essential components that characterize disputes are frustration expressed in the form of complaints against an individual’s routinized behaviors (including ways of thinking) as evaluated against socially defined standards. These flag attention to the creeping in of mistrust, and the erosion of connectedness in the relationship.


TIME – Far too often complaints are not settled, are resolved in unsatisfactory ways, are waved away as exceptions, as workplace politics, as personality differences, as confined to the realm of the personal, as inevitable, as devoid of environmental influences, as insignificant, and merely as blame. Such labels imply the situation is unsolvable, un-discuss-able, and it just is. Far too often complaints are not vocalized because of fear and humiliation at being labeled negative, a nay-sayer, too thin skinned, or a complainer. Un-vocalized complaints roam around, fester, and accumulate in a person’s mind. When complaints are finally voiced, they come out as and are taken as criticism.

CONTENT – Talk focuses predominately on assassination of individual character and personality traits believed engrained and immutable – over competing and incompatible ideas, interests, and issues. In conflict, people are the problem. New ways of thinking and behaviors are being asked for. The hallmark of conflicts is the state of generalized disputes, where discussions around any specific issue easily escalate into power struggles. Each specific issue represents yet another example of a patterned way of thinking and acting – an attitude that indicates the problematic personality. A person’s actions or behaviors – the routinized or normalized habits of thinking and acting – become associated with the person’s character or personality, and the distinction between behavior and character are harder to conceive of. An individual’s intention, self-esteem, identity, sense of competence, reputation, values, beliefs, sense of Self – all are called into question triggering fear and humiliation.

EMOTION – Unacknowledged criticism easily and readily tips into contempt and disgust, embodied in the display of anger (and often rage), diverted from attention by the anger, and revealed by the character assassinations. Anger replaces frustration, manifested also through blame, defensiveness, resistance, justifications, withdrawal, depression, stonewalling, and avoidance. In the fault-finding of name-calling and blame, individuals have been caught violating social rules of respect and civility, and have not met promises and expectations. Most of these social rules, promises, and expectations have not been articulated and made visible.
Individuals caught violating social rules of respect and civility – often inadvertently – tend to feel bad in response to hurting someone’s feelings. In response, individuals want to lessen the impact both on themselves and to others. Blame is a deflecting mechanism for avoiding or partitioning accountability and responsibility, particularly where equated solely with liability and financial compensation. At the same time, blame flags attention to the absence of, and asking for, accountability and responsibility. The need for apology arises around accountability and responsibility.

The often heard but basically ignored cliché – “I’m not arguing about money. It’s not about the money, it’s the principle of the thing,” signifies the essence of conflict. The “principle” of the thing translates into moral and social standards, and thus expectations of respect, fairness, and civility. Individuals focus on these components, all of which are defined by culture.

DISCONNECTED RELATIONSHIPS – A largely unrecognized and significant social component of anger is asking for change, in response to some behavior or way of thinking that is causing harm to an individual’s sense of Self, and relationships. The anger flags attention to this threat and fear, to the sense of disconnectedness, to the sense of “feeling bad,” or “feeling hurt,” to a sense of worthlessness, to thoughts characterized by “I am not worth what I am asking for; how little you care about me, about our relationship.” Mistrust gives way to distrust. New rules and regulations governing the relationship or fundamental changes are asked for.

Humiliation, contempt, disgust, blame, harm, disrespect, bad, hurt, and worthlessness are the cue words for shame. Anger, fear and shame constitute the braided emotions of conflict. Anger is the presenting emotion shielding shame and fear. Anger is easier to experience and acknowledge than either shame or fear, and certainly easier to acknowledge when they intersect and form a triangle.
The power struggles where individuals cling tenaciously to their positions signal that positions constitute more than merely an ideal solution. The energy expended on defending positions reflects the attempts to regain respect, dignity, integrity, and honor – to counter balance the effects of feeling shame. The diversity and extensiveness of individuals’ deployment tactics testifies to the creativity, innovation, and energy devoted to this endeavor. Blame belongs to the socio-emotional process of shame, and it serves as a balancing process for intra and interpersonal connectedness.
Rather than a definition of conflict as normal or inevitable as a consequence of perceived incompatible and competing interests or needs, incompatible and competing interests and needs are normal between people. Conflict is as a consequence of disconnection between people who then expend less effort in cooperating and coordinating incompatible and competing interests, have a less vested interest in doing so, and see themselves as having to look out for themselves. Conflict represents disrespect inherent from the denial of recognition and struggle for identity. Verbal and physical violence emerges out of the denial of recognition and struggle for identity.

The distinction between dispute and conflict through the variables of time, content, emotions, and relationship connectedness allows individuals at home, in the workplace, or as practitioners greater precision in analysis of a situation. Such analysis leads to more precise choices of intervention. The real dollar costs in dealing with complaints and criticisms through coaching is substantially less than conflict through mediation or a court case. However, since social norms regulate when individuals seek outside help, and that seeking outside help for disputes signals a loss of faith and incompetency, the challenge will be for clients and professionals alike to learn new scripts for seeking outside help sooner rather than later.


Rose Marie E. Borutski

Rose Marie's specialty focuses on how emotions work in human relations, within situations of learning and development, conflict and change, job satisfaction, customer service, media and marketing, and workplace harassment. Having distinguished disputes from conflicts, that conflict is not normal, but resulting from the alchemy of anger, fear, and shame,… MORE >

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