Understanding Conflict Between Individuals
Janet Ayres - Purdue Agricultural Economics
The expansion of CAFOs in Indiana has created high levels of conflict
in communities. People disagree over the permitting of operations,
location of facilities, and the impacts on the community. The stakes are
high, conflicts are emotionally charged, CAFO owners, other farmers,
neighbors, and elected officials are pitted against one another, oftentimes
damaging personal relationships for years.
Are there better ways of dealing with such complex and controversial
issues? This series on community conflict is intended to help people with
CAFO issues deal with their differences in more effective and constructive
ways. The purpose of this paper is to provide a better understanding on
how to deal with differences between individuals and what can be done
to keep the conflict from escalating.
Although issues around CAFOs are multifaceted and involve many
stakeholder groups, it is at the individual level that most conflict
situations occur. People talk with one another at meetings, on the street,
or in the local grocery store. During these encounters, people often
disagree with each other, emotions rise, and conflict can escalate very
quickly. It is important to know how to handle these stressful situations.
The ability to manage emotions and distinguish between disagreements
and conflict is fundamental to reducing tensions.
Distinguish between Disagreements and Conflict
It is natural for people to disagree. People have different ways of
thinking, different values that are important to them, different beliefs and
perspectives on issues, and different life experiences. It's OK to disagree.
In fact, debating an issue can be useful to learn other perspectives,
acquire new information, and check out one's own assumptions and
beliefs. People can "agree to disagree" — then let it go. Disagreements
don't have to be resolved.
A CAFO owner and an advocate for environmental interests can have
a meaningful conversation and not agree on many things. The danger occurs when one, or the other, insists on being
"right" or "winning" the argument. This can quickly
change the situation by making the other person
defensive, escalating emotions on both sides, and
triggering verbal attacks to "hurt" each other. These
stressful situations damage personal relationships
that can last for years in a rural community.
Is it necessary for either party to agree with the
other in order to have their needs met? For example,
if two neighbors do not agree about a proposed
CAFO in the neighborhood, is there any benefit to
arguing? Is any need being served? If not, then they
might have a "healthy" discussion by listening to
each other, asking questions and speaking his/her
own thoughts. Body language, tone of voice, and
the words spoken should be calm, respectful, and
The discussion itself should remain focused on
the issues and not get into personal accusations,
threats, or name calling. If emotions start to escalate,
however, it is best to end the conversation. There is
little to be gained by arguing when emotions are
high — and a lot to lose, such as one's reputation,
respect, and personal relationships.
On the other hand, if there is a clear need or
purpose to persuade the other party in order to
have concerns met, then it is more effective to
think about a strategy, time, and place to influence
the other party. The grocery store may not be the
best place to have a serious conversation about a
person's concerns. The ability to effectively influence
another person requires being prepared with a clear
message based on facts and delivered intentionally
Generally, conflict is defined as a situation in which
people have incompatible goals with some level of
negative emotion. The more important the goals
are to people, the more defensive they become.
Consequently, high levels of emotion become
part of the conflict itself. As people become more
focused on defending their position, they tend to
block out others. They tend not to listen, not to
understand what the other person is saying, or, at
the worst, not care about the other person's interests
Such behavior triggers similar defensive behaviors
in the other person, and thus the conflict escalates.
If left unchecked, the conflict may escalate to a
point where the issues themselves give way to a
greater need of "being right" or "winning" against
the other side. Issues that could have been resolved
early on are now compromised and complicated by
poor communication and damaged relationships.
Not only is conflict at this level emotionally and
physically stressful, it doesn't help people get what
they want — to have their interests addressed, and be
made part of the solution.
Recognize and Manage Emotions
It is unrealistic to expect people to always agree.
What is important is how people deal with their
differences. The key lies in a person first taking
responsibility for his/her own mindset and actions.
Here are some keys:
- First, distinguish if the situation is a disagreement
or conflict. If a person does not need the other
person to meet their interests, why argue? Either
"agree to disagree" or walk away. Don't get
trapped in trying to be "right" or to "win over" the
other person. If, on the other hand, it is important
to persuade the other person (such as a local
official), then practice influence and negotiation
skills. Think carefully about what can be lost by
continuing an emotionally charged conversation.
Is it worth it?
- Recognize that a person can't change another
person. A person can take responsibility only for
his/her own attitudes, emotions, and actions.
- Gain control over emotions. Back away from
the other person a step or two and take a deep
breath. Buy some time to think before speaking.
Think about what is important to say and why.
Is the intent to inform, or to hurt? A person can't
eliminate his/her feelings, but he/she can try
to disconnect the automatic link between high
emotions and inappropriate actions; albeit, that is
hard to do.
- Recognize that people make assumptions about
issues and other people. Assumptions are often
based on a person's worst fears and, therefore, are frequently inaccurate. Check out assumptions
before jumping to conclusions.
- Pay attention to frame of mind. Difficult people and
situations can be one of life's greatest teachers
if a person is open to learning more about him/
herself. An open and positive mindset can make a
CAFO issues trigger many emotionally charged
interactions between people in rural communities.
Often these encounters turn into conflict situations
that are not useful and destroy relationships,
sometimes lasting a lifetime, and do little to resolve
the real issues.
As human beings, it is natural to disagree. If left
to natural inclinations, people react to others
with whom they disagree without thinking, and
consequently escalate the conflict. The good news
is that people can become more conscious of their
attitudes and better skilled in listening, controlling
their emotions, articulating their thoughts more
clearly, negotiating their interests and resolving
their differences. These are skills that can be learned
References and Further Reading
Fisher, R., Ury, W. 1981. Getting to Yes — Negotiating
Agreement Without Giving In. NY: Penguin Books.
Silberman, M. 2000. Peoplesmart — Developing Your
Interpersonal Intelligence. San Francisco: BerrettKoehler
Ury, W. 1991. Getting Past No — Negotiating Your
Way from Confrontation to Cooperation. NY: Bantam