Mediate in the comfort of your own home. Now offering Online Mediation Services 

What’s the difference between a disagreement and a conflict and a dispute? (Hint: just knowing this one thing can help you solve some seriously stubborn problems.)

What’s the difference between a disagreement and a conflict and a dispute? (Hint: just knowing this one thing can help you solve some seriously stubborn problems.)

You'd think that when it comes down to it, a fight is a fight is a fight.

No matter what you call it, you've still got two sides trying to get their needs met, two people not getting what they want, and one big problem to be solved, right?

Actually ... wrong.

A disagreement is different from a conflict, which is again different from a dispute – and not knowing the difference between the different types of interactions can actually exacerbate the issues at play and make it that much harder to find a solution.

So what's the difference? (And why should you care?) Here's how you can tell whether you're in a dispute or a conflict or merely having a simple disagreement, and why it matters when it comes time to choose a resolution approach.

A disagreement is a short-term problem with a fixable solution.

Disagreements exist along a continuum of informal arguments around the kitchen table to how to structure a project with your team at work to which spouse should clean the bathroom this week to whether drop-off for your kids should be at 6 pm or 7 pm. Some kind of interaction occurs that causes a clash of needs or wants. One or both of you speaks up about it and the issue gets resolved, usually pretty quickly. Everyone moves on.

What's really important to remember is that a disagreement is one and done. When the parties involved come to a resolution, the problem is solved.

A conflict is deeper and more long-lasting than a disagreement.

A conflict is a deeper disagreement involving layers of emotions, some of which may go unrecognized by the people involved. Whereas you can knock out a disagreement by resolving a single short-term issue, a conflict is going to keep going even if you fix the small stuff. Why? Because one or both of you are harboring pieces of the prior disagreement. You didn't fully expressing your needs at the time. When that happens over and over again you find yourself having an inner dialogue and feelings that get provoked again and again. You begin to ascribe motives and intentions to the other person without ever checking in about them. This builds and builds and pretty soon you're headed down the conflict highway.

Let's contrast a disagreement with a conflict. Imagine divorced parents arguing over which school their child should attend. This may be a simple fight that could be solved by talking it out between themselves and reaching agreement. Or it could be part of an ongoing conflict over parenting style or parenting authority. Even if the parents come to resolution about their child's school, if the parents don't resolve some of their deeper differences, they're likely to have more disagreements in the future. Future disagreements might be around the child's school, or about other seemingly unrelated issues that expose the underlying conflict that is bubbling to the surface.

When a conflict morphs into a dispute, there is trouble ahead.

When that conflict gets bad enough, they may wind up in a dispute. This has far-reaching consequences. They may recruit others into the dispute, like the kiddos or family or friends, or they may completely ignore one another. All of this negatively fuels the underlying conflict. Finally, things may escalate into aggression toward one another, and they might wind up in court with full-blown litigated issues where attorneys use the system as a weapon to squeeze the other party into yielding.

Long story short: disputes are escalated conflicts with deep roots, and can't be solved with either a short-term focus or a full-court press, you have to address the deeper issues to get to long-lasting peace.

Here's why you should care: each type of interaction responds best to different methods of resolution.

This is why you see people coming back to court over and over again –– they'll have tried to use dispute resolution techniques to solve a conflict. It's understandable, because we're not really taught the difference, and because the legal system is set up to solve disputes, not conflicts.

Think about it: judges are trained to evaluate a situation and make pronouncements to the parties involved. Each issue is treated as an adversarial transaction, creating a power dynamic in which there's a clear winner and loser. Parties may be told how it's going to be, but the reasons driving any underlying conflict are never adequately broached –– and many times, the "loser" feels marginalized because of the system, and so is incentivized to keep fighting to regain "balance".

But since inner conflicts drive disputes, you need a different approach to problem-solving. That's where I come in.

I'm often called in to resolve "disagreements" that are actually conflicts. Maybe they have even bubbled up into a full-blown dispute in court. Everyone involved believes that they have to scratch and claw to get what they want, and they're really anxious because they believe that someone has to win and someone else has to lose. Try to apply basic dispute resolution to that emotional cocktail and guess what happens? A whole lot of nothing. Unless the the reasons for the emotions and the win/lose thinking are addressed, the conflict will never be resolved. (And in fact, treating a conflict as a transaction can have long-lasting, negative consequences.)

That's why I'm always searching for the underlying conflict that is driving things, and trying to bring those issues to the surface. For example, I may observe the dynamics between parties and point out what I see in a straightforward, non-judgmental way. This can make each person more aware of the impact they're having and give them an opportunity to change their behavior. At the same time, I'm working to create a safe space and sense of goodwill, because if you can get people to start feeling empathy for each other, that's when real transformation can happen.

Are you a mediator or legal practitioner? I'd invite you to start doing the same.

Knowing that the skills needed for basic problem-solving differ from those needed for conflict resolution puts you in a position of responsibility. Depending on the particular type of issue your clients are facing, the solution they need may be different. So consider moving away from a one-size-fits-all approach and start tailoring your work to address disagreements differently from conflicts. You'll find that you're better able to resolve problems, and you get to avoid the particular flavor of frustration that comes with realizing that you're not helping people and you're not quite sure why what you're trying isn't working. It's better for your clients, better for your practice, and better for you –– talk about a win-win-win.

And ultimately, that's the goal, isn't it? Conflict resolution, dispute resolution, and problem solving in general at its best ends up with as much of a win-win situation as possible.

So the next time you come in contact with a problem, try diagnosing it as a disagreement or a conflict or a dispute first, and then proceed accordingly. It's a different way of approaching problems, for sure –– but as the saying goes, you can't solve a problem using the same perspective you had when it was created.

Looking for support with a conflict you're facing? Schedule a time to talk with me!

Six questions to ask yourself to keep a difficult ...
6 Ground Rules for Resolving Disputes


No comments made yet. Be the first to submit a comment
Tuesday, 20 April 2021

By accepting you will be accessing a service provided by a third-party external to