Why we tend to see conflict as a problem—and why it matters

Mar 01, 2023 | EDR Blog

by Danya Rumore

In our prior blogs, we have explained that conflict just is: It is a normal, healthy, unavoidable part of life. Therefore, we need to learn to deal with it effectively, and that is what collaboration is all about. And the good news is that doing so not only helps make life a lot easier; it can be enormously productive and beneficial for all parties involved in the conflict.

Unfortunately, however, we tend to see conflict as a problem, and this sets off a whole chain of events that typically leads to negative outcomes. This is why I have come to believe that the main problem with conflict is that we see conflict as a problem, and the most important steps we can take to help ourselves and others make conflict productive—and to effectively collaborate—is to reframe conflict from being a problem to instead embracing the fact that conflict, if dealt with skillfully, can be a major opportunity.

Which raises the question: How do we reframe conflict from a problem to an opportunity?

And to answer that question, I think we first need to understand why people tend to see conflict as a problem.

Based on a lot of research, observation, and experience navigating and helping people navigate conflict, I have concluded that the answer to that question lies in the fact that we tend to see the world through a “scarcity” lens, which results in a win-lose mindset. In other words, we tend to assume there isn’t enough to go around. If we see the world this way, we are likely going to conclude that for one person to do well, the other will have to lose. And if there are going to be winners and losers, I sure want to be a winner—or at least not a loser!

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This win-lose mindset naturally leads to us perceiving conflict as a threat, since we equate conflict with the threat of losing. And when we see conflict as a threat, we cannot see and act on the opportunities conflict provides.

As I explained in our prior EDR blog, when we perceive conflict as a threat, our brains and bodies do exactly as they were evolutionarily designed to do to keep us alive: Our neurological system takes over and we go into fight, flight, or disengage mode (i.e., we get neurologically dysregulated). When this happens, we basically lose our ability to think calmly and rationally for a period of time, and we instinctively default to protective and defensive behavior. This often takes the form of us attacking the other person, accommodating to make the conflict go away, or totally disengaging in an effort to avoid the threat. As many of us know all too well from experience, these behaviors predictably lead to poor outcomes, such as hard feelings, damaged relationships, and other negative impacts. And this negative experience reinforces the perception that conflict is bad—that it is a threat—which contributes to this “I perceive conflict as a problem, therefore I deal with it poorly, therefore it has bad outcomes, and therefore I’m even more convinced conflict is bad” vicious cycle being repeated the next time we are faced with a conflict.

As best I can tell, our tendency to see the world through a scarcity, win-lose lens is at least in part an evolutionary trait designed to help us survive. Thousands of years ago, the basic resources needed for survival (e.g., food, water, shelter, etc.) were not as plentiful and readily available as they are today, and not securing enough of these limited resources was the difference between life and death. Similarly, if you disagreed with the tribe, you ran the risk of being left behind by the tribe, which likely would threaten your survival. So, it is understandable that our brains, which were “wired to survive, not to thrive,” would be concerned about the risk of losing and, thus, perceive conflict as a threat.

While the tendency to apply a win-lose mindset is understandable evolutionarily, it—like many of the built-in tendencies our brains and bodies developed to keep us alive thousands of years ago—doesn’t always serve us in modern-day living, where the goal is to thrive and to do so in a world where we interact with numerous diverse humans with different needs, perspectives, and experiences every day.

Thankfully, our brains have an incredible ability (I would argue it is a superpower!) to engage in what is called “metacognition,” or the ability to think about our thinking, to observe patterns in our thought processes, and ultimately to shift these thought processes. This ability allows us to observe our tendencies and, when they aren’t serving us, to actively choose to change how we operate.

This means that we can acknowledge our and others’ tendency to see conflict as a threat, and we can understand that this is due to an innate proclivity to see the world through a scarcity or “win-lose” lens. We can also observe our and others’ related tendency to get neurologically dysregulated when we encounter conflict, understand that this is going to naturally lead to protective and defensive behaviors, and recognize that those behaviors often lead to poor outcomes for us and others.

And once we become aware of our and others’ tendencies, we can choose to see and respond to conflict in ways that better serve us, others, and society—and to help others do the same. And we can start by shifting from seeing conflict as a problem to instead seeing it as an opportunity to create value for all parties.

In our upcoming blogs, I am going to provide clear guidance on how to make the shift from our unproductive tendencies around conflict, which often lead to negative outcomes, to behaviors and ways of being that help make conflict productive, which is what collaboration is all about. As part of that, I hope to convince most, if not all, readers that conflict is not inherently win-lose, since that seems to be the root of a lot of our problems around conflict.

For now, I hope you will pay attention to how you tend to perceive conflict. Do you tend to see it as a problem? Do you tend to assume someone is going to win and someone is going to lose? If so, how does that seem to affect how you feel and act in situations of conflict?

If you do notice you have a tendency to approach conflict with a “win-lose” or “this is a problem” mindset, I hope you’ll be compassionate with yourself; we have every reason to believe that is a natural trait that once served an important purpose. And I also hope that you’ll continue reading our upcoming blogs to learn more about how you can shift that mindset and make navigating conflict in all aspects of your life easier, less stressful, and way more productive.


Danya Rumore, a white woman with brown hair wearing a teal blouse and cardigan

Danya Rumore, Ph.D., is the director of the Environmental Dispute Resolution program in the Wallace Stegner Center at the University of Utah. She is a research professor in the S.J. Quinney College of Law and a clinical associate professor in the city and metropolitan planning department at the University of Utah. She teaches about, practices, and conducts research on conflict, negotiation, dispute resolution, leadership, and collaborative problem solving. She is also the founder and a co-director of the Gateway and Natural Amenity Region (GNAR) Initiative.


About the EDR blog: Hosted by the Wallace Stegner Center’s Environmental Dispute Resolution (EDR) program, the EDR blog shares ideas, tools, and resources to cultivate a culture of collaboration and help readers be more skillful in working through conflict. Read additional blog posts at edrblog.org.