Why does conflict happen?

Rupinder Mahil is a psychotherapist and accredited mediator, working at the University of Derby. She specialises in helping people work with and resolve conflict.

If you’re experiencing conflict in your family, friendships or accommodation, understanding the factors that create conflict can help you start to approach and resolve it.

It’s normal for us to do, or think about, things differently to the people around us. This can be an opportunity to expand your perspective, but it can also lead to conflicts. Most people view conflict as negative, but it is natural and normal.

Conflict occurs whenever there is a difference between people, but often we don’t notice it until it starts to feel too difficult to manage. Even when it is difficult, it is possible to work through conflict positively.

Conflict can often occur for a few different reasons:

1. Differences in personality

This is a broad category and includes our skills, experiences, values, beliefs, opinions, likes and dislikes, to name just a few. Differences as a result of personality can occur with those we’re close to, as well as strangers.

Because of our differences in experience, we can also make incorrect assumptions about others and their motivations, which can cause further problems.

2. Differences in expectations

We all have expectations about how we should work and live with others, and how we should behave in relationships.

Often we won’t recognise that we have these expectations. Instead, we will see them as being ‘normal’ because they fit with our previous experiences. When other people’s expectations don’t match ours, it can cause conflict.

3. Differences in communication

Different people communicate differently. We communicate differently when we speak, we have different non-verbal gestures, and we write differently when we communicate by text or on social media. These differences can lead to misunderstandings or misinterpretation. For example, some people may interpret the use of swear words as a sign of aggression, while the person speaking may simply intend to use them humorously.

4. Change

Any change can create conflict but every change and subsequent conflict can also create an opportunity for improvements and development. This includes making transitions in our lives from one set of circumstances or from one group of people to another.

Environmental changes can also cause a significant number of changes in the way we live and work. This can make us feel like we are being forced to make choices from a range of options that we don’t really want.

If you’re experiencing conflict, it likely stems from differences between you in one or more of these areas. Consider what positive steps you could take to bridge these gaps, so that each of you has your needs met and so you can maintain your relationships.

Page last reviewed: October 2022