Morton Deutsch, a social psychologist who has been a researcher in conflict management, observes that conflicts arise as a of people’s percieved interdependence upon each other.1 Sometimes this interdependence has an asymmetry where one party’s actions have a greater impact on the other party. As a result, conflicts can get quite messy through it all. But the factor that has a major influence on the result of these conflicts of interdependence and asymmetry is whether people see the conflict as a matter of cooperation or as a competition. Deutsch defines cooperation as containing the following:
1. Effective communication is exhibited. Ideas are verbalized, and group members are attentive to one another, accepting of the ideas of other members, and influenced by them. They have fewer difficulties in communicating with or understanding others.
2. Friendliness, helpfulness, and lessened obstructiveness are expressed in the discussions. Members also are more satisfied with the group and its solutions and favorably impressed by the contributions of the other group members. In addition, members of the cooperative groups rate themselves high in desire to win the respect of their colleagues and in obligation to the other members.
3. Coordination of effort, division of labor, orientation to task achievement, ment, orderliness in discussion, and high productivity are manifested in the cooperative groups (if the group task requires effective communication, tion, coordination of effort, division of labor, or sharing of resources).
4. Feeling of agreement with the ideas of others and a sense of basic similarity larity in beliefs and values, as well as confidence in one’s own ideas and in the value that other members attach to those ideas, are obtained in the cooperative groups.
5. Recognizing and respecting the other by being responsive to the other’s needs.
6. Willingness to enhance the other’s power (for example, the knowledge, skills, resources, and so on) to accomplish the other’s goals increases. As the other’s capabilities are strengthened, you are strengthened; they are of value to you as well as to the other. Similarly, the other is enhanced from your enhancement and benefits from your growing capabilities and power.
7. Defining conflicting interests as a mutual problem to be solved by collaborative laborative effort facilitates recognizing the legitimacy of each other’s interests and the necessity to search for a solution responsive to the needs of all. It tends to limit rather than expand the scope of conflicting ing interests. Attempts to influence the other tend to be confined to processes of persuasion.
By contrast, Deutsch defines the competitive mindset:
1. Communication is impaired as the conflicting parties seek to gain advantage by misleading the other through use of false promises, ingratiation tactics, and disinformation. It is reduced and seen as futile as they recognize that they cannot trust one another’s communications to be honest or informative.
2. Obstructiveness and lack of helpfulness lead to mutual negative attitudes tudes and suspicion of one another’s intentions. One’s perceptions of the other tend to focus on the person’s negative qualities and ignore the positive.
3. The parties to the process are unable to divide their work, duplicating one another’s efforts such that they become mirror images; if they do divide the work, they feel the need to check what the other is doing continuously.
4. The repeated experience of disagreement and critical rejection of ideas reduces confidence in oneself as well as the other.
5. The conflicting parties seek to enhance their own power and to reduce the power of the other. Any increase in the power of the other is seen as threatening to oneself.
6. The competitive process stimulates the view that the solution of a conflict flict can be imposed only by one side on the other, which in turn leads to using coercive tactics such as psychological as well as physical threats and violence. It tends to expand the scope of the issues in conflict flict as each side seeks superiority in power and legitimacy. The conflict becomes a power struggle or a matter of moral principle and is no longer confined to a specific issue at a given time and place. Escalating lating the conflict increases its motivational significance to the participants pants and may make a limited defeat less acceptable and more humiliating than a mutual disaster.2
As a result, the competitive mindset can lead to a spiraling of consequences, leading to the lack of effective communication. Deutsch refers to this as autistic hostility, which “involves breaking off contact and communication with the other; the result is that the hostility is perpetuated because one has no opportunity to learn that it may be based on misunderstandings or misjudgments or to learn if the other has changed for the better.3 Lack of communication leads to distorted views of the conflict. This is often joined with the nature of self-fulfilling prophecies, “wherein you engage in hostile behavior toward another because of a false assumption that the other has done or is preparing to do something harmful to you.”4 However, these hostile behaviors may not be overt aggression, but more covert. As a result, the covert aggressor can tell themselves they are playing the role of the peaceful partner and the other party is the hostile party, all while maintaining the competitive attitude, refusing to communicate. It becomes a way that people offload their responsibiltiy for the creation of conflicts off onto others, often times with fear when it done with covert action, rather than the courage to face the conflict head-on and to listen what needs to be said.
If I could define the cooperative mindset with an easier to remember list, I would define the cooperative mindset is defined by: clarity, care, consistency, containment.
Clarity – The clear expression of needs, wants, desires, and expectations for being together in an interdependent relationship. The lack of clarity in the midst of conflict can create uncertainty, confusion, and in the midst of the ambiguity, the fear circuits will activate, to fill in the gaps that incompetent or unwilling communication leaves.
Care – Cooperation entails a genuine concern for each party’s needs, wants, desires, and expectations. It doens’t mean the fulfillment of everything, but it means that people’s own life has legitimacy. This is distinguished from lack of concern, where what is happening with a party is totally irrelevant to the other party. This is also to distinguish from faux forms of care, where people try to manipulatively appeal to what they think is what the other party needs, wants, desires, and expects, but not in a way that genuinely addressing those concerns nor in a way that allows for the other party to express themselves. This is a form of manipulation, sometimes conscious and sometimes not.
Consistency – Cooperation entails a consistency across people and across circumstances. When people can trust that the expectations and actions is consistent, that it isn’t going to change abruptly and without warning, people will cooperate with one another. Sometimes changes do occur, but these changes and the reasons for them are communicated if it has an impact on other parties. But in conflict circumstances, arbitrarily change the narrative, move the goal posts, and hold people accountable to expectations that not only they haven’t communicated, but changed from what has been expressed, directly or indirectly, in the past.
Containment – In cooperation, people contain their involvement in other people’s affairs to that which is mutually agreed upon. Sometimes, people may get involved without another person’s consent in emergency circumstances, but in cooperative arrangments, the emergencies are rare. Furthermore, sometimes people may cross another person’s boundaries, but there is a responsiveness and willingness to accommodate to these boundaries that come with clear communication. By contrast, competitive circumstances will see drama in every situation, seek to find ways to resolve the situation because their competitive nature makes them feel. Competitive mindsets justify meddling, which neither provides clarity, care, or consistency.
But there is an important factor to understand about conflicts. Conflicts become cooperative as both parties act in cooperative fashions. Conflicts where one party offload the responsbility of being cooperative act based upon the self-fulfillng prophecy, where the other person is seen as competitive. It takes two parties to be cooperative. But what commonly happens is that one party will treat the conflict in a competitive atmosphere, whereas the other party will see the competitive nature but will try to also appeal to engage in cooperative behaviors. But due to the self-fulfilling prophecy, the conflict oriented party will continue to keep the conflict competitive, never receiving the forgiveness offered to them so as to enter into a two way process of reconciliation. They can bristle at the idea that they are the main contributor to the problem, and will engage in further competitive, even hostile behaviors, the more attention that is brought to them and the more boundaries and warnings that is placed upon them. In the end, sometimes conflicts become competitive, but sometimes it is because one party just refuses to actually acknowledge and own their responsbility and to treat the other party with clarity, care, consistency, and containment. This is commonly what happens in divorces, for instance.
I speak this from the anguish of my own heart, as I have had to endure a painful conflict many years ago, where I had made some failures on my end. As I owned my failures and tried to be cooperative, I wasn’t provided much clarity. Then, as things developed, there were concerns on my end about some inconsistencies that I saw. But as I tried to express myself, there was little care, but my attempts to express myself seem to have been interpreted as competitive and concealing other intentions, rather than the genuine concerns, fears, and confusions. In the end, the conflcit was not contained but meddled in my life in ways that cross boundaries that should have never been crossed, likely because they justified everything as an emergency because of the mayhem and drama they percieved it to be. Eventually, however, my life became so constricted, I become so emotionally isolated for anyone to care, with great confusion, that I went into a a mental breakdown and had considered taking my life. Then, rather than these people later on down the road acting with clear signs of clarity, care, consistency, and containment, continued in the same pattern, seeing my attempts to plea with them as competition rather than pleas for them to cooperate as the consequences of the conflict continued to develop. This conflict developed over the years to the point that I have had to say to people that I used to care to basically get out of my life and leave me alone, because people that I loved and cared for could not see how they were treating me and taking responsbility for it. Their autistic hostility and self-fulling prophecies, and covert manpulation created a pattern of interdepenence that I had to say “Respect me or GET OUT!” This has brought me much pain and struggle in me life, but it has also taught me a lot, including about conflicts, hence my recent posts on the topic.
So I implore you readers to here this: in your conflicts, are you truly being cooperative? Are you doing what you can do on your end to find solutions to sticky problems? Or do you only see others as competitive and hostile? Do you see people’s direct pleas as genuine invitations, or do you see them as manipulations and control? Do you view yourself as the “cooperative” one but refuse to have a single conversation with the other party? How is it that you yourself deal with conflicts? That will have a tremendous impact on how they turn out, as it takes both parties to cooperate to have a cooperative conflict.