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Resolving Conflict Between Friends
Conflict resolution is of particular interest to developmental researchers because it enables children to develop interpersonal and perspective-taking skills1, acquire principles of fairness and justice2, define personal autonomy3, and enhance emotional regulation4. Friendships in particular (as opposed to relationships with parents, siblings, or acquaintances, for example) are especially important relationships for conflict resolution development. Unlike family relationships, which have an assurance of long-term continuity, friendships are more susceptible to potential breakdown or permanent fracture. Also, friends are invested in voluntary relationships, so their resolutions should reflect the desire to maintain rewarding interconnections, which is lacking between acquaintances5.
The hallmark of a good friendship is not necessarily a lack of conflict, but rather it is how friends work together to reconcile after an episode of disagreement or tension. Indeed, some researchers argue that conflict resolution skills are among the most critical determinants of friendship quality6,7. While there is no one ‘right’ way to resolve conflict, there are some strategies that have been identified by researchers as adaptive and more likely to contribute to mutually harmonious reconciliation.
One of the most widely used theories of conflict resolution is based on the ‘Dual Concern’ model8,9. According to this theory, the particular strategy that a person uses to resolve conflict depends on their level of concern for themselves, versus their level of concern for the other person/s10. Collaboration, which may involve cooperation, negotiation or compromise, occurs when there is high concern for both oneself and others, and is generally considered the most adaptive form of conflict resolution. A second strategy, accommodation, is where concern for others give precedence to concern for oneself, and may also be adaptive in certain situations. Collaboration and accommodation are classified as solution-orientated strategies11. Less adaptive forms of conflict resolution include controlling strategies (such as coercion and hostility), which reflect a high degree of concern for oneself with low concern for others, and non-confrontational strategies (withdrawal or avoidance), reflecting low concern for both oneself and others10.
As children get older, their ability to successfully resolve conflicts with friends increases. This is thought to reflect the growing prominence of issues and settings that present opportunities for perspective-taking and consideration of others. Young children tend to resolve conflicts with less adaptive strategies, such as coercion. However, as they mature into adolescents and become better versed at reconciling their friendship disagreements, they more frequently use adaptive strategies such as negotiation5. Indeed, adolescents’ friendships offer valuable opportunities for broader social development because of the behaviours and skills they learn when engaging in and resolving conflict episodes with their friends12.
Studies show that having good conflict resolution skills is associated with various positive outcomes. For adolescents, the resolution strategies they learn and practice in peer relationships are associated with increased friendship quality and long-term friendship maintenance13. Over the life course, conflict resolution skills have been linked to marital satisfaction14 and to workplace success15. There is also research to indicate that the ability to successfully resolve conflict is related to empathy. Being able to perceive and identify with another’s distress or frustration in a conflict situation can lead to a better understanding of the other person’s position. This may then act to inhibit maladaptive approaches to conflict and instead promote more effective strategies16. For example, one study found that adolescents who were higher in empathy were more likely to use compromising strategies and discuss issues with friends, and were also less likely to become angry when resolving conflicts with friends17.
In all friendships, conflict is an inevitable occurrence. However, conflict need not cause lasting damage, and can actually bring friends closer together when they are resolved harmoniously – by engaging in solution-orientated strategies and minimising the use of controlling or non-confrontational strategies.