Confrontation versus conflict

Enya Eettickal, Staff Writer

At the beginning of the new year, I was contemplating what resolutions I really wanted to make. I had thought about resolving to get into less pointless debates. But not even 24 hours into the year, new arguments had started among my friends. Most topics were simple, like a good old “chocolate or vanilla” argument—I was content to let this one pass without getting involved. But one of the debates that stood out to me was the distinction between confrontation and conflict. Namely, some of my friends understood them to mean the exact same thing. 

At that point, I couldn’t help myself, because I couldn’t have disagreed more. 

The distinction between conflict and confrontation is an insanely important one. While they don’t mean the same thing, they often coexist. Understanding how confrontational you’re willing to be, or how conflict averse you are, can be really helpful to understanding your role in social settings and team environments.

However, what is the difference between the two? I think confrontation is the willingness to address difficult topics, while conflict is the willingness to engage in tense interpersonal relationships. They may seem similar, but they can be mutually exclusive. It’s easier to visualize as a chart with four different combinations.

First, you have those who are pro-confrontation and pro-conflict. These are people that I would classify as combatant. They aren’t afraid to have difficult conversations or discuss taboo topics, but they don’t moderate their delivery of opinions or perspectives and don’t consider the consequences of their actions. They can be great at conflict resolution, but they often just don’t care to do so. 

Next, you have those who are both anti-confrontation and anti-conflict, who we can call pacifists. Pacifists are those who avoid difficult conversations like the plague because they assume it is inevitable someone’s feelings would get hurt, or relationships will be strained or negatively impacted. They prioritize making sure others aren’t uncomfortable because of what’s been said and prefer passive peace when possible. 

Then you have those who are pro-confrontation but anti-conflict. I call this type of personality an advocate. These individuals strongly believe people need to have difficult conversations to streamline productivity. They try to find the most efficient way to have tough conversations while still preserving people’s feelings and keeping others engaged. They’re often seen as the mediator in team settings. 

Lastly, you have people who are pro-conflict but anti-confrontation. These individuals are instigators. Why this type exists is beyond my understanding, but they are very skilled at creating conflict. Whether it be through rumors, gossip or strategically being passive-aggressive, they know how to stir conflict. However when it comes time to address these conflicts directly, they run away and disengage. 

Any combination has their drawbacks. Combatant personalities can create a lot of instability if left unchecked. Pacifists can fall into a bystander role when things go awry. Advocates can get burnt out from constantly pushing for peace and clear communication. And instigators can be difficult to address, to say the least. On the other hand, these personalities also have their benefits. While mediators have a clearer set purpose, both combatant personalities and pacifists can play key social roles within larger groups. While a lack of tact can be a problem for those who don’t fear confrontation or conflict, it can be a great check on instigators. Pacifists can help stabilize and pace high emotions and the rate at which hard conversations happen. Instigators are the only group that don’t have any clear positives—but they’re almost always guaranteed to exist within a larger group.  

So now knowing the varying conflict and confrontation personality types, what now? Honestly, understanding where you fall is a great start. These labels and designations exist as a spectrum. Anyone can be pushed into another category if the circumstances make it possible. However, knowing where you fall can provide some insight into your role in larger groups when dealing with conflict. And, unless you’re an instigator, there’s no immediate need for you to change the role you fill, unless you feel the need to do so. It’s just about recognizing the dynamics at play and how your individual outlook can help optimize the road to peace.