Linking Goals to Avoidance in Interpersonal Conflict Situations: A Cognitive Approach

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When an argument becomes overheated, is it better to insist on arguments until the other submits, or is it better to withdraw until both parties cool off? When a work team makes a decision, are the ideas offered always better than the ideas held back? Just as "the squeaky wheels get oiled," conflict communication research has focused on communicative strategies in dealing with conflict, and the non-communicative strategy of avoidance has rarely been examined. Avoidance has been largely viewed as a passive and ineffective conflict strategy.

The goal of this dissertation is to develop and assess a cognitive model of conflict avoidance. A typology of conflict avoidance and a typology of goals in conflict situations are developed. Twelve hypotheses about how conflict goals determine individuals' likelihood of using specific avoidance strategies are proposed.

In an experiment, the importance of a goal or a combination of goals was manipulated, and the likelihood of using specific avoidance strategies was measured. Twelve goals or combinations of goals were induced in a role-playing situation. Each goal induction was placed in one of two hypothetical scenarios (an interpersonal conflict in a group project in school and a similar conflict at work). With two scenarios and 12 goal inductions, 24 experimental conditions were created. A total of 352 student participants were randomly assigned to the 24 conditions. Participants imagined interacting in the hypothetical conflict scenario, which was presented in writing; they then provided their responses on a questionnaire.

Results indicated that avoidance has various forms, some of which were caused by different levels of importance placed on different goals. Avoidance strategies were shown to have two components: communication avoidant strategies (withdrawal, passive competition, exit, and outflanking) and issue avoidant strategies (pretending and yielding). The former strategies were predicted by competitive goals, whereas the latter were predicted by cooperative goals. Interpretations and implications of the results, the limitations of the study, and future directions were discussed.