Imagine that a friend is having a heated verbal argument with his wife. You’re watching from the couch. He turns to you and asks for your input. You hesitate, and then say you really don’t want to be involved. It doesn’t seem to you that there’s any solution that would be acceptable to both people or that is otherwise possible. Friend and spouse then tell you they really want your input, so you think for a moment and suggest they look instead for alternative strategies to resolve the matter. The couple then comes up with a few different ways of resolving the issue. Ah, you think, that was a good idea. You throw in a few more possible strategies. They nod in agreement and proceed to use several of the approaches. Yes, you think, now we’re getting somewhere — but wait a minute, their voices are rising. They’re using all of their own strategies and yours too, but look angrier than ever!
Well, according to researchers at Arizona State University (ASU) – and counter to what we might consider the common logic of using many strategies for conflict resolution — people in conflict may actually become angrier and more frustrated the more strategies they use. A new ASU study suggests that limiting strategies is less likely to result in escalating anger, when the conflict seems unresolvable, even though we may believe that to be unhelpful rigidity.
This shouldn’t be confused with the idea that we should limit our options for solutions. No one is advising that. It also doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try various strategies when it seems like a resolution is possible.
Instead, if there doesn’t seem to be a solution that would be acceptable to both parties engaged in an argument after they’ve used one or two strategies already, it might well be best to let the argument go. According to Danielle Roubinov, an ASU doctoral student in clinical psychology, “Although being flexible in how you respond to different situations may be beneficial, continuously trying different ways to work out the same situation may lead to greater anger, frustration, and an unhealthier biological response.”
Sixty-five undergraduate students were participants in the research led by Melissa Hagan, a doctoral student, and Linda Luecken, associate professor of psychology, and Roubinov. Participants role-played a stressful situation with a research assistant (RA) regarding a fictional dispute between a neighbor, the RA, who was purportedly playing loud music with a request to turn the music down. The “neighbor” followed the script by refusing to cooperate. Seven different strategies were suggested by the research team, including problem-solving and threatening. Participants who chose to use a greater number of the strategies showed more anger and frustration in both facial expressions and cortisol levels, an indication of health risk, than did participants who used fewer strategies.
In reality, a good analysis of whether the issue can be resolved is called for. In the study, the other person was clearly uncooperative. In such situations, a quick analysis might show you that there isn’t going to be any acceptable solution. You can then save your breath from the effort.
In more ambiguous situations, the analysis might be a difficult or even stressful task in itself, especially while personally engaged in conflict with someone else. Still, it appears that learning to tell the difference between an interpersonal issue that can be solved and one that probably can’t could be very helpful in future conflicts. A skilled therapist can help you do this if you want some assistance in learning to recognize those situations.
You might also want to look at whether you tend to persist in arguments, despite a feeling that the problem isn’t going to be solved. You may need to learn how to stop arguments that aren’t going anywhere. Finally, you might want to examine whether you rarely or never stop arguing long enough to think about whether the conflict is resolvable. If you see that you don’t take that time to analyze, learning to do so might be helpful too. In conflict situations which are unlikely to have a solution, only you can decide if the stress is worth the anger, frustration and health risks, but some help from a good therapist can provide you with the feedback, discussion and practice needed to master the described skills.
Arizona State University (2009, March 8). Flexible Approach To Acute Conflict Results In More Frustration and Anger, Study Shows. ASU web site at
© Copyright 2009 by Jolyn Wells-Moran, PhD, MSW, therapist in Seattle, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.
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