Flexible Use of Conflict Strategies May Escalate Anger

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!

What happened?

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. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Graham

    March 30th, 2009 at 2:30 AM

    I can totally understand this. My sister and her husband have constant fights and he told me recently that he’s tried everything in a month. Ignoring her, shouting at her, walking out everything but there’s nothing that can stop that runaway train once its started.

  • Cole

    March 30th, 2009 at 11:26 AM

    I don’t know. . . sometimes it takes trial and error with a lot of different approaches to learn what is best going to work for you and your spouse resolving issues. It may even take different approaches depending on the fight and the situation. I think that going down useless roads could elevate the tension but trying something that you know could have positive benefits in the end is always worth a shot.

  • Kathleen

    March 31st, 2009 at 1:04 AM

    The only thing that’s worked for me when I am in a conflict is shut up and move away. I dont think anything else works really. COnfronting the issues or the person while angry doesnt work for me at all.

  • Ellen

    March 31st, 2009 at 1:48 AM

    I think every couple develops a pattern after a while in conflict when they are in a long courtship or in marriage. I think when the signs of trouble develop after a while its easy to spot those signs and avoid them as best as one can.

  • Linda

    March 31st, 2009 at 2:38 AM

    I think when we use too many suggestions all at the same time, we become even angrier because it seems like we don’t get anywhere. I also think if the other person doesn’t want to cooperate because they are set in their ways, it is difficult to break thru that.

  • rebecca

    March 31st, 2009 at 2:40 AM

    when I find myself getting mad at my spouse, I try not to use “You” such as You don’t get it, You are this or You are that… I find it best to calm down and say things such as ” I feel as if you’re not understanding where I am coming from” or ” I feel like a failure when you say things to me” It’s the idea on not just coming out blunt and pointing the finger and saying you, you ,you all the time.

  • Sally

    March 31st, 2009 at 7:09 AM

    I can see both sides of the argument. I do know though that there are some people who do not respond well to change and therefore I can see how they would not do well with differing styles of conflict resolution. They may become confuused about the course that the resolution should take, leading to more frustration and anger in turn. One would hope that as an adult most would be able to maturely deal with this but there are some who just can’t. I do happen to think that in long relationships, ones that are healthy anyway, you will have discovered what works best and continue to do that when you get into fghts and disagreements. But when the old stops working it is nice to know that there can be other solutions, you just have to be willing to give them a try.

  • carson

    April 1st, 2009 at 12:24 PM

    I think Kathleen has a good idea. I find myself tending to just be quiet and not say anything because i Know it will only make things worse. Although i have my opinion, this seems to work with me.

  • Sandra

    April 3rd, 2009 at 2:44 AM

    I wonder if some of this is between two adults who are the oldest in the family. This can cause conflict due to they want or think they are always right and think they know best and both tend to be stubborn when giving in.

  • Liza

    April 5th, 2009 at 10:50 AM

    To Sandra, I have read or learned somewhere that when two people get together and they are both the oldest in their families, then they will eventually butt heads. It seems like the younger will get along better with someone older because the youngest is used to being told what to do and listening to the older person.. I don’t know if this is true in all cases but it makes sense.

  • Sara

    April 6th, 2009 at 2:10 AM

    It’s hard to find what works or what is right when both parties do not want to give in. I found, in my case, that both people think they are right, and maybe they are in their own way or mind, but there needs to be some kind of in between where the two people can meet and understand where one is coming from. A lot of it, I think, is pride. We don’t want to be the one to give in, cave in,or whatever. We want to be the one in control.

  • Erika

    April 9th, 2009 at 2:25 AM

    I hope that relationships that have been together for years have found that middle where they can meet and solve their problems. I know it’s not true in all cases, but therapy would help in this situation.

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