4.4 Applying Personality Psychology to Conflict Analysis and Resolution

Conflict management practitioners and theorists have noted the effects that individual differences in personality may have on the formation and escalation of conflict, as well as on conflict resolution processes and their outcomes (Sandy et al., 2014). However, Sandy et al. (2014) note that research on personality and conflict “has been piecemeal, and few guidelines exist for practical application” (p. 400). The authors highlight the value of synthesising cross-disciplinary research and information, which also lies at the heart of this eBook overall. The authors note that for example in the context of negotiations, an increased understanding of “how personal characteristics predispose an individual to respond within the negotiation setting” would be useful for both the other negotiation parties and third parties assisting such negotiations. More specifically, understanding the personal characteristics of conflict parties could help:

1. “uncover and understand the psychological as well as substantive interests underlying conflict – particularly those interests that would normally remain unrecognized or unarticulated if personality is not considered;

2. respond so as to facilitate a constructive resolution process avoiding escalation and deadlock; and

3. generate a satisfying solution to meet the priority needs of both parties.” (p. 400)

In the next sections, we will look at the work of other scholars who have examined various approaches to personality for conflict management. As mentioned above, one reading that we will consider in some detail is the chapter by Sandy et al. (2014) in The handbook of conflict resolution: Theory and practice, because the chapter discusses the implications of four approaches to personality for conflict practitioners:


Sandy, S., Boardman, S. K., & Deutsch, M. (2014). Personality and conflict. In P. T. Coleman, M. Deutsch, & E. C. Marcus (Eds.), The handbook of conflict resolution: Theory and practice. John Wiley & Sons.

The authors note that their review of the selected approaches (or theories) is limited to several ideas from each theory that the authors considered useful to understand personal reactions and behaviours in conflict situations. Below, you will be directed to specific pages of the chapter as we look at the various approaches in more detail.

The Psychoanalytical Approach and Conflict

As you learned in the previous topic, the psychoanalytic approach focuses on unconscious drives that impact our behaviour and places high importance on early childhood development. In their chapter, Sandy et al. (2014) discuss several important ideas based on psychodynamic theories that they thought to be particularly relevant to conflict management. The authors note, for example, the value of the psychoanalytic approaches to both understanding internal and interpersonal conflict, as well as the interplay between those two. The authors point out that the experience of interpersonal conflict can lead to intrapsychic conflict and anxiety. This again may trigger a person’s self-defence mechanisms, which you were introduced to at the beginning of this chapter (and which you can read about again in the reading by Sandy et al. (2014). The authors describe how these defence mechanisms may play out in a conflict situation (see pp. 405-406), thereby contributing to the persistence or even escalation of the conflict. The psychoanalytic approach can help better understand anxiety and defensive behaviour (e.g. by considering past relationships, such as with primary attachment figures). This understanding may help address the underlying anxiety and threat experiences, which may again support a person to engage more effectively in conflict.

Sandy et al. (2014) also discuss various reasons why “otherwise intelligent and sane individuals may persist in behaviours that perpetuate a destructive conflict harmful to their rational interests” (p. 407) and ground these reasons in the psychoanalytic theory. They note, for example, that parties may perpetuate conflict to be able to:

  • blame one’s own inadequacies, difficulties, and problems on the other so that one can avoid confronting the necessity of changing oneself
  • maintain and enjoy skills, attitudes, roles, resources, and investments that one has developed and built up during the course of one’s history
  • have a sense of excitement, purpose, coherence, and unity that is otherwise lacking in one’s life
  • obtain support and approval from interested third parties.

One way to improve parties’ engagement in conflict may lie in helping them to address intrapersonal issues that may stem from each party’s past experiences, and help them:

achieve the self-esteem and self-image that would make them no longer need the destructive conflict process as a defence against their sense of personal inadequacy, their fear of taking on new and unfamiliar roles, their feeling of purposelessness and boredom, and their fears of rejection and attack if they act independently of others. (p. 408)

The authors note that beyond these ideas, “many more ideas could be expressed in a detailed and comprehensive exposition of psychodynamic viewpoints than we attempt to present in this chapter” (p. 408).

One question that you might want to consider at this point is whether you have any additional ideas as to how principles of the psychoanalytic approach may help understand people in conflict and support them in conflict resolution processes. We will look at some other approaches now before you are encouraged to record some specific ideas relating to the psychoanalytic approach in a reflective activity.


To learn more about how the psychoanalytic approach can inform conflict practitioners, please read pages 403-409 of Sandy et al. (2014).

The Humanistic Approach and Conflict

As a focal point of the humanistic approach, Sandy et al. (2014) discuss the value of needs theories for conflict management. They note that some of the theories, including Murray’s need theory of personality, can help conflict practitioners better understand the diversity and expression of needs of parties in conflict, as well as the factors and circumstances that may give rise to these needs.

Sandy et al. (2014) also discuss how human needs theories, like Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs and Burton’s basic human needs theory, may inform conflict resolution processes. To learn more about the application of the needs theories to conflict management, please now read pp. 409-412.

Social Learning Approach and Conflict

As you learned in the last topic, Bandura’s social-cognitive theory made some major contributions to the understanding of human behaviour and personality, including the concept of observational learning. According to this concept, people not only learn by way of classical or operational conditioning, but also by observing, reading, or hearing about other people’s actions. For example, Bandura proposed that aggressive behaviour is not innate and encouraged by rewards, but learned through observation. Please watch the following video [5:18] to learn more about Bandura’s research on aggression and observational learning:

The concept of observational learning, as illustrated in the video with the example of aggressive behaviour, has great relevance to conflict management. This relevance is also discussed by Sandy, Boardman and Deutsch (2014). The authors note:

Given that most people acquire their knowledge, attitudes, and skills in managing conflict through observational learning, some people have inadequate knowledge, inappropriate attitudes, and poor skills for resolving their conflicts constructively while others are better prepared to do so. It is very much a function of the models they have been exposed to in their families, school, communities, and the media. (p. 413)

The importance of observational learning is also discussed by Weitz (2011) citing research by Cummings, who studied the impact of everyday parental conflict on children. According to Weitz (2011), Cummings found that watching marital conflict did not have a negative impact on children’s behaviour if they could witness the resolution of an argument and that it was even a good learning experience when children witnessed constructive conflict that was resolved with affection. The research by Cummings allegedly found, however, that marital conflict could have a negative impact on children’s behaviour when arguments were stopped before the parents reached a resolution.

Seeing that so many people feel that they are not well equipped to handle conflict well (and this is what conflict practitioners would frequently observe when supporting parties to manage conflict), it appears that there is a need for more role models to model good and constructive conflict behaviour. Mediators, facilitators as well as managers and other professional leaders with good conflict management skills may take on that role in the workspace. The marital conflict example mentioned earlier also suggests that parents play a significant role in shaping their children’s conflict behaviours. You may want to reflect on further opportunities where people may be able to positively (or negatively) influence others’ conflict behaviour.


To learn more about Sandy et al. (2014), discussion on the value of the social learning approach for conflict management please read pp. 412-416.

Trait Approach and Conflict

As you learned in the previous topic, the trait approach views personality as a unique combination of traits that shape a person’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviours (McAdams, 2009). Out of the various approaches to personality, the trait approach appears to be the one that has been given the most attention in terms of its relevance for conflict management. several studies have been conducted over the last two decades to analyse the relationship between specific personality traits and conflict styles (Tehrani & Yamini, 2020).


As an introduction to the topic, please read pp. 417-425 in Sandy et al. (2014).

Sandy et al. (2014)  distinguish between single and multi-trait approaches. The single-trait approach to studying conflict process and outcome seeks to understand social behaviour in terms of relatively stable traits or dispositions residing within the individual; it is now considered to have limited usefulness. The trait approach typically focuses on one or more enduring predispositions of specific types: motivational tendencies (aggression, power, pride, fear), character traits (authoritarianism, Machiavellianism, locus of control, dogmatism), cognitive tendencies (cognitive simplicity versus complexity, open versus closed mind), values and ideologies, self-conceptions and bases of self-esteem, and learned habits and skills of coping (Sandy et al., 2014).

The authors discuss, for example, the relevance of the Big 5 (FFM) for parties’ behaviour in interpersonal conflict. From conflict analysis, you may remember that people are likely to display some patterns in the ways that they behave in conflict, which has been referred to as conflict styles (Wilmot and Hocker, 2011; Pruitt & Carnevale, 1993). These styles include avoiding, accommodating/yielding, contending/dominating, compromising and collaborating. Before we consider potential relationships between personality traits and conflict styles, let’s recap what we may have previously learned about them.

The 5 Conflict Styles:

The avoider is sometimes known as the turtle because it pulls its head in and hides in its shell when conflict arises
The accommodator is sometimes known as the teddy bear, who will do anything to be loved!
The shark represents the competitor, who wants to win, is aggressive and ‘bites’ people
The compromiser is like the fox, which gives in a little, but also stands its ground
The owl is the collaborator, who is wise and deals with conflict without avoiding the issues.

Conflict scholars propose various conditions that give rise to a preference for a particular strategy and support an analysis of an individual style in managing conflict:

  1. Concern for self and/or other (Dual Concern Model by Rubin, Pruitt and Kim, 1994)
  2. Culture
  3. Perceived Feasibility
  4. Blame Direction

Research undertaken by Sandy and Boardman (2006) indicates that participants who used cooperation/compromise in personal conflict situations scored high on the Big 5  trait of agreeableness (particularly facets such as trust, altruism, and compliance). Conversely, they tended to score low on neuroticism (involving such facets as angry hostility, depression, self-consciousness, and vulnerability). These findings were also found in other research discussed in Sandy et al. (2014). As noted in the last topic, the Big 5 include neuroticism, extraversion, openness, conscientiousness and agreeableness.

To learn more about the relationship between personality traits and conflict styles/ approaches to conflict, you may wish you view some of the following articles:


Tehrani, H. D., & Yamini, S. (2020). Personality traits and conflict resolution styles: A meta-analysis. Personality and Individual Differences, 157, 109794. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2019.109794

Bono, J. E., Boles, T. L., Judge, T. A. &Lauver, K. J. (2002). The role of personality in task and relationship conflict. Journal of Personality, 70, 311–344. https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-6494.05007

Antonioni, D. (1998). Relationship between the Big-Five Personality Factors and conflict management. International Journal of Conflict Management, 9(4), 336–355. https://psycnet.apa.org/doi/10.1108/eb022814

Moberg, P. J. (2001). Linking conflict strategy to the Five-Factor Model: Theoretical and empirical foundations. International Journal of Conflict Management, 12(1), 47–68. https://doi.org/10.1108/eb022849

Park, H., & Antonioni, D. (2007). Personality, reciprocity, and strength of conflict resolution strategy. Journal of Research in Personality, 2007, 41, 110–125. https://psycnet.apa.org/doi/10.1016/j.jrp.2006.03.003

Ahmed, I., Nawaz, M. M., Shaukat, M. Z. & Usman, A. (2010). Personality does affect conflict handling style: Study of future managers. International Journal of Trade, Economics and Finance, 1(3) October, 2010-023X. http://www.ijtef.com/papers/48-F474.pdf

Extraversion and Introversion

Besides the above-noted publications and studies, which all look at correlations between conflict style and certain personality traits, we can also use the trait approach to analyse the origins or factors that contribute to conflict. Remember the conflict scenario with the nurses Sam and Trace described at the beginning of chapter 5.1? You may remember that both of them may have rated on opposite ends on the continuum of extraversion. To learn about some challenges that introverted people may face when dealing with fairly extroverted people, please watch the following Ted Talk by Susan Cain [19:04], the author of the book “Quiet”.

Apart from looking at extraversion and introversion, you may also want to consider how conflict may be generated or exacerbated by individual differences in:

  • arousal level (see Burger, 2019, pp. 235-239 on this topic)
  • optimism versus pessimism (see Burger, 2019, pp. 193-196 on this topic)

and how these traits may play out during stressful events like conflict. We will also consider the trait approach further below when we explore in more detail how two of the approaches to personality may help explain social phenomena typically associated with conflict, in this case: prejudice.

Cognitive Approach and Conflict

As you learned in the previous topic, the cognitive approach focuses on the individual ways in which people process information. You were introduced to Kelly’s (2001; 1991) personal construct theory, which proposes that people use a unique set of personal constructs to interpret and predict their environment. An individual’s construct system influences which characteristics of others a person notices when processing information about relevant events. Some people may rely predominantly on constructs that typically use bipolar characteristics (e.g. black and white) and that allow for little variation (McAdams, 2009). Research indicates that this reliance is true for people who frequently utilise constructs that focus on morals, values, and beliefs and that have a narrow “range of convenience”. Reliance on these constructs may help explain several social cognition phenomena that typically contribute to conflict, including biases, cognitive heuristics and attribution errors.

Kelly (2001; 1991) also identified “constellatory constructs”, which refer to the process of ascribing several characteristics to a person based on one variable. People who frequently rely on constellatory constructs would be susceptible to forming stereotypes, which also frequently characterise conflict situations. The cognitive approach also considers phenomena like cognitive complexity, integrative complexity, and the need for cognitive closure (NCC) (Bianco et al., 2021; Scott, 1962). NCC refers to a person’s aversion towards uncertainty, confusion, and ambiguity and a desire to receive definite answers to questions (Kruglanski & Fishman, 2009; Kruglanski & Webster, 1996). We will have a more detailed discussion about how the cognitive approach and the above-mentioned cognitive phenomena can help explain social phenomena relating to conflict further below as part of topic 5.

Narrative Approach and Conflict

For a discussion of the relevance of the narrative approach for conflict management, please watch the following conversation between Judith Rafferty and personality psychologist Klaire Somoray [22:26].

You may also wish to listen to the following Podcast [26:32], in which Sarah Cobb explains the meaning of conflict narratives.


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