Relational and Conflict Communication

Learning Objectives


6.1  Differentiate among several of the most important theories of interpersonal communication.

6.2  Examine conflict and analyze the elements that create it.

6.3  Identify different types of conflict.

6.4  Describe the stages of interpersonal conflict.

6.5  Compare different conflict management styles, and determine the style you use most frequently.

6.6   Know what to do when in conflict.




We work to build, maintain, and manage our relationships. We sometimes work to end them. Sometimes it’s easy; sometimes it’s not. Not all our friends get along. Not everyone we meet is destined to be a close friend. Relationships are hard work, and as harsh as it may sound, we decide that some people are worth more of an effort than are others. Sometimes people fulfill specific needs for us, and that’s all we want from them. Some relationships can be fun and rewarding; others can be difficult and unrewarding, resulting in conflict. Regardless, we shape them all through interpersonal communication. This chapter looks at the human necessity of using communication to build, maintain, manage, and even end relationships. And because the best relationships can experience their ups and downs, it also examines conflict—how and why it happens and how to manage it to ensure an equitable outcome for all involved.



  • Activity: Are You a Stonewaller?

Answer these questions about your tendency to stonewall when in conflict. Then sit with someone with whom you have an important relationship and ask him or her if your self-reported answers to these items matches her or his experience with you when you two have had conflict. What have you learned about your tendency to avoid responding to a question or otherwise to be evasive.

Under what circumstances, in general, do you find yourself stonewalling someone?

Think about a specific situation in which you have stonewalled someone, what did you achieve by doing so?

When someone stonewalls you, how do you react?

What do you think the other person is trying to do in stonewalling you?

What judgment do you make of someone who is stonewalling you?

What judgments do others make of you when you stonewall them?

    • Activity: Evaluating a Romantic Relationship

Take the Relationship Assessment Inventory at and follow the instructions on how to evaluate your responses. Have your romantic partner (who must remain unaware of your responses) do the same. Then discuss not the individual responses, although they can be important, but the assessment of your relationship’s strengths and weaknesses.

·                           Activity: What Kind of Friend Am I?

        The website for the British magazine Psychologies offers a short, fun self-quiz that answers the question, “What kind of friend am I?” Sure, it’s pop psychology, but you’ll see some of the chapter’s themes resonating in its questions and it may generate an interesting conversation between you and a friend who also takes it at




1. Detail the differences between attachments and affiliations. What is the value of each?


Sample answer: Although the words may sound similar, attachments and affiliations are actually the different forms of relationships that we engage in.  Attachments are based on security, and tend to be more exclusive relationships, such as those we have with family members and best friends. These attachments are constant, and the members work on maintenance of the bond, ultimately looking for the sense of security that comes with relational closeness. Affiliations, on the other hand, are based on a sense of alliance, for example the kind of relationships we have with acquaintances. Affiliations can be changed with ease, are more instrumental, and tend to be either satisfaction-seeking (they add to our lives in some functional way) or defensive alliance (we need them to function).  Affiliations can be altered and changed depending on environmental or life changes.


2. What motivates people to reduce uncertainty while working toward a relationship? That is, what moves them to do the interpersonal communication work required to build a relationship?


Sample answer: The main motivators that influence people to reduce uncertainty are incentives, deviance, and the possibility of a future relationship. When evaluating someone else, we consider the incentives that might flow from the relationship, or what we might get out of it. If those outcomes are positive, we will be more likely to try to reduce our uncertainties and better understand the other person. A second motivator, deviance, can be thought of as intrigue. If the person seems outside-the-norm or is somehow very different, this could generate increased interest to learning more about her or his background and behaviors. But too much deviance could lead to disinterest. Finally, we can be motivated by the thought of what our future relationship with the other person might be. If we believe the relationship will continue, we will be motivated to continue to learn more about the person; after all, they are going to become constant in our lives.

Go to the Source

Altman, I., and D. A. Taylor. (1973). Social Penetration: The Development of Interpersonal Relationships. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.

Berger, C. R. (1988). “Uncertainty and Information Exchange in Developing Relationships.” In S. Duck, ed., Handbook of Personal Relationships. New York: Wiley.

Braithwaite, D. O., and L. A. Baxter. (2008). “Relational Dialectics Theory.” In L. A. Baxter and D. O. Braithwaite, eds., Engaging Theories in Interpersonal Communication. Los Angeles: Sage.

Cutrona, C. E. (2004). “A Psychological Perspective: Marriage and the Social Provisions of Relationships.” Journal of Marriage and Family, 66: 992–999.

Gottman, J. M. (1993). “A Theory of Marital Dissolution and Stability.” Journal of Family Psychology, 7: 57–75.

Kilmann, R. H., and K. W. Thomas. (1975). “Interpersonal Conflict-Handling Behavior as Reflections of Jungian Personality Dimensions.” Psychological Reports, 37: 971–980.


Rusbult, C. E., J. M. Martz, and C. R. Agnew. (1998). “The Investment Model Scale: Measuring

Commitment Level, Satisfaction Level, Quality of Alternatives, and Investment Size.” Personal Relationships, 5: 357-391.


Weiss, R. S. (1974). “The Provisions of Social Relationships.” In Z. Rubin, ed., Doing unto Others. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Weiss, R. S. (1998). “A Taxonomy of Relationships.” Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 15: 671–683.

Wilmot, J. H., and W. W. Wilmot. (1978). Interpersonal Conflict. Dubuque, IA: Wm. C. Brown.


Conflict911 provides links to an extensive collection of conflict resolution exercises that consider many of this text’s lessons, for example listening and nonverbal elements of conflicts.

The Beyond Intractability Project is the work of the University of Colorado’s Conflict Information Consortium. You’ll find not only Brahm’s Conflict Stages on its site, but a wealth of interesting and useful information about conflict resolution.

This non-denominational group works to make marriage education widely available. Its goal is to provide information that couples need to create successful marriages.

The SCICN is part of Stanford University’s law school and devotes itself to interdisciplinary research and teaching on conflict resolution and peacebuilding. The group centers its efforts on the identification and analysis of barriers to conflict resolution and the development of strategies to overcome these barriers.