Understanding the difference between problem and conflict is essential to find the most effective psychological strategies to manage both situations. Knowing our internal states, giving them a name and understanding their dynamics will allow us to face them in the best possible way and make decisions that we will not have to regret in the future, keeping affective states under control to avoid hitting bottom emotionally.
What is a problem – and what is not?
The term problem is often used to refer to different situations. A problem, for example, can be a question for which we have no answer, but it can also be a situation that makes us uncomfortable and we don’t know how to get out of it.
The psychological problem occurs when we try to achieve a goal, but we find a set of circumstances that stop us. In that case, it becomes an obstacle in our way because we don’t know how to remove or avoid it.
In fact, it should be clarified that we often call “problem” situations that are only difficulties or setbacks. For example, if the subway or the bus is late, it is an inconvenient. On the other hand, if are canceled and we don’t know how to get to our destination, it’s a problem.
Therefore, problems are all those situations for which we do not have an immediate solution, circumstances that we cannot solve immediately, so that they force us to think of a solution strategy.
What is a conflict exactly?
Conflicts occur when there are two conflicting interests. In interpersonal conflicts, for example, there is a situation that needs to be resolved, but the people involved cannot agree because they have different interests, expectations, or points of view.
In interpersonal conflicts, the disagreement occurs within us. When we face a certain situation, a part of us wants something and another part wants the opposite. We may be aware, for example, that we “should” do something, but actually “want” to do something else. Or we may experience divergent emotions at the same time, such as the attraction that drives us to action and the fear that holds us back. Those forces that push in different directions generate a conflict.
As with problems, we often qualify as “conflicts” situations that are not conflicts or that are actually pseudo-conflicts. Having differences or even expressing opposition, for example, does not imply the existence of a conflict per se. For a conflict to occur, it is necessary for two forces to be set in motion that push in opposite directions just at the moment in which it is necessary for these forces to converge and unify in order to make a decision or do something.
Consequently, conflict situations imply a duality from which it is difficult to escape.
What is the main difference between problem and conflict?
By definition, the conflict is a disagreement, a contradiction that arises from the incoherence of judgments, objectives, interests, inferences, conclusions or opinions on certain aspects. Instead, the problem is an issue or situation that is considered unpleasant or harmful, but that we cannot immediately overcome because we lack the tool, cognitive, emotional, or other resources to find a solution.
Therefore, the main difference between problem and conflict lies in its character. While the conflict has a dichotomous character because it always implies at least two opposing positions or forces, even when it comes to an intrapersonal conflict, the problems suffer from this dichotomy because they only imply a difficulty, doubt or uncertainty that we must solve.
Since these are different psychological realities, the way to deal with them also differs. In fact, it is no coincidence that there are both conflict resolution techniques and problem solving strategies.
Conflict resolution techniques focus on bringing divergent forces together to break out of a deadlock. Whether on an interpersonal or intrapersonal level, you work to understand the pros and cons of each position, find common ground, set a goal, clarify trade-offs that need to be made, and finally commit to change.
Instead, problem-solving strategies are processes focused on finding solutions. Although they involve the analysis of the situation and take into account the goal we want to reach, the work focuses more on promoting divergent thinking that gives rise to creative and original ideas to eliminate the obstacle or answer the question.
Therefore, while conflict resolution techniques enhance convergence, problem resolution strategies encourage divergence. The differences in approaching the problem and the conflict is due to the fact that, although both usually lead to paralysis, their underlying psychological mechanisms are different.
In conflict, paralysis is due to divergent forces pulling in opposite directions, creating indecision and keeping us tied to the situation. Instead, many times problems block us due to our mental rigidity; that is, to the fact that we are unable to see beyond what is happening to find solutions.
Problems and conflicts: two non-exclusive psychological realities
In our day to day life we face many problems and conflicts. Generally, these are inconsequential situations that we can quickly resolve and do not think about them again. However, in some cases the problems and conflicts can coincide, causing great emotional anguish that leads to paralysis.
For example, we can find ourselves facing vital problems whose possible solutions generate internal conflicts. In these cases, the solutions that we glimpse are conflicting, so that we are unable to decide. Thus the conflict ends up feeding and prolonging the problem.
However, the opposite can also happen: latent conflicts can generate problems in our interpersonal relationships or in our inner world. In these cases, the problem can end up aggravating the conflict, condemning us to paralysis and anguish.
Understanding the difference between problem and conflict, as well as the psychological mechanisms that are at its base, will help us shed a little light on what is happening so that we can find the best path or, at least, get moving to get out of a paralyzing situation that is often deeply emotionally draining.
Schmindt, H. G. et. Al. (2011) The process of problem-based learning: what works and why. Medical Education; 45(8): 792-806.
Lichbach, M. I. et. Al. (1981) The Conflict Process: A Formal Model. Journal of Conflict Resolution; 25(1): 10.1177.