Conflict is the result of an event, attitude or dynamic. It doesn't simply develop in the natural course of events - it has a definitive origin. Sometimes we can easily identify where a conflict actually started and sometimes we cannot; however, this is always a beginning.
Over the course of consulting with hundreds of people, I have narrowed down the origin of conflict to a few easily remembered categories: territory, power and control; distrust and self-preservation; and value differences.
Territory, Power & Control
Conflict arise in this category when one person questions the other's authority or ability. A common example of this is when a a new manager is hired from outside the organization (oftentimes hired over an internal candidate) and begins to make changes in the department or work unit. This creates resentment and animosity in the group, particularly in the person who had expected to get the job. The result is often very destructive behavior and includes things like sabotaging the new manager's plans and bad-mouthing the new manager to both upper management and fellow employees.
Another great example of this type of conflict is with separated parents. One parent (oftentimes dad) feels that the other parent (usually mom) attempts to micromanage his parenting time. He will often get upset that she questions his ability to make daily care decisions for the children during his parenting time. This is also true if one parent tries to dictate schedules and times to the other. I often have parents go to court simply because they want a "set in stone" schedule so that they don't feel that they have to "ask permission" to see their own children.
In both examples, the people (the manager passed over for promotion and the parent who feels micromanaged) begin to seek out a fight. They are upset because they feel that their autonomy and their territory are being infringed upon.
In the former case, the employee feels that this is his/her department and s/he knows what's best for the unit - the new person is stepping on his/her territory and better realize that s/he is calling the shots. In other words, the employee is using bad-mouthing and sabotage as a way of reclaiming their own power and control.
In the latter case, the parent feels that s/he has equal rights to parent the children, that s/he is capable of making basic parenting decisions and that the other parent is violating his/her time with the kids. In this situation, the parent reacts by not disclosing or discussing parenting issues for fear of being micromanaged, withdrawing or avoiding communications with the other parent or filing court actions to assert their own parenting authority and responsibility, independent of the other parent.
Distrust & Self Preservation
We all make mistakes in life. Sometimes the mistakes don't create a lot of damage and sometimes they do. When our mistakes (or in some cases, our intentional actions) create distrust with another person, conflict is sure to be in waiting. When people come distrustful of you, they enter self-preservation mode. This demonstrates itself in defensiveness and defensive conduct.
In the workplace, an employee who is overtly scolded by his/her supervisor develops instant distrust. S/he just doesn't trust the boss to be fair and to handle problems tactfully. Alternatively this can occur when an employee works very hard on a task or project and the boss takes credit for the work to upper management. Now the employee can never trust the supervisor's professional ethics again. On final example is when pay raises and promotions are handed out in a way that employees feel is "shady" or "behind closed doors".
Soon, the employee begins to side-step the manager, going over their head to the department manager. They may begin to print and save all emails as "evidence" in case something else occurs or they have to involve human resources. Additionally, in certain work environments, unionization drives may occur.
In a family situation, I see this when one parent makes agreements and doesn't follow through on agreements and schedules or when a parent has been deceptive to the other parent about issues related to the children.
The result is that the grieved parent begins to interrogate the children whenever they come home, they keep journals to use as evidence in a future court proceeding and they find ways to "coincidentally" show-up at events during the other parent's visitation time.
In both cases, the grieved party feels that they need to defend themselves against the other person's unethical behavior, protect others (co-workers or children) from lies and find ways to balance the power relationship.
Values are a funny thing - people take them seriously even when they don't realize it. Comments like "that's the way I was raised" are good indicators that you are now in a values conversation.
Values are a serious issue in today's workplace. With three generations (spanning 50 years) all working together, values are an inevitable reality. I can't count how many times I have heard discussions around water coolers about how the older guy/gal in the office is such a work horse and how s/he expects everyone else to "buck-up" and work their life away. On the other end of the spectrum, some older workers see younger workers as slackers, unwilling to commit and get the job done.
In the home, I see a similar pattern. Mom thinks that Dad is the "good time" parent that is only around to do "fun" things while Mom is the parent who cooks, cleans and disciplines. I have worked with families where one parent feels that the children need to live in one home and only visit the other parent on weekends because the children "need stability". Children having cellular phones is also a hot topic in the mediation room these days. One parent feels that the child should have the phone and the other doesn't.
These are the situations where one party feels the other "just doesn't get it" and "if they only knew" is another possible indicator that the conflict is, at its core, about values.
As you can see, many of the conflicts that we deal with every day can be effectively categorized. These categories can be useful in designing ways and methods to prevent and resolve them.