The approach/avoidance conflict (+2 other types of conflict)

In this article, we are going to talk about the approach/avoidance conflict, according to Kurt Lewin’s theory. We will also explain what conflict is and what are its benefits. 

The Approach/Avoidance Conflict

The approach/avoidance conflict is a conflict that presents an alternative, which the individual evaluates as having a positive and a negative characteristic. It is another type of conflict that is difficult to resolve since it produces ambivalence (the person experiences both positive and negative feelings, which are not clear). 

The alternative you are faced with is both attractive and repellent. For example, a woman who suffers abuse by her partner but does not want to leave him because she loves him.

Similar thoughts come to ones mind during the primary appraisal stage.

Conflict situations occur in all spheres of our lives at some point. We can try to avoid them or sometimes trigger them. In general, the conflict seems to have the connotation of a “Pandora’s box” which, once opened, makes all the unspoken things directed towards the opponent (even if they may not be directly related to him. With little skill, however, this situation can be transformed into a constructive dialogue that strengthens relationships with others.

Most people consider conflict to be “bad” and time and resource consuming. At the same time, others start awkward discussions considering that they are “good”. 

What is the conflict?

A conflict is a situation that occurs between two or more people as a result of the contradiction between their ideas, values ​​or goals. The development of such an event gives rise to a state of tension expressed in a style specific to each person. Next, we will see what are the main types of conflict and in what situations they occur.

Approach/approach conflict

The first type receives the name of the approach/approach conflict. A person is simultaneously attracted to two attractive goals. 

For example, a woman wants to embrace career and at the same time start a family. As a sensible person, she analyzes the alternatives. She could take a job now and postpone motherhood, or procreate now and later find a job. On the other hand, she could also modify both goals: to hire a maid and to work part-time. 

Another alternative is for her and her husband to share the care of their children. In this case, the solutions are numerous, but this is not always the case. Suppose the same woman wanted a career in international sales. She would conclude that a career forces neglect of the family. If she is right, it may be impossible to achieve both goals simultaneously.

Avoidance/avoidance conflict

The opposite type of this dilemma is the avoidance/avoidance conflict, in which a person faces two negative or threatening possibilities. In this kind of conflict people generally try to escape. 

If escape is impossible, they deal with the situation in one of several ways depending on the degree of threat each alternative represents. Students who have to choose between failing an exam or studying a motherland that seems very boring to them may decide to study at least a little. 

Otherwise, they will have to repeat the course, an even more unpleasant option. Making that kind of decision doesn’t cause strong stress. Instead, consider the situation of a police officer assigned to a high crime area. 

In every answer to the radio call there is a great risk; But since a police officer risks the job, her self-esteem and the lives of other officers, if she does not answer, she will surely respond, but then the stress will be extremely intense.

People caught in avoidance/avoidance conflicts often vacillate between one threat and another, like the baseball player caught between first and second base. He starts to run to second base, realizes he will be put out and turns around, only to find out that he will be put out at first if he tries to get to the pad. In dead-end situations like the previous one, many prefer to wait for things to resolve on their own.

Approach/avoidance conflict

It is also difficult to resolve the approach/avoidance conflicts; in them, the individual feels at the same time attracted and repelled by the same goal. An athlete who is recovering from surgery may want to return to the tracks, but he knows that he may be disabled for the rest of his life if he suffers another injury. 

A woman knows that she will hurt the man she loves to hang out with others, but she understands that she will come to hate him if she allows him to prevent her from making her life. Those whose parents taught them that sex is immoral and sinful will find themselves drawn into adulthood and repelled simultaneously by people of the opposite sex.

The desire to get closer to a goal intensifies as we get closer to it, but so does the desire to avoid it. The avoidance tendency usually increases in force more rapidly than the approach tendency. 

In the approach/avoidance conflict, we thus approach the goal until we reach the point where the approach tendency is equal to that of avoiding the goal. Afraid to get closer, we stop, go back, move forward again, hesitating until we make a decision or until circumstances change.

Approach/avoidance conflicts are often combined into complex patterns. A mother who loves classical music may dream that her son becomes an excellent pianist. Her father may want her to be an athlete. 

If the boy plays the piano, he pleases his mother but annoys his father; if at the end of classes he stays to practice on the track, he disappoints his mother and pleases his father (double conflict of approach/(avoidance, Lewin‘s name).

The benefits of conflict

A tense situation can give rise to more frustration, but also to understanding the one next to us. It is also a way to express dissatisfaction and dissatisfaction with decisions that affect us. 

For example, it is much more beneficial to express your point of view before taking part in a group decision than after the decision has been made. Of course, it depends on each person whether they want to get into a conflict or not, but here are some benefits to consider:

  • We get to know those around us better
  • We learn to work in a team
  • We strengthen our views or we can change them if they are wrong
  • We expose ourselves to new experiences.

What to do?

For a conflict to be constructive, we must be able to express our point of view in the most objective way possible, without attacking others. It is also necessary to learn to listen to the needs of those around us. 

If someone is going to express their dissatisfaction aggressively, it is best to ask them what they need and then try to build a bridge between common needs. At the moment, a cooperative attitude is the best way to get the results you want.

In conclusion, conflicts are not necessarily good or bad. The labels we associate with conflict depend on our personal experience. It is not convenient to feel the pressure of a tense situation, but in the end, we will encounter such a moment. 

It is up to us to identify what kind of conflict we are facing and not to lose our temper when the other has already done so. Even when we cooperate, there are divergences, but they are part of our nature and help us find answers to problems that arise throughout life.

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FAQ on the approach/avoidance conflict

What is an example of approach/avoidance conflict?

An example of approach/avoidance is a woman who knows that she will hurt the man she loves to hang out with others, but she understands that she will come to hate him if she allows him to prevent her from making her life.

How do you resolve approach/avoidance conflict?

In the approach/avoidance conflict, we approach the goal until we reach the point where the approach tendency is equal to that of avoiding the goal.

What are the 3 types of conflict in psychology?

The three types of conflict in psychology are approach-approach, approach-avoidance, and avoidance-avoidance.

Which type of conflict is most difficult to resolve?

The most difficult type of conflict to resolve is any simple conflict. Our ego is responsible for our self-worth and beliefs. 

Which type of conflict is usually the most stressful?

The most stressful type of conflict usually is the avoidance/avoidance conflict. In this kind of conflict people generally try to escape.  If escape is impossible, they deal with the situation in one of several ways depending on the degree of threat each alternative represents. 

Conclusions

In this article, we talked about the approach/avoidance conflict, according to Kurt Lewin’s theory. We also explained what conflict is and what are its benefits. 

The approach/avoidance conflict is a conflict that presents an alternative, which the individual evaluates as having a positive and a negative characteristic. It is another type of conflict that is difficult to resolve since it produces ambivalence (the person experiences both positive and negative feelings, which are not clear). 

In the approach/avoidance conflict, we thus approach the goal until we reach the point where the approach tendency is equal to that of avoiding the goal. Afraid to get closer, we stop, go back, move forward again, hesitating until we make a decision or until circumstances change.

If you have any questions or comments on the content, please let us know!

Further reading

The Strategy of Conflict, by Tc Schelling

HBR Guide to Dealing with Conflict (HBR Guide Series), by Amy Gallo 

The 7 Principles of Conflict Resolution: How to resolve disputes, defuse difficult situations and reach an agreement, by Louisa Weinstein 

Conflict = Energy: The Transformative Practice of Authentic Relating, by Jason Digges 

References

Elgoibar, P., Euwema, M., & Munduate, L. (2017). Conflict management. In Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Psychology.

Tjosvold, D., Wong, A. S., & Feng Chen, N. Y. (2014). Constructively managing conflicts in organizations. Annu. Rev. Body. Psychol. Body. Behav., 1 (1), 545-568.

Jehn, K. A., & Bendersky, C. (2003). Intragroup conflict in organizations: A contingency perspective on the conflict-outcome relationship. Research in organizational behaviour, 25, 187-242.

Shonk, K. (2019). Three types of conflict and how to address them. Accessed on Nov. 24

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