What is Conflict?

Merriam-Webster defines conflict as “competitive or opposing action of incompatibles.” Is that the correct definition?

What is conflict?

Before we define conflict, we must address is whether conflict is real. Societally, we denigrate conflict. In western society specifically, we perceive conflict very negatively. When you ask a group of people to use one word to define conflict, they come up with things like fight, disagreement, or even hate. Why do we view conflict in such a negative way? Is conflict real?

Why do we conflict?

Chances are, you have not heard someone use conflict as a verb. Why not? I conflict with you. That sounds weird, doesn’t it? That’s because conflict is not an action, it’s a state of being, a state of mind. Conflict is in your brain. Not only is it in your brain, but also it is in the brains (and hearts) of just about everyone. We make conflict exist. When you Google “why does conflict exist,” surprisingly, there is very little strong information. No articles. No news stories. Just a bunch of random websites. Borrowing from Thomas Hobbes, I believe that conflict exists for three reasons: competition, trust, and vanity.


Competition is everywhere; it breeds conflict by nature. We (humans) survived because we competed with our environment. We competed against animals for food. Humans competed against Mother Earth for warmth and dryness. We competed against each other for natural resources.

Today, we compete for power, resources (mostly money), and prestige. Money drives modern, capitalist societies, and in ours, everyone competes for a buck. We also create competition artificially through athletics, reality television, and for our general entertainment.

As an example, think about the Ohio State and Michigan rivalry. I am an Ohio State fan, who grew up in Ohio, watching Ohio State, breathing Buckeyes. I attended Ohio State for four years. Until recently, I despised the Michigan, not only the University of Michigan, but also the entire state of Michigan. For absolutely no reason. It was completely arbitrary and artificial that I disliked an entire state. When I saw a Michigan license plate, I assumed the person was a terrible driver. And it was real dislike. I felt it.

The issue, which I used reframing figure out, is that I could never articulate why I hated Michigan. Eventually, I learned that I hated Michigan because I 1) grew up in Ohio, 2) went to Ohio State, and 3) surrounded myself with Michigan haters.

Sound familiar? This man-made competition exists all around us, and it can lead to horrific outcomes. These are examples and a brief background on external competition. Now, let us look at internal competition.

Internal competition is the hardest to articulate and the most challenging to overcome because we compete against ourselves. Ten thousand years ago, internal competition might have led to thoughts about killing the person next to you for his or her food against not killing that person and sharing the food. Today, internal competition might look like eating that extra donut at brunch, doing that last rep at the gym, or telling that white lie to avoid hurt feelings. Two halves of our brain, whether they are right/wrong, selfish/selfless, or good/evil, are constantly competing for attention and reward. You can win internal competition, or internal conflict, by trusting one side over the other.


Modern, western society exists on trust. Without trust, we would all live in an anarchy where everyone is out for themselves and their tribes, competing for every resource. Trust builds relationships, community, and governments. When we break trust, it is often difficult to earn back. The amount of effort it takes to regain trust is similar to the amount of effort it takes to recover from a financial loss.

If you have $100 and lose 50%, or $50, you have to regain 100% just to break even. If you have $100 and lose 90%, or $90, you have to regain 900% just to break even. Trust operates similarly. If you break 90% of someone else’s trust, it is nearly impossible to get back to where you started.

Trust is all about communication. If I steal an apple from you, you will trust me less. If I ask you for an apple because I’m hungry, you might say no, but you likely will not trust me less. It’s as simple as that. These conflicts that result from losing trust are often a result of poor communication.

If I fail to communicate that I am unhappy in my relationship to my partner, I may instead decide to cheat. When I fail to tell my teacher that I am not ready for my exam because I did not study enough, I  could cheat to reach my goal. When you learn how to reframe your thinking about trust and communication, you also learn how to avoid or quickly resolve conflict. People often fail at the communication piece because they are selfish.


You’re so vain, I bet you think this post is about you. While you might think this song is cliché, this song is as true as it gets. Vanity leads to conflict. Putting yourself ahead of your relationship, your community, or even your government, will lead to conflict. Humans have always been vain. We are more vain today because it’s easier. How often have you posted a picture of yourself only because you wanted to see how many likes and comments you could receive? You were not hoping for any negative responses, only positive ones.

Even if the post was self-deprecating, you were still hoping for positive reactions to your honesty. The problem with vanity is that it perpetuates in our always-connected, global society. Customer service has changed dramatically even in the last twenty years, where customers are right, no matter what. This evolution occurred because of review systems created by Yelp, Google, and Facebook. Once the weight of the internet is behind something, there is almost no turning back. All this customer service culture is due to vanity, and these ideas relate.

Connecting Competition, Trust, and Vanity

At first glance, it might not seem like competition, trust, and vanity relate. In fact, they are so interrelated, that it is almost impossible to distinguish between them. Let me break it down.

Conflict = Competition – Trust + Vanity 

We compete because society has evolved into a winner/loser culture, where winners win more and losers lose more. This is the Matthew Effect. As a result, we fail to trust or lose trust quickly when we have it because of competition, with the understanding that every person with whom you interact is competing for the same jobs, partners, and resources that you are. We are vain because our vanity leads to an edge in competition and in trust. Think about it like this: If we stopped being vain, we could compete less, and competing less might lead to more trust. But, how?

We cannot stop. From a young age, we teach children to compete against each other in academics, sports, and socially. Get the best grades, start on the best teams, have the most well-off friends. We teach children that vanity and competition are good, which ultimately leads to a lack of trust.

So, is conflict real?

Of course, conflict is real. Anything in your mind is real. Conflict primarily exists in your mind. What brings conflict into life is taking thoughts and putting them into action. Conflict only exists because we make conflict exist. That might take a minute to wrap your mind around, so I will say it again: conflict only exists because we make it exist. So, what does that mean? You can reframe to learn how to manage conflict.

Reframing conflict

I would never advocate someone to stop competing, stop vanity, and start trusting more. Telling someone to do something is as effective as telling a dog to stop barking by yelling at it. What I can offer, though, is the opportunity to reframe how you think about conflict. Reframing how you conceptualize competition, trust, and vanity will result in a better understanding of how you can manage your own conflicts, and how you can negotiate with yourself to lead a healthier life.

Want help reframing how you think about conflict?

I will work with you to help you overcome any issues you have resolving conflicts in your life. Start reframing today.