Definitions: The difference between conflict and disrespect.

April 30, 2023

Side-by-side dictionary page sketches for Conflict and Disrespect

A question for you: is there a difference between conflict and disrespect? Or, are they instead synonyms for exactly the same thing?

If you answered, "Yes – they’re different!" but the person next to you happened to answer, "Nope – obviously they’re interchangeable", this illustrates a tricky issue we run into with language. Sometimes each of us uses the same word but with a different intended meaning. This runs the risk of having gaps of understanding in our communications, where we unwittingly are not talking about the same thing.

So let’s get clear what we’re talking about here with some definitions.

  • Conflict is an expressed struggle between at least two interdependent parties who perceive incompatible goals, scarce rewards, and interference from the other party in achieving their goals.
  • Disrespect is disregard for the feelings, wishes, rights, and traditions of others.

Now, with this shared foundation laid, consider the question again: is there a difference between conflict and disrespect?

Healthy conflict is about issues and ideas. It is an inherent part of life because none of us are separate from others. Relationships and the friction that comes along with them are inevitable.

Disrespect, on the other hand, is about behaviour. Shouting, threats, swearing, unsolicited/unwelcome contact, gestures…these inappropriate actions erode trust, loyalty, and commitment that one would hope to have in all their relations.

When we are overwhelmed by emotion in the heat of the moment, it can be tricky to distinguish between natural conflict and uncalled for disrespect. Yet, in these moments especially, it’s important to understand their differences in order to identify which is at play and what skillful actions might be taken.

Conflict does not equal disrespect banner

Take for instance an example that is all too familiar: you’re working on a project with a colleague and facing a hard deadline in one month. The two of you are having a meeting about how to schedule the tasks that need to be done. As a self-identified planner, you know that an organized and steady approach of chunking the work week-by-week is a recipe for success. Your co-worker on the other hand, staunchly believes that the best way to optimize time is to wait until the last week by chunking all the work together at once.

As you pore over your calendars together, you can’t help but notice your colleague rolling their eyes at you – emphasized by the loud sighs voicing their annoyance. Flustered by this behaviour but unsure of what to do next, you calmly explain your reasoning for wanting to meet once a week but it falls on unlistening ears. Their if it weren’t for the last minute nothing would get done philosophy runs deep.

All of a sudden your colleague turns red and flatly declares, "Only a fool would need to take a whole month to get this done! Ugh, this is so ridiculous!" With that, they push themselves away from the desk and stomp out the room, leaving you aghast and alone – without a plan for what to do next.

What just happened?

In this situation, there was a conflict between you and your colleague over how to manage the time spent on a project together. This unresolved conflict became an act of disrespect when your colleague began rolling their eyes and…escalating.

When we are in a place of unresolved conflict or tensions, disrespect tends to arise from its troubled seeds. And so, while different in their essence, the two concepts also exist in relation to each other.

Acts of disrespect are generally unwarranted, and most certainly unwelcome. Nonetheless, if we have been the recipient of disrespect, the way we respond can make all the difference between bringing the conversation back around to resolving the conflict, or slinging more acts of disrespect to and fro. And even before that, we need to clarify if we’ve experienced conflict or disrespect.

Dealing with conflict is important for each and every one of us. Fractured relationships, uncomfortable coexistence, and job dissatisfaction are all too common – but they don’t have to be this way. Here at Mediation Services we’ve facilitated many happy endings (or, at the very least, respectful continuations) in-person since 1979 and now online since 2020.

Born from experience, we highly recommend our keystone online course that is Introduction to Conflict Resolution: Dealing with Difficult People. Conflict is in all of our lives, and we owe it to ourselves and our communities to find non-competitive win-win solutions in the face of differing beliefs.

Beyond this general resource there are always places where we can dive in more specifically, and one area of clear need is in the relationships surrounding our jobs. As we explored in the aforementioned example, disrespect in the workplace is an all too familiar thing. Unaddressed, a culture of disrespect can quickly add up to employee dissatisfaction, performance problems, and a self-perpetuating cycle of more disrespect.

Our specialized webinar on Building a Respectful Workplace deals with dynamics within these complex spaces directly. Through acknowledgment, reflection on our role(s), and subsequent action, we can each play our part in creating work environments that we enjoy spending our days in. Read more about what this offering includes here or feel free to reach out directly for wider advice on facilitating respectful workplaces and spaces beyond.

If you have questions,
please don’t hesitate to call.


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