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Causes of Challenging Conversations

Info: 3206 words (13 pages) Essay
Published: 8th Feb 2020 in Management

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 Conversing with others is an important part of everyday life. It’s used to greet people, meet new people, and to express ideas, thoughts, and feelings. Thus, it is used to interact with others. Naturally, conflict can and will arise while interacting. Research exploring how culture, personal beliefs, and gender influence conflict resolution styles have produced results confirming that each of these factors does affect conflict style. Accordingly, this study explores how male college students handle conflict in the form of challenging conversations. The goal of our research is to provide an understanding of how people interact, interpret, and communicate during challenging conversations and provide an analytical overview of the outcomes and impacts of those conversations.

Research Problem/ Major findings

 The purpose of our study was to identify what makes challenging conversations challenging, explore how individuals cope with challenging conversations, and what outcomes resulted from these conversations. Our research found that the males in our study accredit conflicting viewpoints to making conversations challenging. When engaging in challenging conversations our study revealed that people found expressing their negative emotions and finding support through the advice of peers was the best way to deal with these types of conversations.  When asked what lasting outcomes result from their challenging conversations, out participants identified a sense of satisfaction for accomplishing their goal and a lasting emotional result was significant. When reflecting on outcomes, the current study indicates that conflict holds a negative connotation among our culture, but we tend to address these conflicts head-on with an emphasis on accomplishing the goal we hope to meet starting these conversations. Lastly, most participants shared challenging conversations that involved a significant other, indicating conflict is common between significant others.

Meaning of findings/ why they are important

  1. Conflicting Viewpoints

The research shows, conversations were made challenging by conflicting viewpoints. While this is a straightforward concept, the underlying circumstances explain why our research came to this conclusion. Many participants acknowledged that they were hesitant to have the conversation because they knew it would be difficult. In her study, Staske explains that this a result of our culture. Having challenging conversations is not seen as a norm in society (1998). This also sheds light on why most of the challenging conversations our participants chose were with significant others. These conversations mostly happened within a closed environment, out of the public’s eye. There is also a greater level of comfort among significant others than with strangers making our participants more inclined to have the conversation.  Guidetti, Cavazza, and Graziani emphasize the idea that people are generally conflict avoidant. They also state that opposing views often bring conversations to stagnation (2015). Therefore, the conversation becomes more challenging because progress ceases. Seeing the conversation from the other party’s side was a challenge for many of this study’s participants. Closemindedness was often accredited to part of what made the conversation challenging. For example, Ben stated, “[It is] hard to talk when we both have different viewpoints.” In a study by Larissa Hopkins and Andrea Dominque, when discussing perspective taking, they emphasize that often times it impossible to step into another’s shoes because of social and cultural difference but making the attempt to listen with the goal of understanding another’s perspective will allow for deeper meaning to emerge (2015).

  1. Supporting Environment & Consulting Others

 To deal with these conversations, our participants looked for a supportive environment in consulting their peers. Expressing that this helped them calm down and they often sought their peer’s advice on the conversation. When studied, individuals feel less stress and anger after consulting their peers (Pederson and McLaren, 2017). Though America is seen more as an individualistic culture, Americans are also more prone to consulting a third party than many other cultures (Kaushal and Kwantes, 2006). Many of the present study’s participants spoke to a third-party either prior to the conversation, to mentally prepare, or after the conversation to hear more opinions from other people they trust. Seeking a peer prior was often used by participants to practice what they wanted to say or build confidence going into the conversation.

  1. Negative Emotions

 When it comes to the findings, people indicated that expressing negative emotions helped them to cope with the situation and helped the conversation mature. Often mentioning that negative emotions became prevalent as the conversation progressed. The present study’s participants emphasized that the conversations often escalated from relaxed to hostile. Our research is supported by Staske’s study where she reasons that this is a result of human nature. Individuals tend to match the emotions of their counter-part. Therefore, if one individual in the conversation becomes angry or upset, the other person is likely to reciprocate that emotion (1998).

  1. Emotional Result

 The participants in this study expressed a lasting emotion resulting from the challenging conversation, either because the topic was sensitive, and an emotional result was unavoidable, such as a breakup, or the conversation escalated into an argument. Most of the conversations the participants spoke of involved a significant other. In a conference paper written by Ocana and Hindman, they state that conflict is more likely between significant others such as a roommate, best friend, or girl/boyfriend (2005). To build from this, Johnson tells us that conversations between significant others often deal with personal issues which naturally involve more conflict then public issue conversations. The personal issue conversations have a stronger tie to the individual (2002). Therefore, individuals are stronger in their opinion because it is tied back to their self-worth and image. Emotion is also the result of someone’s understanding of a situation(Staske,1998). Depending on how one party perceives what the other was saying effects how they will process information. Phycology tells us that emotions are a direct result of how information is processed. Thus, if the information is processed with a negative understanding, then that person is much more likely to become emotional.

  1. Goal Accomplishment

 The research shows challenging conversations are made challenging because of conflicting views point and difficult at the moment because of negative emotions. Through this, the participants still acknowledge the completion of the goal of the conversation. This is a critical finding because it shows the importance the end goal is to the conversation. If the end goal was a good result, like a girl saying yes to a date, or the result left lasting negative emotions, the goal was still accomplished.

Relate findings to Similar studies

 Many studies in the past have addressed challenging conversations and conflict resolution styles of different cultures and between different dynamics of individuals. In the conference paper, Unacquainted roommates, Conflict Style, and Relational Outcomes, Ocana and Hindman address communication techniques to resolve conflict specifically between incoming college freshman. There are strong similarities between the results of Ocana and Hindman’s study and the present study. Both studies concentrate on negative emotions that were provoked during the conversation, but Ocana and Hindman focus more on the identifying what conflict resolution strategy was used during the conversation whereas this study sought to find information on why the conversation was challenging to start, how the participants handled it, and what resulted from the conversation. Though the results are similar, the most significant difference is the samples used. The present studies address college students of all ages, while Hindman and Ocana researched only college freshman. Their research found that using direct strategies to deal with conflict had a more positive impact on the relationship than using avoidant strategies. This was demonstrated in our study. By tackling the conflict head-on, the participants gained the satisfaction of accomplishing their goal and were able to move past the anxiety of having the conversation.

 Another study addressing conflict among conversations is, Working through Disagreement in Deliberative Forums, by Brian Adams. While the goal of the present study and Adams study are similar, to explore how individuals cope with challenging conversations, the median of the conversations is much different. Adams held open forums on college campuses where participants were asked to discuss controversial public issues among strangers, whereas this study used interviews where participants were asked to recall a challenging conversation in which they had participated. Unlike Adams’ study, the conversations included in this study occurred naturally without a prompt given by the researchers. The types of conversations were also different. Because of this study’s participants choosing to share conversations with significant other, the results reflected analysis of personal issue conversations. Adams’ study was designed to produce a result on only public issue conversations between strangers. His study found participants tended to “soft-pedal” their arguments, a strategy meant to limit confrontation when disagreeing (2015). The present study participants did not report “soft-peddling” during their interviews, but rather embraced the negative emotions that came with conflicting points of view to accomplish the end goal.

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 Few studies have analyzed both cultural and personality influence when considering different conflict resolution styles. The study, The Role of Cultural and Personality in Choice of Conflict management strategy, by Rita Kaushal and Catherine Kwantes considers them simultaneously. The study’s goal was to examine the influence culture and personal beliefs had on conflict resolution styles. Like the present study, Kaushal and Kwantes’ study involves a sample of college-aged individuals. Therefore, both are limited by the same factors of age, occupation, and the effects of university culture. Also, both studies analyze how individuals handle conflict that they had experienced. Though, Kaushal and Kwantes took their investigation a bit further by referring to previous studies investigating how culture effects conflict resolution strategies to explain how their participants reported handling conflict. The present study did not analyze cultural influence on conflict resolution styles, but simply how college males handled conflict during conversations. If the cultural bias is applied to our study, Kwantes and Kaushal’s study describes the results. Their study shows that individual’s in the US are more likely to use dominating conflict resolution styles than other cultures (2005). Our study’s participants showed little avoidant strategies and used more dominant and direct styles.

Considering Alternate Explanations of findings

 The present study uses a small sample of culturally similar individuals. From this study, on generalizations about the mid-western culture, where most of the participants are from, can be made in terms of conflict resolution styles and styles of dealing with challenging conversations. In terms of adversarial techniques, American is much different than other cultures. Unlike western cultures, eastern cultures prefer avoidant strategies instead of direct, confrontational strategies (Kaushal and Kwantes, 2005). There is a western bias that influenced the results of the study. If the same study is reproduced in a different culture, the study will bear different findings because of a different cultural influence. This study’s sample was comprised of all men. Therefore, the generalizations made by this study can only apply to males. Naturally, women and men handle conflict differently. Men tend to use more use more direct and aggressive conflict resolution styles, whereas women use more avoidant conflict resolution styles (Turner, 2015). With different styles of resolution, research studying what makes conversations challenging for women and how they handle the situation will yield different results. With the use of avoidant strategies, the result of the conversations may have also been different. Largely due to many issues being avoided altogether, making it impossible for them to be resolved.


 While the study produces sound results, the research was limited in a couple of ways. The participants lack diversity. The interviewees were mostly white college students. Specifically, this study lack cultural diversity. An individual’s cultural background dictates how they deal with conflict and how they see the outcomes progressing.  Generalizations about the culture are hard to make because the study had a small sample size and the participants were largely University of Dayton students. Most of the participants have a mid-western bias that has influenced their lives and mentalities all their lives. Generalizing about just college students is still difficult because our participants could have been swayed by the culture at Dayton which could be different than other campuses. This study analysis almost exclusively conversations between significant others. Thus, most conversations were about personal issue topics. Therefore, the study is limited not only by the dynamic of the individuals involved but also the style of conversation. Lastly, our study was limited to only one of two or more participants in the conversation. Hearing both sides of the conversation would have helped us fine tune the themes we identified during the research and given us a larger, more accurate sample size to base our results. By only have the one side, our study is based on the interpretation of one individual which could be biased depending on the lasting emotion they feel from the conversation.

Further Research

 The present study addresses largely personal issue conversations. Further research should be done to explore conversations about public issues between strangers. This study would supply critical information about how individuals deal with challenging conversations when a significant other is not involved. The finding the of the present study demonstrate how mid-western college students cope with challenging conversations. Although this study provides valuable data about how a specific sect of a culture deals with conflict, further research should be done to find conclusions about how other cultures and age groups operate in similar situations. Lastly, the participants were all males and the research found conclusions about males’ actions during the conflict. Further data should be gathered on what strategies females use during challenging conversations.


 The study’s findings describe what makes conversations challenging for male college students, how they deal with them, and what outcomes result from these conversations. Opposing viewpoints was found to be the most common characteristic among all conversations analyzed in the study. The participants exercised the idea that having a supportive environment, consulting others and expressing negative emotions is the best way of coping with the conflict. A feeling of satisfaction for accomplishing the goal of the conversation and lasting emotions resulting from the conversation were among the results of the conversation addressed by the participants. This study found similar results to previous studies that explored conflict resolution within conversations. Although this study identified sounds finding, further researcher of a more culturally diverse sample is needed to eliminate the western-cultural bias involved in our study. A larger, more diverse sample would allow for more accurate generalizations about conflict resolution styles for the population.


  • Adams, B. E. (2015). Working through disagreement in deliberative forums. The Social Science Journal,52(2), 229-238. doi:10.1016/j.soscij.2014.10.008
  • Guidetti, M., Cavazza, N., & Graziani, A. R. (2015). Perceived Disagreement and Heterogeneity in Social Networks: Distinct Effects on Political Participation. The Journal of Social Psychology,156(2), 222-242. doi:10.1080/00224545.2015.1095707
  • Hopkins, L. E., & Domingue, A. D. (2015). From Awareness to Action: College Students’ Skill Development in Intergroup Dialogue. Equity & Excellence in Education,48(3), 392-402. doi:10.1080/10665684.2015.1057446
  • Johnson, A. J. (2002). Beliefs about arguing: A comparison of public issue and personal issue arguments. Communication Reports,15(2), 99-111. doi:10.1080/08934210209367757
  • Kaushal, R., & Kwantes, C. T. (2006). The role of culture and personality in choice of conflict management strategy. International Journal of Intercultural Relations,30(5), 579-603. doi:10.1016/j.ijintrel.2006.01.001
  • Ocana, A., & Hindman, D. (2004). Unacquainted Roommates, Conflict Style, and Relational Outcomes. Conference Papers — International Communication Association
  • Pederson, J. R., & Mclaren, R. M. (2017). Indirect effects of supportive communication during conversations about coping with relational transgressions. Personal Relationships,24(4), 804-819. doi:10.1111/pere.12214
  • Staske, S. A. (1998). The Normalization of Problematic Emotion in Conversations Between Close Relational Partners: Interpersonal Emotion Work. Symbolic Interaction,21(1), 59-86. doi:10.1525/si.1998.21.1.59
  • Turner, C. (2017, December 07). ‘Masculine’ and ‘Feminine’ Styles of Handling Conflict. Retrieved from https://www.huffingtonpost.com/caroline-turner/masculine-and-feminine-st_b_6633896.html


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