The best definition of conflict that I have ever heard was provided by Dr. Ariane David. I attended a training she gave on the topic of Non-Positional Thinking. She said, “You know you are involved in destructive conflict when you start feeling defensive.”
It is the feeling that you are personally being attacked that makes it difficult, if not impossible, to walk away from a disagreement. It is this emotional content that turns a disagreement into a conflict. If you can walk away from a disagreement without it affecting you, without suffering any negative consequences, then you are not involved in a conflict.
Everybody is different. We have different thoughts, ideas, identities, experiences, politics, and ideologies. We like different types of food and different kinds of movies and have different hobbies than our spouses and siblings and friends. We disagree with people daily without engaging in conflict.
My wife and I disagree about what to have for dinner almost daily. We typically have to discuss, at length, our reasons for wanting or not wanting a particular type of food: we already had that for lunch today, or we ate that the other night. We work it out. We don’t always come to the most satisfying agreements; we do have enough options to come to some mutually pleasing, if occasionally suboptimal, agreement.
A disagreement over something simple like dinner can remind you of other issues that are bothering you. These small disagreements can remind us of, or lead to, anger and hurt and pain about issues that are not even be discussed at that moment. It is these emotions, the angers and hurts and pains, that lead us down the path to conflict.
It pays to remember that you can easily walk away from a disagreement. The consequences of a disagreement mean little to you. You can let the other party have their way without risking a loss or hurt. When you start getting emotional about the possible (even if they are improbable) consequences of a disagreement, you are spiraling into a conflict.