Walking and Conflict

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Volume 13, Number 8

Walking is arguably the most basic form of physical activity, and its associated health benefits have been well established. Walking has made its way into the workplace in the form of walking meetings and/or treadmill desks.

Several collaborators in the Department of Psychology at Columbia University (Webb, Rossignac-Milon, & Higgins) have proposed that walking with another person with whom there is some disagreeable issue has potential to help resolve the conflict, a theory they published in the most recent American Psychologist. Their hypothesis is based upon known psychological benefits of walking, although they emphasize that their theory remains to be explicitly tested.

Walking with a partner with whom there is some interpersonal conflict requires a degree of synchrony that is not necessary when just talking, meaning some cooperation is necessary in spite of the presence of the conflict. Walking speed and route involve collaboration. Walking together involves side-by-side positioning, which tends to be a more cooperative arrangement than is a face-to-face stance (which may be perceived as competitive or confrontational). The authors theorize that “stepping forward together” may help facilitate cooperative conversation.

It is known that walking tends to improve mood, lower stress, and enhance creativity. Furthermore, executive functions of the brain (e.g., problem-solving) are found to work more effectively both during and after moderate physical activity. Walking typically involves some change of scenery, which can cue alternative perspectives, often an asset in conflict resolution.

The Columbia psychologists make reference to how language associated with conflict resolution has parallels to movement. Descriptors of conflict include being at an “impasse” or “going nowhere.” Compromise may be referred to as “meeting halfway” or “arriving at a solution.” Labels for resolution include “moving forward” or “getting past.”

Although a recommendation to take a walk with a person with whom one is experiencing conflict is not (yet) evidence-based, the stress-reducing and physical health benefits of implementing this strategy appear worthwhile, even if conflict resolution isn’t forthcoming. It certainly represents an attempt to “get somewhere” in place of remaining at a “standstill.”


Paul J. Hershberger, Ph.D.

… is a clinical health psychologist. He is Professor and Director of the Division of Behavioral Health, Department of Family Medicine, Wright State University Boonshoft School of Medicine.




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phone: (937) 734-6851

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