If I could wager a guess, it would be that you do not like conflict. Conflict feels icky. It can be painful, damaging, and impact your life and those around you in a negative manner. There do exist some people who gravitate towards conflict, perhaps getting the thrill of an adrenaline rush from it, but my guess is they are not the ones reading this article!
You are probably someone who has avoided conflict as much as possible, but nonetheless, it seems that conflict always seems to come back and rears its ugly head. In this article I hope to provide some insight into why we avoid conflict, beyond just because we don’t like it, why conflict avoidance might not always be the best thing, and finally to provide some insight into how to engage in disagreements with others.
Conflict Avoidance: Why we do it
Like we said earlier, conflict does not feel good, obviously. It raises tensions (or causes tensions that were already raised to snap). In some aspects of our life, avoidance really is the best way forward. The best way to avoid burning yourself is to not stick your hand in the fire.
Easy enough, right? However, we don’t have relationships with fire; fire doesn’t talk back. Fire does not have its own wills and emotions. Fire is not impacted by you not touching it. However, humans are a little more complex. We notice when we are engaged, yes, but also when we are not.
We communicate in words, but also in our actions and inaction. It is impossible to be near another human and not affect them in some way. If you stand next to someone too closely, they will, without thinking, probably take a step back. If you are in conversation and take a couple of steps backward, they will probably naturally step forward.
We communicate in words, yes, but the body language we convey, the words we don’t say, and the tone we use we call meta communication. Conflict is so often about this meta-communication level being misunderstood or ignored.
A major part of why we avoid conflict is that we forget that we will be the same person in the future. This may seem an obvious statement, but so often we recognize we will not be able to avoid conflict forever. It’s akin to the expression “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.”
We tend to think that putting off conflict will be better. “That’s a problem for “Future Spencer” to handle” we might think to ourselves. The problem is this: “Future Spencer” is just me. So often we forget this simple truth and mortgage our contentment and have to pay it back worse later.
Avoiding conflict protects us in the presence. In a sense, we don’t know what the future will hold, so we protect our sense of self now because the emotions of conflict are so hard to handle. Conflict threatens our sense of self-esteem and self-efficacy and sense of who we are.
Especially if we are defined in many ways by our relationships, engaging in conflict would threaten our very sense of identity. Thoughts like “if I avoid conflict with my mother I will still be loved and therefore OK” cross our minds, if not explicitly, then implicitly.
Conflict avoidance often stems from how we learned to relate to family members at a young age. Maybe there was no such thing as “healthy conflict” in your household, with the smallest of arguments leading to major fights. Or perhaps you were put in a role wherein you were the placater or the peacekeeper within your family.
Your role was not to share your own will but to protect the emotions of everyone else. This was unfair to you, and now as an adult, you struggle to state your will. Let’s now take a look at why this might not be the best approach to continue to use going forward.
Why we shouldn’t avoid
On the surface, avoiding conflict does make a lot of sense. However, there are many reasons why conflict avoidance can be damaging in the long run. The simplest reason may be that the longer we take to address an issue, the worse it almost always becomes. Sometimes this is very concrete: if you don’t pay your speeding ticket on time you will have to eventually plus a penalty.
Other times this is more abstract. If you have an issue with someone, the longer it festers the worse it becomes. In the absence of direct communication, we have a tendency to extrapolate based on what little information we have.
“John was rude to me that one time” becomes “John must hate me because he was rude to me and didn’t address it” becomes “John is a toxic person.” Now you never want anything to do with John ever again, and this may be problematic.
For the individual person, avoiding conflict can have long term negative implications. In order to avoid conflict, one of the most common tools is that of deferring. Take even just the simple example of what you want to do for dinner: if someone asks you and you say something like “oh whatever you want is fine” and they decide on Chinese food.
You hate Chinese food, but you hate conflict more, so you go. However, while there you have a hard time enjoying the communal experience of eating. You might present as stand-offish and this can damage the relationship you have with the person you are eating with.
They probably would have been fine coming up with a different option, but now there is tension between you. Engaging in just this little bit of conflict probably would have been the healthier option.
Further, conflict can have positive results. Healthy conflict allows us to grow closer to those around us as we learn how they think, and what their thoughts, emotions, and motivations are. Conflict avoidance robs you of richness in relationships that can foster personal growth in both of you.
We don’t grow by staying inside of ourselves, we grow by taking in new information and seeing different points of view. In contrast, by avoiding conflict you learn to diminish yourself. Avoiding conflict time and time again constantly devalues your own opinions and then, it follows, your sense of self.
There is a fine line between humility and self-deprivation. I would postulate that humility is putting your self down a peg when you have a sense of self and love for self that preserves your self-esteem. Self-deprivation, on the other hand, comes from a place of not feeling “worthy” of having an opinion, and this is the mindset that conflict avoidance breeds.
How to engage
If conflict avoidance has been a theme in your life, it will definitely be a struggle for you to learn to adjust course and engage in healthy conflict. However, it can be done! Start small, standing up for what you want in the little things such as where you want to go for dinner, what movie you want to watch, etc. These may not feel small, but starting here allows you to face bigger things such as being walked over in relationships
When engaging, share your emotions as support for your wishes. Share why things are important to you. You may not get what you want every time, and that is ok! Having shared your emotions you will, though, have connected more greatly and the person you are conversing with will have a deeper understanding of where you are coming from.
Further, when communicating don’t attack the person but rather challenge the actions of that person. “I don’t appreciate that thing you did” is a lot easier to respond to and work with than “I don’t appreciate you.”
For most, this is a difficult process to start doing on your own. So many things have probably reinforced conflict avoidance in your life, so I encourage you to seek help as well. Counselors can work with you to create a plan to ease into conflict and role-play various conversations.
Engaging in conflict is hard, so having a safe practice space is critical. Reach out today and start taking back control over your sense of self and wellbeing!
“Pointing the Finger”, Courtesy of Craig Adderley, Pexels.com, CC0 License; “Sad”, Courtesy of Pixabay, Pexels.com, CC0 License; “Coffee Convo”, Courtesy of Christina Morillo, Pexels.com, CC0 License; “Sulking”, Courtesy of Pixabay, Pexels.com, CC0 License