When we ask people how they generally deal with conflict, they almost always that they tend to avoid it. This is not surprising because most people describe conflict in negative terms, and we try to stay away from things that we do not like. At the same time when they are asked whether avoidance strategies work, the same people say that they generally do not. So what to do?
A first step is to understand why we avoid. As was mentioned our attitudes towards conflict are often negative. When we ask people why, they respond in a number of ways. Sometimes they say that conflict is emotionally distressing. Others indicate that they are concerned about hurting others and disturbing their relationship with the other person. Some mention that they lack good ways of managing conflict.
When people are concerned about the emotional aspects of conflict, we encourage them to reflect further on it. What aspects of conflict upset them? We sometimes have them take the Conflict Dynamics Profile instrument to uncover their conflict hot buttons and the values that underlie them. Some people get angry when challenged but for people who avoid conflict they generally do so because they are afraid.
When fear causes avoidance, we recommend Tim Ursiny’s book, The Coward’s Guide to Conflict: Empowering Solutions for Those Who Would Rather Run Than Fight. In it Tim provides some excellent approaches to overcoming fears (often irrational) that can arise in conflicts. Another helpful guide to overcoming the tendency to avoid conflict is Managing Conflict Dynamics: A Practical Guide available from the Center for Conflict Dynamics.
It is understandable that people sometimes avoid conflict because they do not want to hurt others or cause relationship problems. In the short term they may feel relieved because they do not have to face the other person. When we ask them if this actually solves their problem, they almost always admit that it does not. Tensions simmer and eventually the problem comes back – often with a vengeance.
So it a person wants to change their approach and stop avoiding conflict, what can they do? How can you engage effectively with the other person? We recommend behaviors described in the Conflict Dynamics Profile as active constructive responses. These include Reaching Out, Perspective Taking, Expressing Emotions, and Creating Solutions.
Reaching Out provides a way of getting communications restarted. It is particularly helpful after avoidance has caused interaction to slow down. A person can reach out by asking the other person it they would be willing to try to work through the issue. At times it might involve an apology.
Perspective Taking focuses on trying to understand the other person’s viewpoint on the conflict. It involves listening carefully and trying to truly understand the other person’s thoughts and feelings.
Expressing Emotions includes sharing your thoughts and feelings about the conflict with the other person. It is an authentic expression of how you view the conflict and involves open, honest discussion of how you see the conflict.
Creating Solutions concerns working together with the other person to discover collaborative solutions to your joint problem. It helps turn adversarial exchanges into mutual problem solving.
These behaviors help improve engagement. They also involve risk and can be scary. You might reach out to another person only to be reject. You might not like hearing what the other person has to say about you. It can be intimating to share your true thoughts and feelings about a conflict. At the same time, not doing anything – avoiding the conflict – usually causes it to get worse. If you can use constructive behaviors to engage the other person, you are more likely to come up with better solutions.
There are times though when avoiding still makes sense. When there are threats of violence associated with the conflict, it may be better to let things cool down or to get outside help before engaging in discussions. Fortunately, these situations are the exception. Effective engagement will generally lead to better outcomes.