Whether to approach or avoid conflict is not a question that everyone faces. Why? Because some of us seem to naturally fall into one of these two categories. Those who seem to wear their heart on their sleeve and those who are appear to just be even-keeled. Of course, there are millions of categories in between those two extremes but I thought it might be helpful to imagine where these two approaches to conflict might be coming from, just in case you know someone like this and are hoping to understand them better.
It wasn’t until recently that I realized that I tend to be a conflict approacher. I think I didn’t know this earlier because I actually really don’t enjoy conflict. What I’ve realized, is that, what I don’t like, more than conflict, is a feeling that something is unresolved or that I’ve somehow done something wrong and haven’t fixed it. Because of these two strong feelings, I tend to be the one writing the awkward e-mails and having the awkward conversations. Due to my other strong drive of wanting people to like me, I’ve worked hard over the years to improve my communication skills and to understand conflict resolution better. I know I have a long ways to go but I do find that people respond better to me these days than they used to.
In early adulthood, my desire to be liked, was stronger than my desire to be true to myself and my own values. Not that I didn’t have very strong values, but I tended to ignore when others crossed boundaries or acted disrespectfully towards me, thinking that maybe they were more right than I was and that my feelings of discomfort were irrelevant. Other times, I thought I just needed to forgive and move on. I also questioned my own values at times, thinking maybe others values were the right ones and mine were wrong. Any of these things could have been true. As a young adult, I was still developing my value system and my identity and have made changes over the years as I’ve discovered what fits me better.
Later, as I became clearer about who I was, I realized that in some cases, where I thought a conflict wasn’t important or didn’t bother me, I discovered that I had unresolved anger. More than I considered ladylike. This caused conflict within myself. I still wanted people to like me, but I couldn’t live with pretending things were okay, when they weren’t. I started speaking out about how I felt. This had mixed results. I probably carried more intensity than was relevant to various situations that I encountered, due to the baggage I was carrying from a lifetime of avoiding conflict, up until that point. I also lacked some skills in imagining the good intentions of others in various situations. Compounding this, was my own tendency towards perfectionism, which may have caused me to over analyze and overthink situations that may not have required as much processing as I was doing and as I was pulling others into.
For some who find themselves in conflict with others a lot, the desire to have everyone agree can be a misguided attempt at peace.
The believe that we cannot be in good relationships unless all agree, is an unfortunate one which causes great heartache within families and communities.
Sometimes, beneath this need for agreement is a feeling that one’s own values and beliefs are threatened by the mere existence of different ones. If my identity is in my particular value system, belief structure, or ideals, I might feel that the presence of different ones are an attack on me, personally. This underlying fear is the source of much conflict in the world and it is important to look deeply into oneself to consider what is motivating us when we are trying to convince others of our rightness or of their wrongness. It may be that someone else’s else beliefs are actually causing real harm, and need to be challenged, but knowing what motivates us and how to move past our fear or assumption of personal attack is more likely to move us towards actual peace, when we raise our concerns from a place of internal peace.
This is easier said than done. If you discover that your identity is threatened by those who disagree with you, there is a long journey involving deconstructing your ideas about right and wrong, and whether it’s possible to be motivated by the same good intentions or values and live them in very different ways from another person.
Here’s a few things to think about when considering confronting someone about a concern you have:
1. What might be underneath the surface of a disagreement?
Is this disagreement really about the type of ketchup your partner bought, knowing that that is not the kind you like? Is it really about “the tone” your co-worker used with you when they asked for help with that project last week? Is it really about the dirty socks your son left on the bathroom floor, again or is it about something else?
When considering what else it could be about, Consider, bigger relationship issue, overarching values, etc. but also consider whether you’ve had enough sleep, whether something else, unrelated to that person is bothering you, or whether it is just a bad day.
It may not be about any of those things, it may actually be just about the issue at hand, or it may be about a bunch of different things.
It helps to resolve a situation if you know what it is about, so that you can take responsibility to give responsibility where appropriate.
2. Also consider what is at stake in the interaction.
Is a relationship on the line or in some kind of jeopardy? Are there real consequences to something happening or not happening? Will ignoring the situation risk your own sense of self respect or values? These can help to guide you when considering what to bring up and how intensely to push for something.
3. For those who tend to avoid conflict, you may need to consider some of the same questions regarding what is at stake.
It can be easy to minimize these things if your main concern is that people appear to be happy with each other and with you, in particular. It can be easy to believe that nothing will ever change and that there is no point in even trying. This is particularly easy when you’ve lived a long time ignoring or avoiding nagging feelings of discomfort related to situations in your life, your relationships and/or your workplace. You might think, “I’ve come this far, why bring up the past?”
Here’s what’s at risk if you continue to avoid conflict:
- You risk living with shallow relationships.
You cannot be loved for who you are if no one knows who you are and what you care about.
- You risk not really knowing the people you care about.
If you never ask what motivates someone or find out why they think differently than you, you will be left to your own assumptions which may not lead to true understanding of others. For those you don’t know well, if you never move beyond the surface level of politeness you miss an opportunity to grow in your own understanding of the world and others in it and potentially, miss a new, meaningful relationship.
- You risk your own self respect if you don’t ever stand up for what you believe or ask others to respect you.
- You risk problems becoming destructive. A couple that never talks about money can find themselves in serious trouble, risking their home, their retirement savings, their children’s education, etc. Avoiding problems can causes bigger problems.
4. When deciding how to confront or talk to someone about something important, consider the venue.
Here’s a proposal of communication venues in order of least effective to most. Choose the more effective methods for more important isssues, or situations where the relationships is fragile.
- Text messaging – only for the most basic messages i.e. “can we talk tonight after the kids are in bed?”
- E-mail or letter writing (remember those?) – When you need to sort out your thoughts and might need to work on a few drafts before sending it this might be a good venue. Be sure to always read it through, and, even better, wait a day before sending the final copy. If you can end with an invitation to talk in person, even better. If there is a lack of trust in the relationships an e-mail can serve as a written reminder of what has already been said, however, it can also give the other person a message that you might not trust them and want the conversation in writing. You need to decide which concern outweighs the other.
- Phone call – A phone call lets the other person know that you want to hear them in this conversation and that it is urgent enough to take the time to talk about it.
- In person- The best way to talk. Consider context. Is it a coffee date, a meal, a walk, a meeting? Who else is around? Where will the other person feel most comfortable, where will you feel most comfortable?
5. Another consideration is power differences.
Are you a parent talking to your child or an employee talking to your boss. Depending on the relationship you may need to give more consideration to the person with less power and more to lose in the interaction.
6. A final consideration is always safety.
If there are safety concerns, considering bringing another person along if you are meeting in person, or not meeting in person at all. Consider your own wellbeing if the other person tends to be emotionally or psychologically abusive and does not respect your boundaries. Seek legal counsel when appropriate and call for help as needed. When there is fear due to past behaviour or power imbalances, this needs to be addressed and not ignored.
The skills to stand up for oneself, to confront others, or to do ones own work are necessary ones and worthwhile developing. The rewards are fantastic and I encourage you to risk something you haven’t before.
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