The two key reasons we avoid conflict

I’m sure that all of us have been in situations that had been irking us for ages. A neighbor whose children keep trampling your flowers. A coworker who keeps “forgetting” to cc you on emails you need to see. A mother-in-law whose backhanded compliments stopped being subtle years ago. A boss who texts you you at 9pm, despite starting every one with, “I know it’s late but…”

We each have our own thresholds and triggers that determine when we reach the point of saying something. But, in my experience, even the most accomplished and, frankly, badass women have a whole list of unaddressed frustrations. They range from the irksome to the downright infuriating.

When asked about why they let these challenges persist, the most predictable response, the one I’ve heard more times than I could count, is this: “Well, it’s because I’m just not a person who likes conflict.” 

It can seem like a reasonable reply, but that’s because it’s become the seemingly default answer. It’s often met with an understanding nod and a dropped conversation. Conflict successfully avoided. 

But when we have a strong aversion to conflict – or even potential conflict – there’s always a reason. It’s usually one or both of the following:  

  1. We fear our ability to tolerate conflict without experiencing strong emotions we aren’t comfortable feeling. 
  2. We haven’t gotten enough experience seeing conflict managed in a respectful and forward-moving way. 

Conflict that touches upon something meaningful to us is bound to elicit some emotion. Emotion in this case is simply a signal that we actually care about what we are talking about. Those feelings might feel frightening because they could be big or even seem out of proportion to the situation we are discussing. But the reason that we fear them is, usually, because we have been taught to fear them. If we hadn’t been told that actually feeling and expressing emotion equates to weakness, we wouldn’t avoid our own emotions so often. 

For some of us, conflict in our early years was associated with physical or emotional danger. In those cases, it makes sense that we work hard to avoid experiencing the discomfort that conflict brings up, even if we are now a safe and autonomous adult person. Getting comfortable with conflict in these situations does often involve healing some of those early wounds while simultaneously garnering new experiences where conflict is safe and healthy. 

One of misfortunes of our culture is that we don’t often experience or see good examples of conflict managed well. If we’re lucky, we’ve been able to see family members or organizational leaders truly embrace conflict as a means for moving issues and relationships forward. 

The author and leadership guru, Patrick Lencioni, differentiates between ideological conflict about ideas and perspectives and personal conflict which is when differences start to turn into attacks on character or personhood. We’ve all seen modeled far too much personal conflict in our culture and far too little true ideological conflict. 

If you are someone who finds themselves consistently frustrated or resentful, consider how your avoidance of conflict might be at play. Consider too where it might originate and what aspects of conflict create the most aversiveness in you. Far from something to be avoided, conflict is actually a skill to be embraced and learned.

Dr. Ashley Solomon is the founder of Galia Collaborative, an organization dedicated to helping women heal, thrive, and lead. She works with individuals, teams, and companies to empower women with modern mental healthcare and the tools they need to amplify their impact in a messy world.

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