How to overcome conflict avoidance

“Peace of mind is not the absence of conflict from life, but the ability to cope with it.”


We always come across occasional conflicts in our day-to-day endeavours, be it in workplaces while managing others, leading a team or in personal relationships. Certain conflicts or issues get tougher to resolve because we lack awareness in how we each approach such issues. In most of the conflict situations, people are motivated to disagree because of their need to be right and to win with very little intention to learn from or resolve the situation. You cannot look for a common ground with a person that believes something opposite of you and it may be more difficult to find shared values and agreement. Such disputes and conflicts often are an inevitable part of our personal and professional life –when not managed well, they can quickly sap your morale and impact your productivity.

Since conflicts are a natural part of the workplace, business or personal relationships, it is important that you should be able to manage and handle them sensibly, fairly, and efficiently. And once you’ve gotten in to a conflict, understanding where the other person may be coming from and how you both approach the situation can help you a great deal to engage in a better dialogue to resolve the conflict.

How do you respond to conflict?

When you get into a disagreement or a conflicting situation with someone, do you get ready to engage in speaking your mind out or do you choose to silently withdraw? According Amy Gallo, author of HBR guide to dealing with conflict, most of us have a default tendency to which we should pay attention to when dealing with conflict. Some people avoid conflicts or disagreements at all costs while some are eager to seek it out. And there will be some instances where you feel like you are both. Sometimes you might make a conscious choice to be a seeker or an avoider. For instance, when dealing with an avoider, you might be slightly become more of a seeker in order to get through the argument. And sometimes its more of a default choice while dealing with someone you have known for long or familiar with based on your experience with the person rather than a conscious choice. The way we respond is also influenced by

• Different perceptions of people involved in the conflict. Because each one might have a different perspective on the matter, from basic facts, to the probable outcomes, interests and risks. Also, each side perceives the element of fairness differently.

• Cognitive biases. For instance, desire to be always wanting to be right, estimates and unrealistic expectations about what can be achieved, overconfidence in each person’s arguments, assumptions, overgeneralisation, all of this can make resolving a conflict quite difficult.

• Emotions in play like anger, frustration, envy or guilt of your own as well as those of others.

• Strategic barriers like win-lose, where one side wants to gain at the other’s expense instead of a win-win process where there is a mutual benefit.

Understanding your approach to conflict can enhance your conflict management.

What it means to be conflict avoidant?

Being conflict avoidant means being afraid of possible disagreements and negative consequences. You prefer to let things go that are conflict causing or be seen as the ‘nice person’ at work and may shy away from open, healthy conflict so as not to rock the boat. People who respond to conflict this way often are willing to sacrifice directness to ensure relationships stay intact. Asserting your opinion can seem scary and unnerving. You choose not to engage in difficult conversations and sacrifice directness and honesty to please others. Avoiders due to their people pleasing habit, may not be able to express their emotions authentically because of which they may not get their needs met and may say ‘yes’ to things they should say ‘no’ to.

What it means to be a conflict seeker?

Conflict seekers on the other hand, value directness over harmony and relationships and are willing to tell you exactly what they think. They can navigate through certain difficult situations that some people normally would shy away from. They are eager to jump into a conflict or ready to engage in difficult conversations. Being a seeker, you may sometimes get fixated on your version of truth and may come across as a bully and end up saying things that you don’t really mean in order to win an argument. Seeking a disagreement to stand your ground to ensure that you win the argument does not only result in escalating the situation but also results in achieving your goals at the expense of someone else’s.

Why they are not helpful

Being avoidant or to seek it out, either way, you will lack confidence in managing the situation in an assertive and constructive manner. When you avoid, you are compromising your true feelings and storing up frustration that can end up negatively. Bottling up your emotions instead of acknowledging distressing emotions can lead to feelings of depression and loneliness. Avoiding manifests in your relationships like going silent for the fear of disappointing others or enduring uncomfortable situations instead of expressing yourself openly. This tendency typically arises growing up in an environment that is often dismissive or hypercritical. Avoidance further manifests into stonewalling or denying an issue exists by ignoring it, deliberately sidestepping conversations or silently resenting unresolved issues. This makes you either sabotage your interests or give into other person’s interests at the expense of your own.

Seeking too can create same problems in personal and work relationships as conflict avoidance. To jump into conflict at slightest disagreement can make you overly pushy and aggressive. In a professional set up seekers often seem eager to engage in disagreements and that they tend to lose their patience when others aren’t being equally direct and don’t mind disrupting team dynamics. The discussion can soon turn contentious and can lead to strained communications with your coworkers, where teamwork diminishes and lowers productivity. When it comes to personal relationships, it can lead to violating personal boundaries and decreases mutual respect as they sometimes tend to disregard others’ perspectives or point of view.

How to overcome conflict avoidance

When you are in a conflict, By being aware of your own tendencies and of the others involved, you can improve your ability to manage disagreements with people who might get in your way by their higher level of assertiveness in your personal or professional relationships. At the same time, awareness of who you are helps you make good choices in the moment of conflict and strategic conscious choice of how to respond. Because managing a conflict with a seeker is different than managing a conflict with an other avoider.

Here are some strategies to overcome conflict avoidance and resolve disagreements or conflicts effectively

Identify whom you are in conflict with.

It is important to accurately read what the other person’s tendency is when you are into a conflict by interpreting his or her nonverbal communication through active listening. Observe how other person involved reacts and communicates. Is he or she is more direct who tells it like it is? If you are having the conflict with familiar person, you might be already aware of who they tend to be.

But if you are engaged in a conflict with a person whom you are not familiar with, you need to pay attention to their nonverbal cues like do they tend to lean away from the conversation physically or emotionally when things really get heated up? Or lean in and tend to get aggressive to show that they are ready to engage.

Ask yourself, Are they being rational and honest in their arguments? Does the situation really needs to be resolved? What’s their reaction when others are disagreeing? What is their goal? Do they want everything in detail or to stick to the facts? How do they communicate? to have a good sense of their approach to the conflict so that you can make an informed choice about how to handle the disagreements.

Engage in conversation

Communicate about what matters most with whoever it is that you are having a conflict with rather than avoidance. Leaving conflicts unresolved leads to pent up frustration. Be aware of your own feelings and needs and communicate them clearly. Disagreeing with someone doesn’t necessarily mean fighting. Keep in mind that it’s not about blaming the other person or proving who is right or wrong in a given situation. Conflict resolution is all about standing up for yourself and communicating when you feel angry or frustrated.

It is about ensuring the problem issues are dealt with so they don’t happen in future. Have concise points written down to get across to the other so you feel confident when addressing them. Clearly define what you would like to resolve rather than endlessly ruminating over them. Take an assertive approach by using fact based sentences. Avoid being defensive or accusatory.

If you are afraid of your relationship getting damaged, you can bring your focus back on to what is that you both are really disagreeing and this way you can separate the relationship from disagreement.

Rethink on your goals by asking yourself, What is it that we are actually disagreeing on? Are there other ways to look at the situation? What way I am contributing to the problem? Is the goal here is to find a solution? Am I communicating openly enough so that my problem areas are dealt with? What specifically do I want to achieve beyond my default preference?

If you are dealing with a seeker, you might be tempted to go along with what your counterpart says because of your default tendency. You have to make a conscious effort to step out of your comfort zone and must be ready to go against any sort of aggression, bullying or directness that comes your way. Try to validate what they value so that they too feel understood and that you both are on the same page.

It is important to know the common ground. Is your disagreement is because of your values? Are you in disagreement about the actions? Are you even in agreement with the facts available? Pay attention to feelings being expressed and be aware and respect differences and their view points. If you cannot come to an agreement, you can always agree to disagree.

Asking yourself, Am I keeping away from the conflict because I am afraid of the conflict or I am making this choice because its best in the situation? helps you to make a conscious choice as to whether it’s really the best thing to let it go or seek it out. Does avoiding this conflict help me in achieving my goals? Is the true goal here for me is to be liked or is it to achieve the best outcome? What’s the best way to get out of my comfort zone to engage in the conversation? Focus on what you need from the situation to have more productive conversations even if that makes you uncomfortable.

Space for self-reflection

Do you fear conflict or seek it out?

Does the word conflict make you feel uncomfortable?

Would you do anything to shut down or change a conversation if there was a disagreement?

How do you respond to conflict?

What is your default approach ?

What is your tendency in most conflict situations – Do you always try to defend your view point to prove yourself right? Or do you give into other’s point of view and let the other have his or her way just to avoid a conflict?

When might it make sense to avoid conflict as opposed to addressing it?

*Reflect on the above to gain awareness of your tendency to withdraw in tense or conflict situations and work towards overcoming it.*

To conclude,

Some or the other form of conflict is normal part of our lives. In any disagreement or a conflict, people are going to get more defensive and become more of who they are. If you are in conflict with a seeker, he or she is going to seek further and if they are an avoidant, they are going to shy away from it. So, it is better to focus on the content of what they are saying rather than their tone or approach they are using.

Some of our default style is also due to our past experiences with the conflicts or due to our workplace culture. And while each of us generally has a preferred approach, instead of being avoidant or to seek out all the time, it is important to adjust your style based on the context and with whom you are having the conflict.

If you are conflict avoider, while it’s okay to never be completely comfortable with confrontation, but you can always take small steps towards stepping up to a conversation or engaging yourself in difficult conversations and work toward feeling more comfortable in overcoming your avoidance tendency.

If conflicts are approached with a conflict resolution mindset, they often lead to positive changes and can ultimately resolve the conflict by finding a common ground.

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