For many people, addressing conflict is intimidating and overwhelming, which leads to conflict avoidance. But avoiding conflict often leads to increased challenges in the future. So what can be done?
Many people avoid conflict at all costs. In fact, research suggests that 89% of people who experience workplace conflict will allow it to escalate rather than work to intentionally resolve it.
Even when we know conflict needs to be addressed, we find reasons to hold back. Sometimes we avoid conflict because it makes us feel uncomfortable. Other times, we simply don't know how to begin a conflict conversation or we fear how a confrontation might end.
While avoiding conflict can initially insulate us from these uncomfortable feelings, avoidance almost always leads to bigger, more complex issues in the future.
So what causes us to stay silent in the face of conflict?
First, many of us are afraid to voice our opinions. We worry that others won’t agree with us or that we’ll be judged for sharing our thoughts. If you're the compassionate type, you may even feel bad about potentially hurting someone else's feelings. These fears can inhibit honest communication and stop us from engaging with difficult topics.
Additionally, we may also lack confidence in our ability to handle conflict. We may believe an issue is too complex or too sensitive for us to manage, so we stall. If you struggle with self-confidence, you may fear that your views will be dismissed. These thoughts prevent us from weighing in on important conversations as well.
There are some strategies that can help you overcome these internal objections and become more courageous when leaning into conflict, however.
First, remember that conflict is neutral. It isn't good or bad. Instead, conflict is a reflection of the people engaged in it. So, if you are utilizing healthy conflict practices, you are more likely to experience a healthy form of conflict. Likewise, if you utilize unhealthy conflict practices, you will almost definitely experience an unhealthy form of conflict.
The point is that you have more power over how you engage with conflict than you might realize, and much of the negative or positive aspects of conflict reside purely in our minds.
Second, recognize that you don’t need to have all of the answers right away. A big mistake people make when it comes to resolving conflict is attempting to rush the process. It’s OK to take your time, to ask detailed questions, and think things through before speaking up.
Finally, give yourself some grace. Practice self-compassion and try not to be too hard on yourself if difficult conversations don’t go as planned. It takes time and effort to learn how to navigate these kinds of situations well, but it is possible.
As the analogy goes, conflict is like a muscle. The more you exercise it, the stronger you will become at it. So, get out there and flex!
Ryan Dunlap is a conflict strategist and the founder of Conflictish, a conflict strategy consultancy that specializes in workplace conflict and sexual misconduct. From tarnished rapport to squeamish conversations, Conflictish is on a mission to help leaders get their 'ish together.