Conflict Avoidance: It Doesn’t Make the Problem Go Away

People who withdraw in response to conflict think they’re better than the yellers, because they feel they’re not as “aggressive.” As I said in this blog post, that’s blatantly untrue! Responding passively–which is the go-to for many introverts–is just as damaging to your work relationships as being sarcastic or throwing something across the room.

Businesswoman arguing with a colleague

What Is Conflict Avoidance?

First, let’s define conflict avoidance: It’s a method of dealing with conflict—a conscious choice—to not directly address the problem at hand. The “problem” is any situation in which people have apparently incompatible interests, goals, principles, or feelings.
 
(Note the emphasis on apparent, meaning there might not actually be incompatibility. You’re assuming there is conflict and acting accordingly. Maybe you should check it out with the other person first?)

Why Do You Avoid Conflict?

People avoid conflict for a number of different reasons, and sometimes many reasons at once. Perhaps you avoid conflict because you want to be liked and accepted, and you think ignoring the conflict, or hiding your true feelings, is the way to achieve that goal. Or maybe you want things to be peaceful, quiet, and stable. So you pretend there is no problem.
 
You may be terrified of conflict. If you were raised in a violent or abusive environment or have suffered other trauma, conflict can seem intolerable. You feel paralyzed, numb, or overwhelmed by fear or anxiety when conflict arises.
You may be a thinker and need time to process. It’s fine to take some time and not respond right away, especially if you’re triggered or angry. But it’s not okay as a permanent solution.
 
All of your feelings are legitimate, and you need to be aware of and acknowledge them to yourself. Then, you have to buck up and learn how to deal with conflict anyway. Why? Because when you avoid, you’re actually making it worse for yourself in the end!

The Consequences of Conflict Avoidance

When you engage in the behaviors of avoiding, yielding, hiding your emotions, and self-criticizing, you’re doing nothing to solve the problem at hand. Looking the other way, or blaming yourself, instead of directly addressing the problem, leaves the conflict sitting in the middle of the room, like the proverbial elephant. Let’s list the consequences:

  1. Good people walk out the door. They’re tired of you ignoring problems, and they can’t take it anymore! You’ve created a dysfunctional environment that they can’t tolerate, so they leave.
  2. Your boss, teammates, or subordinates mistake your avoidance for acquiescence. You don’t say anything, which, in their minds, is the equivalent of, “Okay, let’s move forward!” when you’re really not on board at all.
  3. Because you refuse to state your real thoughts and feelings, people make them up on your behalf. They often misinterpret your intentions completely. This doesn’t feel good for you or them, and it makes the situation more tense.
  4. People who want to solve the conflict will pursue you even more. This pattern of avoid-pursue-avoid-pursue leaves everyone exhausted, confused, and even frightened. (“She won’t talk to me. Am I going to get fired?”)

What to Do Instead

Here are some suggestions for how to start replacing your destructive, passive responses with more constructive ones.

If you avoid conflict:

Unhelpful Behavior
Changing the subject
Better Choice
Acknowledge what the other person is saying by repeating it back to her. “So what I hear you saying is…”
 
Unhelpful Behavior
Refusing to make eye contact
Better Choice
Look directly in the person’s eyes when you pass each other, when you speak, and when he speaks to you.
 
Unhelpful Behavior
Going out of your way to avoid interaction
Better Choice
Keep your office door open. Go through your normal routine. Make an appointment to meet.
 
Unhelpful Behavior
Walking away
Better Choice
Feel the fear and take action anyway. Say, “I’d like to give that the attention it deserves. Could we meet tomorrow at 10:00 to discuss it?”

If you tend to yield during conflict:

Unhelpful Behavior
Compromising your values
Better Choice
Stand up for yourself by using “I” statements. “I’m not comfortable with that course of action. Could we discuss alternatives?”
 
Unhelpful Behavior
Not voicing disagreement
Better Choice
Prepare for difficult conversations by planning how you can state your needs and wants. Use words like, “I’m not sure that’s the right direction. Can I take a moment to explain?”
 
Unhelpful Behavior
Letting others take credit for your work
Better Choice
Take credit for your own work. “I worked late last night to have those charts ready for this morning.”
 
Unhelpful Behavior
Responding with neutral words like, “I don’t care. Whatever you want is fine with me.”
Better Choice
State a preference. “What I’d prefer is…” or “The direction I’d like to go is…”

If you hide your emotions during conflict:

Unhelpful Behavior
Being vague, cryptic, or unclear in your communication; using one-word or short answers like, “Fine,” or “I don’t know.”
Better Choice
Force yourself to say what you’re thinking and feeling. Ask the person to repeat what he thinks you said until you are both on the same page.
 
Unhelpful Behavior
Stating pleasant emotions with your words while acting out unpleasant emotions with your body language
Better Choice
Match your words to your body language. If you’re rolling your eyes, no one believes it when you say, “That’s a great idea.”
 
Unhelpful Behavior
Not acknowledging your true feelings, even to yourself
Better Choice
Check in with yourself. What are the sensations in your body? Which feelings do they indicate? If you’re not sure, ask for some time to process and set a time to meet.

If you tend to self-criticize after conflict:

Unhelpful Behavior
Overanalyzing your own actions
Better Choice
Seek feedback from trusted co-workers and friends. Compare your self-appraisal with their opinions.
 
Unhelpful Behavior
Beating yourself up; saying things like, “I just can’t ever do anything right.”
Better Choice
Don’t associate your self-image with the conflict. Stop taking it personally. Say, ”I’m a work in progress, and that’s enough for today.”
 
Unhelpful Behavior
Revisiting past conflicts too frequently
Better Choice
Tell yourself that you can’t resolve any conflict “perfectly.” The past is over. Let it go.
 
For all conflict-avoiders: Practice explaining your emotional state in an informative and professional way that casts no blame. Remind yourself that how you feel is important to the conflict-resolution process. For more information on constructive responses to conflict, read my blog posts here and here.

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