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.

Building Trust at Work with Appropriate Self-Disclosure

You don’t want to be known for TMI, but you also don’t want people to think of you as a tough cookie!

Have you ever felt uncomfortable when a co-worker over-shared about his personal life at work? Or have you worked with a tough cookie–a person who is hard to get to know because she refuses to open up or tell you anything about herself? Knowing when to self-disclose is an important skill because it builds strong communication and relationships at work

To build competency in self-disclosure, you need to:

  1. Understand the different sides of self-disclosure, and
  2. Identify when self-disclosure is appropriate (and when it isn’t).

Different Sides of Self-Disclosure

People who are skilled at self-disclosure are able to communicate openly and authentically in appropriate ways. They do not conceal or distort inner feelings, thoughts, or perceptions. They tend to be influential at work, because the right amount of self-disclosure benefits personal relationships. They build trust and engender cooperation.

Over-Sharing Looks Like This

People who lack self-disclosure skills tend to share too much or share too quickly, or both–to the point of making people feel uncomfortable. Here are the behaviors to avoid:

  • Telling your boss your insecurities disclosureat the moment you are feeling ignored or rejected by her; when you are feeling anxious, it’s not a good time to share.
  • Sharing unnecessary details about your finances.
  • Blabbing about information that isn’t yours to blab about, such as your partner’s or your children’s idiosyncrasies.
  • Personal information that involves private body parts, a.k.a. “locker room talk,” such as the unique places you are pierced or tattooed. No one at work needs to know this stuff. No exceptions.

Excessive self-disclosure can harm your relationships and your reputation. You can hurt the feelings or reputations of others. You can make people feel uncomfortable, possibly to the point of them reporting you for sexual harassment.

Under-Sharing Looks Like This

People who don’t disclose at all, on the other hand, keep to themselves all of the time. They like to keep work and personal relationships separate to the point where they are unable to foster good working relationships. In fact, they don’t get to know and build trust with others at all.

When to Self-Disclose

People on both ends of the self-disclosure spectrum are frustrated by the lack of positive results based on what, to them, seems like appropriate behavior. The good news–you can build self-disclosure competencies, and everyone benefits when you do!

The best way to build skills is to practice. We gave you some examples about WHAT not to disclose at work. Given the fact that you do want to build trust and cooperation at work, there are times when it’s appropriate to share information about yourself. But you also have to determine WHEN it is okay to disclose. Here is a list of tips:

  • Make sure it is reciprocal. If you are disclosing personal information at a rate and level that the other person is not mirroring, slow down. You are likely making that person uncomfortable.
  • Increase the amount of information you disclose in relatively small increments over time, as you get to know the other person and the relationship develops. Don’t rush in and unburden yourself to people you barely know. Use a professional counselor or therapist for that. Don’t expect your co-workers to oblige your need to bare your soul.
  • Be aware of your timing. Don’t share at inopportune or insensitive times, such as when the other person is busy with work or preoccupied with their own personal issues.
  • Make sure the risk you are taking by disclosing is reasonable. If someone repeats what you say, and it could cost you your job or reputation, find another, safer outlet.

For more information on how building competencies in appropriate self-disclosure can benefit you as a veterinary professional, invite Shawn McVey to speak to your team. The presentation is called “Bring Your Whole Self to Work: Lessons from the Johari Window,” and you can find a description of it and Shawn’s other presentations in his catalog here.

Three Strikes and You’re Out!

It’s disappointing when an employee doesn’t meet your expectations. You may be frustrated, but it’s important to assume goodwill on the part of the poor performer. No one gets up in the morning and plans to disappoint you. No one wants to fail at his or her job.

But not everyone is going to be a good fit for your company. That’s a fact. If one of your team members just doesn’t get it, doesn’t want the job, or doesn’t have the capacity to do it, don’t let the drama drag on.

How do you know when you’ve given enough chances? How do you know when it’s time to let the person go?

The Analysis

Here’s a fair process for confronting performance problems and getting the wrong people off the bus:

1. Does the person adhere to your organization’s core values?

Really, the ideal team member exhibits behavior that supports ALL of the organization’s core values most or all of the time. But when you need to draw the line, where do you draw it?

First, you have your “non-negotiable” values, like honesty. If the person doesn’t adhere to those non-negotiable values, s/he needs to go. There’s just not a lot of room for discussion here.

If the employee meets all of your non-negotiable core values but is iffy on two or more of the others (like “reliability” or “service first”), it’s time to let that person go.

2. Does the person pass the GWC test?

The GWC test (Gets it, Wants it, has the Capacity) is the second phase of the analysis.

  • Does the person “get it,” meaning does s/he understand her role, the team’s values, and the applicable systems and expectations?
  • Does the employee want it, meaning does s/he really want that particular job?
  • Does the employee have the capacity (time, intellect, skill, knowledge, emotional intelligence, and physical ability) to do the job?

If the answer to any of the questions is “no,” ask yourself if the person is the right fit but in the wrong seat. Can you make room for the employee somewhere else in your organization? If not, it’s time for that person to go.

The Three Strike Rule

Assuming it’s a situation where you can’t move the person to another seat and want to give her a chance to improve, use the three-strike rule as outlined by Gino Wickman in Traction. First, tell the employee that there’s a problem and give her 30 days to improve. That’s Strike 1. Here’s what could happen:

  • The person totally turns things around, improves performance, and shows that s/he is actually a good fit. It’s a win-win for all involved.
  • The person leaves your practice. That’s OK. It wasn’t a fit, and you can all move on.
  • Performance does not improve in 30 days. That’s Strike 2. You discuss it again and give her another 30 days. No improvement. That’s Strike 3. The employee is not going to change, and you have to let the person go.

Remember, just because a particular employee is not a good fit for your company culture, or for the role you need to fill, does not mean she won’t be a good fit someplace else. She is probably tired of disappointing you. It is in the best interest of your company, your team, and the under-performer to let her go.


What Would Shawn Do? Dealing with an Employee Who Makes a Bad First Impression


We hired a young woman, Chelsea, for the receptionist position about six months ago. She has a great work ethic, always shows up on time, and is an above-average performer.

We have a very busy front desk with a high call volume. This receptionist answers the phone promptly and directs the calls appropriately, but her tone makes it seem like she’s either bored or annoyed. She’s very brusque and flat. It seems rather offputting to the caller. What should I do?


Your receptionist needs some coaching. The conversation should go something like:

“Chelsea, you’re doing a great job handling our front desk, and I really appreciate your hard work! I would like to mention that your tone of voice when answering the phone doesn’t seem very welcoming. I wonder if you could try to lighten your tone and make it seem like answering the call is the most important thing you could be doing at that moment.”

Try telling her to smile before picking up the phone. It’s really hard to sound like a grump when you’re smiling.

Good luck!

How to NOT Play Fair: Destructive Responses to Conflict

In previous posts I talked about constructive ways to respond to conflict at work. Of course, there are destructive ways to handle conflict as well, but I wanted to focus on what TO do first, rather than what NOT to do.

When faced with conflict, here’s what NOT to do: yell, throw stuff, use a sarcastic tone, hide your emotions, or run away. Destructive conflict tactics may be the only ones you’ve learned, but they break down relationships instead of building them up. It’s important to recognize destructive conflict tactics and avoid them at all costs.

 Active Destructive Responses

Just like your constructive responses to conflict are classified as active or passive, destructive responses can be active or passive as well. Active destructive responses to conflict, which are often described as “fight,” include:

  • Winning at all costs
  • Aggressively displaying anger
  • Demeaning others
  • Retaliating

If you engage in these dysfunctional behaviors, you are effectively showing your team that you are not a team player. Active destructive responses prolong and escalate the conflict. You also alienate other people, cause resentment, and erode trust.

Winning at all costs is defined as:

  • Holding on tenaciously to your ideas and suggestions
  • Blaming others or making excuses for your poor behavior
  • Rationalizing your ideas or behavior, even when you know better

Example of what NOT to say: “This is your problem. If you don’t like the way I’m acting, I suggest you stop annoying me by constantly complaining about every little thing!”

Aggressively displaying anger looks like this:

  • Raising your voice
  • Using harsh words
  • Lashing out with hostile outbursts or throwing a tantrum

Example of what NOT to say: “You are the most irresponsible person I know. I should have learned by now, if I want something done right I have to do it myself.”

Demeaning others means:

  • Being sarcastic
  • Rolling your eyes
  • Speaking in a contemptuous, sneering manner

Example of what NOT to say: “I know this will be difficult for you, but could you think of someone besides yourself for a change?”

Retaliating behaviors are:

  • Giving the other person a taste of their own medicine
  • Sabotaging
  • Lying; pretending things are fine so you can set your trap
  • One-upping the other person
  • Using your power to create consequences unrelated to the crime

Example of what NOT to say: “How did that feel? I bet you didn’t like it, did you? Well, neither did I, when you did it to me.”

Passive Destructive Responses

Passive destructive responses to conflict, which are often called “flight,” include:

  • Avoiding
  • Yielding
  • Hiding emotions
  • Self-criticizing

People who withdraw in response to conflict often make the mistake of thinking they aren’t guilty of acting aggressive because they don’t display “fight” behaviors. Sorry, you’re not off the hook. Passive destructive responses–which are more commonly exhibited by introverts–are just as damaging to your work relationships.

Avoiding is defined as:

  • Changing the subject or dodging questions
  • Refusing to make eye contact
  • Going out of your way to avoid interactions

Example of what NOT to do: I’ll pretend to be really busy so she won’t come in and ask me about the pay increase again.

Yielding looks like:

  • Compromising your values
  • Not voicing disagreement
  • Letting others take credit for your work

Example of what NOT to say: “I don’t care. Whatever you want is fine with me.”

Hiding emotions means:

  • Being vague, cryptic, or unclear in your communication
  • Using words to state pleasant emotions while acting out unpleasant emotions with your body language
  • Not acknowledging your feelings, even to yourself

Example of what NOT to say: “I am fine,” or “Everything is fine.”

Self-criticizing behaviors are:

  • Over-analyzing your own actions
  • Beating yourself up
  • Revisiting past conflicts too frequently

Example of what NOT to say: “I just can’t ever do anything right.” 

Practice, Practice, Practice

Not only do you need to avoid the bad behaviors, you have to learn and practice the good ones. In past issues of my newsletter, I provided tips for responding positively to conflict. Changing your conflict-response habits takes time, but with some practice, you will get better at engaging in conflict productively. When you do, you will be more in control of both yourself and the outcomes of your interactions with others.

You can’t change anyone else, but you can influence other people’s behavior by taking the high road and responding to conflict constructively and skillfully.