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.

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.

How to be Constructive During Conflict, Part 2

In Part 1, we talked about how to stay constructive during conflict by using active responses, like reaching out, taking the other person’s perspective, expressing your emotions, and working together to create solutions.

But what to do when you don’t feel comfortable with the active constructive conflict responses? Maybe you’re more the quiet type. Maybe you’re an extrovert, but you tend to withdraw when someone pushes your buttons. Let’s acknowledge it: Some people need more time and space to think through and process conflict than others. If this sounds like you, try the passive constructive approaches. There’s no need to take on every conflict head on!

swimming pool
Passive constructive responses include reflective thinking, delaying responding, and adapting. Here are some tips for each of these types of responses:

Reflective Thinking

  • Analyze the situation.
  • Notice your own reactions and the reactions of others.
  • Be aware of the impact of the conflict on yourself and all other parties involved.
  • Avoid hasty and unplanned responses.
  • Think about the best response before proceeding.

How does Shawn recommend incorporating reflective thinking into your response?

Ask the other parties for a half-hour break while you think things through.

Break down the conflict into smaller and more manageable pieces.

Delaying Responding

  • Wait things out to let matters settle down.
  • Take a time out when emotions are running high.
  • Cool down to regain emotional balance.
  • Slow down-with your speech and movements-or walk away.
  • Be accountable and committed to come back and engage with the conflict.

How does Shawn recommend incorporating delaying responding into your response?

Say, “I’m feeling triggered and need a few minutes to regain my composure.”

Say, “Let’s slow things down a bit. I’d like to walk through all of those facts again.”

Adapting

  • Be flexible and try to make the best of the situation.
  • Keep an optimistic mindset.
  • View conflict as an inevitable part of the workplace (and life in general).
  • Be willing to entertain a wide variety of alternatives for resolution.
  • Become aware of changes or opportunities that signal the potential for problem-solving.

How does Shawn recommend incorporating adapting behaviors into your response?

Think thoughts that lead you toward adapting and accepting, like:

“I will be positive and expect things to turn out well.”

“I am willing to compromise.”

As a business leader, whether you prefer an active or passive conflict style, you must respect the diversity of your team. Some people may prefer different strategies for dealing with conflict than you do.

The important thing is for everyone in your practice to take responsibility for dealing with conflict, rather than avoiding it. You want a culture where people are willing to bring conflict out into the open and move forward. Otherwise, conflict destroys trust and relationships.

So, keep holding people accountable for dealing with conflict and teach your team about passive constructive responses as well as the active constructive ones. Encourage people to use the strategies that work best for them.

Remember, conflict competence is a choice, and you DO have the power to change!

How to Be Constructive During Conflict, Part 1

 

Get used to it. Conflict is inevitable at work (and at home), but it doesn’t have to be destructive. Here are the three main concepts to keep in mind as you fight the battle to conquer conflict:

  1. Focus on ideas versus personalities.
  2. Choose constructive responses.
  3. Avoid destructive conflict tactics.

Focusing on Ideas vs. Personalities

You’ll know you’re focusing on personalities during a conflict if you find yourself blaming the other person. You assign negative motives to him or her. And you believe there is something inherently “wrong” with the other person.

When you think of the other person as the problem, you view the conflict as his or her problem rather than a mutual problem you need to work together to solve.

But when you focus on ideas or interests, rather than personalities, you work together as a team. You take responsibility for finding a solution, and you work together with the other person to problem-solve. By focusing on your mutual interests, you turn the conflict into an opportunity to improve your relationship.

Choosing Constructive Responses

Destructive conflict tactics may be the only ones you’ve learned, but they break down relationships instead of building them up. We’ll talk more about what those look like in a future issue of our newsletter.

Constructive responses to conflict can be either active or passive. Active constructive responses to conflict include: reaching out, perspective-taking, expressing emotions, and creating solutions. Here are some tips for each type of response:

Reaching out

  • Make the first move to break a stalemate or make amends.
  • Overtly invite the other person to address the conflict.
  • Set your intentions to address any emotional damage.
  • Offer to take responsibility, and apologize.
  • Express interest in resolving the issue.

What would Shawn say to reach out?

I would very much appreciate an opportunity to discuss this with you again. I’m sure we can reach common ground.

Perspective-taking

  • Put yourself in the other person’s shoes.
  • Try to understand the other person’s point of view.
  • Listen for understanding.
  • Check for understanding and satisfaction.
  • Demonstrate empathy.

What would Shawn say to gain perspective?

It sounds like you are frustrated by the way I responded. Is that right?

Expressing emotions

  • Talk honestly.
  • Express your thoughts and feelings openly.
  • Become aware.
  • Be transparent.
  • Own your feelings.

What would Shawn say to express emotions?

I have to tell you, I am feeling uncomfortable about having this conversation, but it’s important to me.

Creating solutions

  • Brainstorm with the other person.
  • Ask questions.
  • Explore multiple possibilities and ideas.
  • Analyze and discuss the viability of all the possible solutions.
  • Seek agreement on which solutions to try.

What would Shawn say to encourage creating solutions?

I welcome all of your ideas.

We also have recommendations for passive constructive responses to conflict, which may feel more comfortable for those of you with introverted tendencies. Constructive passive responses include reflective thinking, delaying responding, and adapting. We’ll address those in the next issue of our newsletter.

Becoming Conflict Competent

It is true that emotions can run high during a conflict. No matter how someone else behaves, though, he or she is not responsible for the way you feel. You can choose to make your emotions work for you instead of against you.

It is liberating to know you have the power to take responsibility for your emotions, stay in control, and keep your composure. Conflict-competence is a choice, and you have the power to change!

What Would Shawn Do? Confronting a Disrespectful Associate Doctor

conflict face off

Q:

Help! I need some advice. Our entire staff is extremely intimidated by the associate veterinarian at our practice. Several members truly need to have a difficult conversation with her to explain the way she makes them feel. We tried to do this recently, and it didn’t go well.

I arranged for the two staff members and the associate doctor to meet after one particularly bad incident that they complained to me about. They requested that I stay to mediate because the technician had tried to have a conversation with the doctor before, but the doctor always made it out to be the employee’s problem.

I started the conversation by saying, “Doc, these ladies have a concern about how they were treated and would like to talk to you about it.” Everyone was fine with talking. The employees gave specific examples of “When you do this, it makes me/us feel like this.” The doctor reflected and said, “You need me to be more respectful with how I ask for things.”

The doctor said she had specifically asked the technician, in confidence, if she had any issues or concerns with her directly, and the technician had told her no. The employee stated that conflict is really hard for her and that she didn’t have the confidence to do it. But she had participated in this meeting, and that was a start. I wrapped up the meeting by stating that I know the doctor deeply respects the staff and that we all appreciate one another. I thought everything went very well.

The doctor told me later that day that she felt that I did not handle the meeting well at all. The doc could not get past the feeling that she had been lied to and feels that her behavior should not be questioned because she is a top producer. The next day, the owner-doctor informed me that I am not to say anything else to that doctor because he needs her to stay.

But my actions were exactly what he said he wanted–the direction he wants me to take the practice. I am using the conflict-management skills that we learned from you. What should I do?

 

A:

I am sorry you had such a frustrating experience! Pull the owner-doctor aside and say that you are just following the guidelines he gave you and using the conflict-management skills the two of you learned together, and that you did not handle it incorrectly.

Give him your opinion that the associate veterinarian is not handling the conflict well and that if he chooses to placate her rather than insisting that she participate that you cannot be responsible for the fallout. Tell him that the result of him not paying attention to the core values of the hospital is that it demoralizes you. Assure him that you can work through this, but that he needs to let you do just that.

Good luck!