Do your palms get sweaty, does your throat close up, and your heart rate increase when you think about having an uncomfortable conversation with someone? Does the idea of disagreeing with someone initiate a flight response from you? (In other words you want to run and hide under the covers?) Would you rather get your wisdom teeth pulled than engage in verbal conflict? If so, you might be an avoider.
The idea of addressing conflict head on is very unappealing to most people. Recently, I did a presentation to a group of mental health professionals, and I asked for a show of hands of those who have a natural tendency to avoid uncomfortable conversations – every single person in the room raised their hand! Now, there’s a statement. Most people don’t like conflict. I would love to say that no one likes conflict, but there is a small percentage of the population who actually enjoy making people uncomfortable; there is a mental health diagnostic category for them, but we won’t get into that. Learning to work through conflict however, helps us grow and access otherwise untapped potential for deeper, more meaningful connection in all of our relationships.
I come from a family of avoiders. This is sort of ironic, since by profession, I am a communicator. I have always had a desire to communicate, and to be a facilitator in the communication process with others. Perhaps it was the deep sadness I felt in my soul anytime I witnessed a missed opportunity to right a wrong, or mend a relationship, simply because someone didn’t want to have an uncomfortable conversation, that compelled me to pursue formal education in communication. The goal of healthy communication isn’t for everyone to get into agreement with one another; it’s for everyone to feel heard. If you go into a potentially conflictive conversation with the goal of changing the other person’s mind to align them with your way of thinking, you could be in for major disappointment and then set yourself up to avoid further conversations. And avoidance is unhealthy on many levels. The deeper I got into my studies, the more I learned about the gravity of healthy communication, and its impact on our physical health. Research supports the idea that people who communicate and consistently work through their conflicts are healthier than those who avoid doing so. Those who don’t communicate their thoughts and feelings, especially when it comes to conflict, are at increased risk of developing depression, anxiety, high blood pressure, and other physical problems such as ulcers and migraines. If you’re not talking about it, you’re stuffing it, and that can make you sick!
Avoidance is a killer. A killer of relationships, careers, connection, and community. When have you ever known avoidance to solve anything? Healthy communication, on the other hand, can solve many things.
Words are powerful. They can hurt, and they can heal. Silence is powerful too. Silence is the highest form of avoidance, and a form of communication that sends a message of apathy. Apathy kills relationships. Some people use silence in relationships as a way to punish someone who has hurt them. I have watched many relationships die a slow death due to silence. If two people are arguing, at least they are communicating, and there is still life in the relationship when there is communication. Conflict isn’t always a bad thing. Learning to resolve conflict is always a good thing. It is a life skill that is helpful in all relationships, both personally and professionally. Those who seek peace with others, generally have a deep sense of internal peace themselves.
Hope whispers, make peace.
So, why do we avoid conflict? For one thing, it’s no fun! A more evidence-based reason though would be that most of us never learn to address conflict in a healthy way, and may have experienced conflict during our impressionable years that caused great damage. When that happens, out of a self-protective instinct, we avoid conflict all together. Learning to resolve conflict is something most of us learn, (or not) in our early developmental years. If you grew up in a household where there was a lot of yelling, you may be hesitant to have a potentially conflictive conversation with someone because there is a fear it will turn into a screaming match, based on your early childhood experiences. You choose silence to avoid a heated exchange fraught with harmful words. Perhaps you grew up in a home where you never heard anyone exchange a cross word at all. This may seem like the perfect arena to learn healthy relationship skill building, but in reality, the absence of conflict doesn’t teach a child how to resolve conflict at all. The healthiest form of conflict resolution takes place with some good boundaries, solid ground rules, and a face to face dialogue. It’s never too late to learn healthy conflict resolution. Here are 10 suggestions to get you started:
Do not yell, scream, or otherwise raise your voice.
Do speak in a calm, respectful tone.
Do not engage in name-calling or personal insults.
Do not use threatening or intimidating language or gestures – no harmful physical contact.
Do use “I” statements as much as possible when communicating… “I feel hurt when you _____.”
Be honest about your thoughts and feelings.
Clearly state your own needs and wants.
Seek compromise if possible in order to resolve a conflict – each person needs to give/change something in order for compromise to be effective.
Have face to face conversations whenever possible. Letters, phone calls, emails, and texts are a good way to get communication started, but should move toward face to face communication. Words in written form can get misinterpreted, and there isn’t the opportunity in the moment to clarify intent, that a dialogue provides.
Ask for forgiveness when your actions have hurt the other person.
Sometimes you have to create an opportunity to resolve a conflict with someone. Other times, the opportunity will come to you. A missed opportunity can easily turn into avoidance. Avoidance chokes potential for meaningful connection. And meaningful connection is the foundation for a meaningful life. When opportunity knocks, dare to open the door. It takes courage, but yields great reward.
This well-known quote by Theodore Roosevelt sums up the reward of facing our fears and conflicts, rather than avoiding them:
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.” – Theodore Roosevelt