Imagine a situation where one of your team members frequently interrupts you in meetings. They build upon your premise, take credit for your ideas, and steal your thunder. What would you do?You have two choices:
- Confront the person and share your concerns with them. This approach may lead to a conflict.
- Avoid the conflict, let them have their way, and silently withdraw
If you choose the first option, you can use strategic conflict management styles for a productive confrontation. Humans, however, often tend to avoid conflict at a biological level, especially if there are any substantial repercussions. Most people who gravitate towards polite conversations will go for the second choice and dodge a dispute. But leaving anger unaddressed can be more dangerous than you think.
What is Conflict Avoidance?
Conflict avoidance is the quality of avoiding confrontations with other people by hook or crook to maintain a false sense of peace. People often sweep issues under the rug with the good intentions of not disrupting harmony. Common ways to avoid a conflict include 1) changing the subject; or 2) simply agreeing to a contrary opinion without putting forth your genuine concerns. The problem with this approach is that the issue doesn’t go away if you don't talk about it. While avoidance sometimes seems like the easiest way to deal with conflict, in the long run, you'll still suffer. The issue will likely continue and lead to recurring frustration and stress which can seep into your personal life. When you run from conflict instead of addressing it directly, you're compromising your true feelings and storing up frustration that can negatively affect your health.
What Causes Conflict Avoidance?
Understanding the underlying causes of conflict avoidance requires a bit of psychology and introspection. While the root cause of avoiding conflict will differ for everyone, if you've been told in the past that your opinions are not valuable, you’ll probably be reserved about sharing them in the future. If you’re not sure whether you fall into the category of being “Conflict Avoidant” this short quiz can help you determine where you stand:
- Do you compromise your opinions just to avoid a fight?
- Are you afraid of disappointing others?
- Do you change the direction of conversations to get away from disagreements?
- Are you often the “calm one,” but you have a tendency to accumulate grievances and then let them out all at once?
- Do you frequently think about unresolved issues and yet don't take any action towards their resolution?
- Are you afraid of facing backlash over your thoughts?
If you answered yes to even one of these questions, you have definitely dodged conflicts in your life. Asserting your opinion can seem scary or unnerving, but it's worth it to build the confidence to face conflicts effectively.
Why is it Unhealthy to Avoid Conflicts?
No matter how much you enjoy being the “nice person” at work who never rocks the boat, conflict avoidance isn’t going to help you progress. Being calm and patient is a virtue, but compromising your true feelings and holding on to resentful emotions isn’t a healthy approach. Continuous conflict avoidance can lead to depression and loneliness. Bottling up your emotions can feel isolating and lead to a loss of trust with your team, hindering your professional growth. Is avoiding a conflict really worth losing so much? It might seem like the right way to go about things, but in the long run, conflict avoidance comes at a significant cost.
Being Open to Conflict through Civil Discourse
Most people find it easier to put off a difficult discussion until it's absolutely necessary to deal with, but great leaders can't effectively lead a workforce by consistently dodging conflicts. Be prepared to face severe consequences if you routinely practice conflict avoidance, like:
- Strained communication between your team
- Diminishing team spirit and trust
- Low productivity
- High employee turnover
Getting over conflict avoidant behavior starts with internalizing the belief that conflict is an unavoidable aspect of life and that the right approach can help you make conflict a productive event.When there are no disagreements, people become mere followers of commands and lose their innovative and creative zest. This doesn't mean everyone should yell, blame, demand change, and refuse to negotiate. There’s a middle ground, and I believe the key to reaching it is by practicing civil discourse. Civil discourse encourages respectful expression and fosters a better understanding of situations from all sides. When you face a conflict, instead of avoiding it, you strive to find a solution. Leverage civil discourse to unlearn conflict avoidance in relationships and the workspace by:
- Concentrating on the issues in real-time
There's no need to beat around the bush. You can take endless time to ruminate over conflicts, but it requires courage to address them immediately. Start by stating facts about issues as they occur.For example: “I was also an active participant in this project, but it was disheartening to find my name missing from the first draft of the report. I'd appreciate it if my name is also mentioned in the next revision.”
- Creating opportunities for open dialogue
Be open to unambiguous and respectful dialogue with everyone. Address all emotions in the workplace first-hand instead of avoiding conflicts. It's the leader's job to foster a healthy environment where all teammates are comfortable voicing their opinions. Share your experiences with conflict and create opportunities for open dialogue.For example: “If you're facing any difficulties, my doors are always open. Let's talk it out before it reflects on our working styles.”
- Changing your stance on confrontation
Disagreements don't automatically translate to fights. It's not always about being right and proving someone wrong. Confrontation and conflict resolution also reflect taking a stand for yourself and demanding accountability for everyone's actions. There's nothing wrong with confronting someone and calling for respectful discussions. Keep in mind that a confrontation now can save you from bigger problems later.For example: “Whenever you're free, can we finish our discussion on the new lunchtime policies? I have a few points to add that may bring a fresh perspective to the matter.”
- Setting safe boundaries
Boundaries play a crucial role in maintaining civil discourse. No one should resort to personal attacks or destroy the office decorum. If you disagree with someone, you can explain your side and help everyone see your perspective without being disrespectful. For example: “I won't raise my voice throughout the discussion and will mindfully listen to you. Can you please do the same for me?”
- Keeping communication channels accessible
Many people stay silent if they’re hurt and avoid conflict. Don't shut everyone out when you're going through something and keep the communication channels accessible. Recognize your emotions and express them openly. Let others come to you for resolution even if it leads to disagreements. With civil discourse, you can solve your conflicts, but the first step is to move past conflict avoidance.For example: “I have some ideas that contradict your views. Should we have a 1:1 meeting the discuss them?”
- Safeguarding your mental and emotional well being
Accepting your emotions also makes you aware of their intensity. Instead of giving in to anger, look at the situation through a lens of compassion. This way, you can safeguard your mental and emotional well-being without getting reeled into impulsive fights. Gain your composure and ask for a conversation to resolve a conflict.For example: “I'm feeling understandably frustrated about this right now. I’ll set up a time to discuss it after I’ve cooled down.”
Conflict is a sign of growth, and some form of it is a normal part of our personal and professional lives. It’s okay if you never learn to be completely comfortable with confrontation and difficult discussions, but learning to communicate through them to resolve issues is imperative for your personal growth. Look beyond the little roadblocks and keep making progress. Remember, smaller disagreements prevent bigger ones and are far better than avoiding conflicts completely. Own your fears and take a stand for yourself – that's the beginning of every leader's journey.