Interpersonal Conflict Resolution: Beyond Conflict Avoidance

Interpersonal conflict resolution and conflict management can be intimidating, but generally, avoidance only worsens conflict. Here’s advice on how to become comfortable dealing with conflict.

By — on / Conflict Resolution

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To hear some tell it, we are experiencing an epidemic of conflict avoidance, finding new ways to walk away from conflict rather than engaging in interpersonal conflict resolution. Ghosting, for example—ending a relationship by disappearing—has become common. Numerous tech companies are being criticized for laying off people via email rather than in person. Many people experience the pain of estrangement from family members, which can arise without warning or explanation. And whether you view the recently documented phenomenon of “quiet quitting” as destructive slacking or healthy boundary setting, it can manifest as avoidance of hard conversations and negotiations about workload.

There can be legitimate reasons for avoiding conflict, such as the need to break off an abusive relationship. But in many cases, interpersonal conflict resolution could help repair a relationship, to the benefit of all involved, or end it with less pain. Through a better understanding of conflict avoidance, we can become more comfortable with interpersonal conflict resolution at work and in our personal lives.

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Why Do We Avoid Conflict?

We choose to avoid conflict for numerous reasons. “A lot of people anticipate that talking about how they feel is going to be a confrontation,” psychologist Jennice Vilhauer told the New York Times. “That mental expectation makes people want to avoid things that make them uncomfortable.” Relatedly, the fear of being emotionally vulnerable with others can lead us to avoid conflict and resist interpersonal conflict resolution.

Some people are especially prone to avoiding conflict. “Conflict avoidance is a type of people-pleasing behavior that typically arises from a deep-rooted fear of upsetting others,” according to Healthline. “Many of these tendencies can be traced back to growing up in an environment that was dismissive or hypercritical.”

Research showing that social anxiety is growing among young people worldwide could also help to explain a recent rise in conflict avoidance. And the lack of accountability created by modern technology may play a role. Whether we are laying off someone, leaving a job, or ending a romantic relationship, texts and emails allow us to avoid having such difficult conversations in real time, face-to-face.

 How Conflict Avoidance Harms Us

Conflict avoidance often harms us and others. When we avoid conflict with those we continue to interact with, we allow it to fester and grow. Imagine that you hear that you hurt a coworker’s feelings with a thoughtless remark. You feel awkward about the situation and unsure about how to bring it up. Conflict avoidance on both sides could lead your work relationship to grow uncomfortable and distant. By contrast, taking the coworker aside to discuss what happened and apologize would likely repair the relationship and set up productive future interactions.

“Avoiding conflict can compromise our resilience, mental health, and productivity in the long term,” writes Andrew Reiner for NBC News. By contrast, one study of over 2,000 people aged 33 to 84 found that those who intentionally resolved daily conflicts reported that their stress diminished. They also experienced fewer negative emotions than others in the study, and their positive emotions remained stable for longer periods of time.

Toward Interpersonal Conflict Resolution

How can we overcome the urge to avoid conflict and move toward engaging in interpersonal conflict resolution more frequently? Here are some guidelines:

Recognize the costs of avoidance. Look beyond the temporary sense of safety and calm that conflict avoidance can bring and recognize what you stand to lose from it—such as broken relationships, a damaged reputation, and strained interactions at work or at home.

Practice on smaller issues. If you’re used to sweeping conflict under the rug, interpersonal conflict resolution can feel deeply threatening. You might try to build your skills and confidence by opening up conversations about relatively small matters with those you trust the most. Positive experiences resolving minor issues, such as household chores that aren’t getting done, can equip you to take on bigger concerns.

Make a plan. Think through—and perhaps write down—the best way to cope with a conflict before reaching out to the other person or people involved. In particular, to get a broader perspective, consider how your actions—or inaction—might be affecting them.

Get help. A trusted friend or counselor might help you view the conflict more fully and determine the best way to manage it. You might also consider asking a third party, such as your boss, to help mediate the dispute, or consider formal mediation.

Set the foundation for collaboration and honesty. When approaching the person with whom you are in conflict, you might acknowledge the discomfort you feel before explaining why you believe it is important to talk things through. If you believe you have been wronged, rather than lashing out in anger, present your interpretation of the situation, and ask the other person to describe how they see things. If you’ve hurt the other person, take responsibility for your actions and be prepared to apologize before discussing how to move forward.

What other advice do you have for avoiding conflict and moving toward interpersonal conflict resolution?

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