I have spent most of my life avoiding “unnecessary” conflict without defining what the criteria are for determining a conflict “necessary”. The result, of course, is that I avoided ALL conflict. Predictably, I often went without expressing my needs in a given situation and so my needs often went unstated and therefore unmet. As you can imagine, this led to a more or less unhappy life with predictable midlife results. I have found that many, many people suffer from this exact same malady.
Now on the surface, the argument in favor of avoiding conflict is pretty sweet: Don’t make waves; don’t rock the boat; don’t get thrown overboard; don’t drown or get eaten by a shark.
It appears to make sense on the surface, except for one thing:
it doesn’t work.
The big problem with this, even though the argument appears logical, is that our brains are not logical machines… they hold irrational biases, they run on barely understood assumptions and the big obstacle to all logical arguments on human behavior: We are still all monkeys underneath. We have strong self-interested biases. We have sexual urges that often make no sense but are what they are and will not be persuaded otherwise*. We also have a strong urge for status unless it got squashed relentlessly starting at a very young age. Suppressing these underlying irrational processes, many of which are emotion based, leads to various levels of emotional suppression and eventually repression. This, in turn, leads to sublimated anger, resentment, and (because conflict must be avoided) passive aggressiveness.
Not a good mix.
So what to do about it?
I recently realized with a little help from several coaches’ blogs and YouTube channels**, that while conflict can be unpleasant, and often is when first getting the hang of it, when in pursuit of fulfilling your genuine needs, that conflict is, in fact, necessary. Addressing necessary conflict leads to a resolution if you pursue the conflict to its conclusion. Avoiding the conflict also avoids the possibility of resolution and the discovery of a solution that gets your needs met. In other words, being Conflict Avoidant is the same as being Resolution Avoidant. Embracing conflict, preferably with a clear understanding of one’s needs in the situation and a clear picture of a desired outcome, embraces the idea that a resolution is possible and allows for more complete communication between the parties of the conflict.
So how to address a conflict? Here is a bit of advice that focuses on finding ways to meet the win/win/win scenario.
- Have a clear vision of your desired outcome. List your nonnegotiable items and list what potentially valuable items you are willing to compromise or change. This is your ideal template. Think of it as a lens through which you will be looking at the future; it should be crystal clear and ideally not too distorted. Your conflict partner will also be developing their own lens, which brings us to….
- Understand that your conflict partner is a partner in this scenario. The both of you are working together to achieve both of your goals. Adversarial attitudes in a conflict resolution tends to put both parties in a state of aggression and defensiveness… it’s a fight and there will be a winner, and a loser. This kind of arrangement is what most conflict avoidant people fear; however, under a different paradigm, a cooperative paradigm where both parties are trying to make sure everyone’s needs are met, conflict stops being a bugbear to run away from and becomes more of a teddy-bear that you can embrace to get your needs met.
- Work together to find the areas where your goals differ and where they harmonize. This part can be hard because sometimes it is challenging to tease apart entangled needs within the scenario. That said, getting this part right is the most important to our new conflict resolution pattern. This is the part where both parties get to see what the other party’s vision of the future is. You are working together to merge your visions in a harmonious way.
- See if there is a way to make both of them fully manifest. Believe that your visions can be merged harmoniously. Unless you have absolutely antithetical nonnegotiables (for instance, one member of a couple wants children and the other does not), then a creative solution can be found where all nonnegotiables are achieved and even many of the negotiables may be included. Look for creative ways to fit the puzzle pieces together so that everyone gets all their pieces on the board.
- Keep brainstorming and exploring options until both of you are excited by the prospect of the future. Keep at it some more and see if there are even better ways to get both of your needs met. Remain in a cooperative partnership mindset as you explore possibility and start clarifying a plan to make everyone’s dreams come true.
- Remember, you are looking for the win/win/win solution: You win/your conflict partner wins/the world wins because you are a step closer to self-actualization by getting your needs as completely met as possible.
So next time you have a conflict, speak up! Have a clear idea what it is that you want as an outcome and state it. Work to find creative solutions to the conflict so that everyone wins.
And that‘s how you get into the game.
*Ask just about any gay person how easy it is to just “be attracted differently” and you might even get a full college-level lecture on why that isn’t possible… or a punch in the nose… it’s a 50/50 proposition there.
** If you’re ever browsing YouTube looking for good life advice, I highly recommend the following in no particular order:
Lisa A Romano
I also recommend the following self-help blog