If I say the word, “conflict,” what is your emotional reaction? Most likely, it’s negative. If I were to ask you to think of a word associated with the word “conflict,” it’s very li
kely that word would also have a negative connotation. I recently delivered some conflict management training to a group of managers and we had a great conversation about conflict and how we respond to it. We primarily talked about our perceptions of conflict and how those perceptions influence our responses. For example, why are people so uncomfortable with conflict? During the workshop, we talked ab
out words that are associated with the word “conflict”. I asked them to write down one word that com
es to mind when they hear the word “conflict,” and everyone in the group, except for one person, wrote down a negative word. They wrote down words like “argument”, “disagreement,” and “dispute.” Even the word “violence” came to mind for a couple of the participants.
Having a negative response to the idea of conflict is not unusual. Healthline reported that one reason for this negative response could be traced back to growing up in an environment that was perhaps dismissive or critical of your responses when you disagreed about something. Experiencing negative outcomes can make it difficult for some to trust that when conflict occurs, the other person’s reaction won’t be negative. So we brace ourselves for what is sure to be an unpleasant exchange. Well, at least that’s our expectation.
Surprisingly, or maybe not so surprising, several of the participants admitted that their go-to response to conflict was mostly to either ignore it or be passive-aggressive about it. And I realized, this is a topic I have yet to discuss on the podcast, so here we are. Let’s talk about conflict and how you can respond to it in a more effective way.
First, understand that conflict is not necessarily a bad thing. People will have different opinions, different likes, different values, and different beliefs. And while it might not be the best feeling in the world, one positive thing to note is that if you’re arguing with someone about something, it means that both of you care about it. Otherwise, you wouldn’t waste your time. Another reason conflict can be a good thing is how else would we ever challenge the status quo? Sometimes change needs to happen, but it won’t happen unless someone disturbs the peace. A final reason (and there are more but I’m highlighting these three) that conflict can be a good thing is it helps us avoid groupthink. Just going along with what someone else says because everybody else is, can le
ad to some pretty terrible outcomes.
So, even though it might not feel good at the time, it’s important to understand that conflict can result in good things. Sometimes, conflict must happen in order to get to the good things.
So how do we get through conflict to get to the good things?
Let’s get started first with what you should NOT be doing – and that’s being passively aggressive.
If your go-to response to conflict is to complain to the people around you, or to plan revenge, or make snide remarks or facial expressions on the side rather than directly address the problem, then you are most likely doing an outstanding job of alienating the people around you and successfully making things worse. This is also known as “crazymaking” behavior. Yes, that’s an official identification. Passive aggressiveness is a destructive communication behavior, so don’t do it. Be better than that.
How can we be better than that?
Well, let’s start by addressing how you respond to conflict and how you might want to do it better. To do this, I want you to think about all of these approaches I’m going to talk about as strategic options. In addition to considering your level of comfort in conflict, consider the topic, the situation, the other person, and the possible outcomes. When making your strategic choice, consider your goal for engaging and con
sider your desired outcome.
1. One way to respond to conflict is to just avoid it altogether. Maybe you’re afraid to rock the boat, so you don’t say anything at all. Or you tell a joke or change the subject. If you’re okay with putting up with the status quo, then that’s fine. Keep on avoiding it, and nothing will change. Sometimes there is a time for conflict avoidance. Have you ever heard the phrase, “pick your battles?” Those of you in long-term relationships are most likely very acquainted with that phrase. It means to think about the problem that’s irritating you now and think about it in the grand scheme of things and ask yourself whether it’s important enough that it needs addressing? Or is it a minor offense that you will likely not even remember next week? Or maybe you just don’t care enough about the topic or the person for that matter to engage. Or maybe you just don’t want to get into a physical altercation and you have good reason to believe where the conflict would be headed. These are all legit reasons to avoid conflict. But if your go-to response for all conflict, even when it’s over things that do matter, is to avoid it, then I urge you to keep listening so you can consider some alternatives. After all, how can you expect anyone else to know that something is bothering you if you don’t address it? And when you really think about it, it’s unfair of you to be mad at someone for something and they don’t even know they did anything that made you mad. And on top of that, you deny the other person the opportunity to make things right by staying low-key mad and avoiding addressing the issue.
2. Let’s say the problem isn’t huge, but it’s important enough that you want to address it, and you also don’t want to offend or embarrass the other person. This requires some finesse, so think about how you could approach the other person indirectly while at the same time helping them save face. For example, perhaps you told your work colleague they can have one of your sodas from the fridge in the breakroom, and now you see them taking a soda just about every day. Instead of yelling at th
em in front of the entire office, and instead of chasing them down in the parking lot, you could bring it up in conversation by saying, “Man, I was thirsty for a soda today and when I got to the fridge I realized I’ve run out already.” Now, ideally, the soda snatcher will realize that although you did say they could have a soda, that doesn’t mean they can drink all of them. A reasonable person would quickly pick up on the statement and work to rectify the situation to avoid escalation. The problem with hints and the challenge with the indirect approach however is if you’re too tentative or too worried about helping the other person save face that they end up not getting the hint. If that’s the case, you need to be a little more direct and perhaps ask them to reload your stash.
3. If the problem is big enough and you have decided that avoiding or using indirect communication isn’t solving the problem, then you need to know how to address the problem in a way that is direct, but not aggressive. Assertiveness is the key. How do you know you’re being assertive and not aggressive? When you’re balancing your own self-interest with having empathy for the other person. You can be clear and direct without being judgmental. Say what you feel, but allow the same for others. And be very specific with the words you choose to use. If you have a problem with someone’s actions, then describe the specific behavior to them while also explaining your perception of that behavior. Describe your feelings, but don’t place the blame for your feelings on the other person. For example, instead of saying, “You made me feel stupid” just say, “I felt stupid.” Another good way to remain assertive without being aggressive is to explain the impact of their behavior. For example, “When I loaned you money last month, you said you would pay me back within the week but you haven’t paid me back yet. I feel disappointed and like I’m being taken advantage o
f. I want you to know how much this hurts my feelings. Don’t expect me to lend you money ever again.”
Of course, there is so much more to be said about conflict and how to manage it more effectively, but these are some basic things you can try out the next time you need to deal with an unpleasant situation. There is no magic bullet or one-size-fits-all
answer to conflict. Sometimes the right answer is to avoid it. Sometimes the right answer is to be indirect. And sometimes the right answer is to be assertive and direct. Just remember if you remain respectful while being direct and self-confident while expressing your feelings, the other person is more likely to listen.