Written by: Jorinde Berben
Image credit: pexels.com
Alright, this is a biggie, and I just hope I can do the topic justice. I’ve been a conflict avoider pretty much my entire life. This way of dealing (or rather, not dealing) with disagreement was handed down to me from, probably, many generations. It’s the conflict style of both my parents and my siblings. There was very little yelling in our house when I was growing up, except for the occasional frustrated screams or teenage tantrums. We just didn’t fight over things openly.
One of the reasons for this, I think, is that anger was often seen as something threatening and dangerous, or was seen as ridiculous (can’t you control yourself?). We didn’t really express it well. In fact, I’m just now starting to learn how to do that with very small steps at a time (and still interspersed with way too many unhealthy expressions).
Now, I don’t want to diss the conflict avoiders too much, because at their core, all they are really striving for is peace and harmony, and who can really blame them? There’s so much conflict, so much pain and anger in this world already. Wouldn’t it be great if there was a bit less of it?
Unfortunately, as wonderful as the intention may be, there are undoubtedly a great many flaws in the avoidant approach, not in the least being that avoiding conflict has never yet made that conflict disappear, on the contrary. There are a few approaches that help dissolve conflict, and all of these include facing the conflict and the person you’re having it with. The ostrich tactic just doesn’t help you do that. But apart from not resolving the actual conflict, trying to avoid all conflict also has a lot of other nasty side effects.
It can actually make us quit relationships because we can’t imagine dealing with an issue openly. Perhaps you’ve made a terrible mistake, or your partner is doing something that you just can’t deal with; not being able to discuss this openly (and risking that your partner will be triggered and angry) could make some of those feelings fester and turn initial molehills into mountains. I’ve definitely dropped out of relationships when I was younger because I was too afraid to face the other person.
Another terrible result of being conflict-avoidant is that you start to censor yourself preemptively just to avoid backlash. In the past few weeks, the Covid Safe Pass has been introduced over here. It means you need to have your phone scanned showing you’ve either been vaccinated twice or have tested negative for (or recovered from) Covid-19, if you want to enter restaurants, the cinema or a theatre. The whole idea is such horror to me, but I just can’t bring myself to actually publish anything about it on social media because I’m afraid of the conflicting conversations I’ll get sucked into. So rather than stand up for what I believe in, I keep it hidden except for those very few who I speak to openly about it (and who mostly agree with my point of view, so no real conflict there.) This does not represent who I really want to be.
This inability to stand up for myself also stretches to other situations in which I may feel like someone’s angry with me. I will often try to find where I could have possibly gone wrong and I will attempt to smooth things over. One of my very first posts dealt with exactly this issue. The conflict that inspired that blogpost is not resolved yet, and may never be fully. The reason it isn’t, is that I did stand up for myself (though I went over to the defensive side meaning I may have made myself blind for part of my share). But even though the heat of the moment has long subsided, the fact that this situation was never resolved still pops up in my mind quite often. It feels inherently unsafe not to be on good terms with this person.
Consciously, I’m very much aware that by avoiding conflict I’m not making people like me more. In many cases, it will be quite the contrary. But my subconscious mind has made the version of me who engages in conflict an unlovable shrew. Someone I try to avoid being since, like most people, I want to be loved.
My current partner has a very different conflict style, and he is my greatest teacher in showing the capacity that conflict holds for healing and growth. In his career as an NVC trainer (Non-Violent Communication), much of his work is made up of helping professional teams express their issues more openly. Yet, he insists on taking this approach home with him, and it’s been a steep learning curve for me. I’ve become (much) better already at allowing him to engage in conflict. I still catch myself making snide remarks at times instead of saying things openly, but I also know it takes time to reprogram yourself after years of being wired one way.
The way forward I see lies in letting go of some old convictions (anger is ridiculous, everyone should like me, conflict will cause damage) and slowly learning to express all of my emotions fully, including my anger when it wants to be expressed in a healthy way. I’m practising this little by little, with my therapist and partner, hopefully to be able to extend it beyond that small circle eventually.
For now, it is already very helpful to be aware of the impact it has on my life, and to see why I want to work at it. It’s the fuel behind the effort.
Curious about your conflict style? This article gives you an overview of the 5 main types. And yes, one of them is the right way ;-).