There is a Polish proverb that sums up how many of us deal with conflict: “A good run is better than a bad fight.”
As a couples therapist, it seems to me that most people fall into one of two categories: those who thrive on conflict, and enjoy the thrill of winning arguments, and those who avoid it as much as possible. If you fall into the second category, know that you are not alone.
You may hate conflict, or fear it, but you cannot escape from it forever. Conflict is not only an inevitable part of life, but it is also necessary, both at home and at work. When done poorly, you can alienate colleagues, potential friends, and even family members. When you try to avoid conflict altogether, you may get short-term gains of keeping peace and making people happy, but this comes at the cost of your long-term satisfaction both at work and at home.
A wiser approach to conflict is not about developing flashy argumentation skills that will leave your opponent (or colleague or partner) speechless. Instead, it involves developing the ability to negotiate disputes with respect and honesty. It is a more effective type of leadership in the workplace.
People who feel they are avoiding conflict and want to become more confident in their management style can benefit from learning how to engage in low-risk conflict. Think of low-risk conflicts as times when there is a real difference of opinion and a decision to be made, but neither you nor the other person is heavily invested in the outcome (letting you know there won’t be hard feelings).
Watching these opportunities gives you a chance to practice how to handle conflict. It will probably put you outside your comfort zone, but here are the reasons why it’s worth investing the time in learning this valuable skill:
1. You learn to be true to yourself and to others.
One of the big reasons some people avoid conflict is to escape the discomfort of being honest with themselves (and others) about what they really want. Unfortunately, not publicly expressing your true preferences leads to other ways of communicating with them indirectly, either through passive non-commitment or through passive aggressiveness. These indirect ways of communicating make everyone – including you – guess, unsure of where you actually are.
People who don’t know what they want or won’t express it publicly are often seen as impossible to please. Not being direct about your preferences also means that they will not be taken into account when making decisions, which often leads to resentment and the false conclusion that your desires do not matter. In my work with husbands, I often tell people that resentment is relationship poison. It builds up slowly over time and eventually poisons the entire relationship.
At work and at home, honesty requires giving others information about a desirable set of outcomes that you will be happy with. Conflicting low stakes at home — about things like what to eat for dinner or who takes out the trash — allows you to practice how it feels to share your thoughts about the range of options you might be okay with.
Giving your actual opinion, as far as you know it, may be the start of a minor conflict, but this will allow you to learn how to listen to yourself. People who haven’t learned to stop and listen for what they really want often rely on the mind-reading abilities of those around them and then feel left out in relationships. In fact, if you don’t know what you want, no one will know either.
2. You get to know others better.
Beginning to express your true feelings opens up the possibility of asking people honestly about their feelings. Expressing an opinion that does not require agreement begins a more realistic form of conversation. Since the stakes are low, you learn to practice asking more follow-up questions and inviting others to share their preferences. Getting to know other people, especially in situations where there is no “right” or “best” answer, ends up improving your relationships.
No matter how this conflict is resolved, you now have more information about what the other person values — and how they make decisions. This allows you to feel more comfortable in future encounters, and also allows you to have more meaningful interactions. Having these types of conversations with co-workers can help you feel more comfortable getting to know your intimate partner better. People in long-term relationships often have the misconception that they already know everything about each other, and therefore stop asking questions or having conversations.
Practicing open communication skills at work, with people you don’t know well, will make you feel more confident about having these kinds of conversations at home. The best part about learning how to conflict with a partner is that these types of conflicts often increase feelings of closeness and emotional intimacy.
3. You learn that conflicts are rarely the winner of everything.
People who avoid conflict tend to feel trapped when they realize the potential for conflict because they see the conflict as lost. Neither option looks attractive. Losing an argument is annoying, but it can be equally upsetting to imagine how the other person might feel if they lost the argument.
Having a low-stakes conflict offers you a wide middle ground where sometimes you get your way and sometimes you don’t and either way, life goes on.
In other cases, once you are ready to engage in the reality of disputes, you can discover that there are many possible solutions to disputes that go beyond anyone’s initial preference. It’s not about losing everyone, but rather understanding the importance of thinking creatively about how best to identify each person’s needs and figuring out ways to maximize outcomes to meet those needs to the greatest extent possible under the circumstances.
When you understand this principle, you can begin to view work conflicts differently. It may not matter how something is done as much as when it is done – or how it can be much more important than the time. When you stop treating the conflict as a win/lose battle, you can start to become more strategic about focusing the conflict on one point where you really need an agreement.
4. Become a more confident thinker.
Being accustomed to having thoughtful, respectful, low-risk struggles gives you a free education on how to see things from many different perspectives. You find that you are better able to express what you already think. You really start to listen to the ways other people deal with problems. You learn to focus conflicts on the key points where agreement is important.
As you continue to practice this, you will become more adept at expressing yourself with confidence in the struggles of the bigger stakes. You will have taken the time to quickly discover what you think is the best decision and will know how to explain why, in accordance with the other person’s values. This begins any conflict – even a very serious conflict – with the other person feeling heard, appreciated, and respected. No matter what is selected, this approach will win you out every time.
5. Others will find you more trustworthy.
As it turns out, people with balanced heads in how they handle conflict, able to define their own position but also considerate in other viewpoints, are highly respected and sought after. You can become known as someone who really asks for honest opinions from others – which always leads to better decisions in the office. And at home, your partner can trust that you are actually able to say what you mean in a loving and respectful way, which frees them up to become more confident in appearing weak in your relationship. You will no longer be a target shifter, making you a strong and dependable ally.
Going back to the Polish proverb, we can probably all agree that avoiding a bad fight is a good idea. But having a respectful and honest attitude with a willingness to be flexible takes less energy – and ultimately more satisfying – than running well…unless you’re a fan of running, in which case we can agree to oppose.