“I don’t like conflict.”
This is a sentence I hear very often, and while I understand it, it still makes me raise an eyebrow and cock my head to the side a bit. My perspective on conflict is a little different than the average bear’s, having had an extremely difficult childhood that was overflowing with it. I’m not the only person who endured a rough upbringing, of course, but I think such circumstances traumatize us to be scared of and shy away from conflict more often than the alternative.
I happen to embody that alternative, and I try to share my perspective with people who shy away from conflict, because it is inevitable.
I understand the impulse to avoid conflict; it’s mildly annoying at best, and it can be horrifically upsetting and damaging at worst. And I’m definitely not someone who looks for conflict; those people exist too, but I don’t consider that to be a productive use of time or energy for a well-adjusted, grown-ass woman.
I’m talking about the disagreements that crop up in our relationships, personal and professional, and times when we have to advocate for ourselves when we’ve been done wrong. If you’re someone who avoids or struggles with these scenarios, I’d like to offer some suggestions:
1. Adjust Your Tone to Account for Context.
This seems like a no-brainer, but frequently when I hear about an argument that turned into a war or a complaint that escalated to a fight, I can identify exactly where the escalation happened, and it’s often a question of tone. Context always matters, and rarely does it matter more than when dealing with conflict.
You don’t speak to your friends like you speak to your boss, like you speak to a subordinate at work, like you speak to a grandparent, like you speak to a teenaged niece, like you speak to a stranger who pushed you on the subway, like you speak to the guy who messed up your order at Chipotle, like you speak to the bigoted distant relative on Facebook and on and on and on…
Every situation requires its own evaluation, and when we’re upset, we tend to forget or forego the evaluation part. It doesn’t need to be some long, drawn out assessment—there’s often not time for that, nor am I asking you to employ superhuman levels of detachment and analysis when you’re upset. However, it is crucial to think about who you’re addressing, where you are, and what’s at stake. And adjust your tone accordingly.
2. Don’t Be Ashamed to Prepare.
This applies to more serious conflict resolution, but you’d be surprised how many people don’t consider it an option. You might be wisely taking time to think about why you’re upset, how you’ll address it, and what your desired outcome is, but are you taking it a step further and making notes?
It might feel foolish, but actually writing things out, with bullet points and showing your work like you’re back in grammar school, can not only help you sort out your own feelings and get to the core of the conflict, but making organized notes can help you communicate to the other person(s) in the most productive way possible.
This tends to work best in a professional environment, such as confronting a superior about an ongoing situation that you need resolved, or addressing a subordinate while remaining respectful and impersonal. But don’t be afraid to make notes at home, either. I would urge you to be mindful that a boyfriend or family member might feel inordinately antagonized or provoked when approached by someone holding a list of grievances, but you might still benefit from making that list beforehand and memorizing your bullet points in advance or even typing a memo on your phone for reference.
3. Be Prepared to Act as a Translator.
This tip is tricky, but it can be a game-changer. So much conflict happens because we misunderstand each other; this we know. But when we misunderstand each other consistently within relationships that we either have to deal with (business, etc.), or value for other reasons and choose to remain in (interpersonal, romantic, family, etc.), we might have to get good at translating.
This is especially important in the electronic age, when our frequently typed words are more apt to be misunderstood, suffering from the lack of vocalization and body language. There is no accounting for the ways in which we highly fallible humans can think we’re saying one thing when the other person is hearing another, so if you’re looking for conflict resolution, sometimes you simply have to stop and translate.
A helpful phrase is “It sounds like you’re saying…, is that right?” Also try “Am I understanding correctly that…?” Notice that these are both questions. What you’re expressing is that you want to understand, with an acknowledgement that you could be wrong, and the question implies a desire for clarification, as opposed to “OH SO WHAT YOU’RE SAYING IS…!” That’s telling someone what they’re saying, which will only escalate things. Genuinely asking if you’ve got it right is more likely to lead to productive communication.
Translating works both ways, by the way. You might think you’re making your point crystal-clear, but if your aim is conflict resolution, you being right or strong in your stance is less important than you communicating it. If what you’re saying is not having the desired impact, you can’t just say it again or louder. You might have to be your own translator, using different language and communication methods, like clear examples or metaphors, to communicate most efficiently.
4. Step Away If You Need to, Before It’s Too late.
This one goes out to those of you on the extreme ends of the spectrum: the overwhelmingly fearful and the exceedingly aggressive. If you’re a person who has no problem with conflict, for example, you might feel that you’re coming at the other person reasonably, while they could be withering irreparably. Or, if you’re someone who already has trouble with confrontation and you find yourself struggling while in the thick of it, it’s OK to step away.
Breathe, leave the room or the entire premises if that’s feasible, and don’t feel “less than” if you have to say I need a minute. Fear of being perceived as the weaker person is a main contributor to escalating conflict, and there is nothing weak about having the fortitude and self-awareness to prioritize your well-being.
5. Accept That the Conflict Might Not Be Resolved at all.
This is tough, but real: not every conflict will be resolved. If you go into it with a stranglehold on the outcome, thinking that it has to turn out OK, you might be missing cues that the situation is, in fact, irreparable. It’s a potentially scary emotional risk, but letting go of your need to control the outcome and simply bringing your perspective, your honesty, and your hope and effort toward a well-adjusted and mature exchange are what will help you most when conflict arises.