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Conflict Avoidance

This is part of a series of blogs about communication – focusing on the ways people handle conflict, more specifically, conflict avoidance. People who are conflict avoidant avoid addressing that conflict AT ALL COSTS! They are experts at changing the subject, focusing exclusively on the positives, ignoring a problem or simply pretending it’s not happening. 

An example from the workplace

Imagine that you have been working hard on a presentation for several weeks, spending extra hours trying to get everything just right. It all goes well. Now imagine a co-worker interjecting and taking all the credit for your work. But instead of being in touch with your anger and (rightly) speaking up, you choose to silently withdraw. You prefer to be seen as the “nice person” at work, for example, or may shy away from open, healthy conflict so as not to rock the boat.

In a relationship

This can look like going silent on a partner, changing the subject, or enduring uncomfortable situations instead of expressing issues openly. 

On the plus side…

We all do this in some situations, and indeed it may well be the best strategy at times. On the plus side, this strategy avoids the stress of a difficult conversation. The aim and hope is to keep the peace – we may believe that bringing up a topic will offend other people and possibly lead to a relationship breakdown. Leaving it alone hopefully means it will go away or resolve itself.  Underneath this strategy are often our very real human needs for connection, safety and belonging. Avoiding conflict can maintain harmony and in the short term, preserve relationships. 

The downside…

However,  when used unconsciously and chronically, conflict avoidance can be dangerous. It can breed resentment and can eventually destroy relationships. It can lead to feelings of mistrust and confusion – the other person senses something is awry but it’s not being named. Over time it can lead to a kind of emotional deadness. No-one talks about anything meaningful – conversation becomes narrow and shallow. 

Following family patterns

It is likely that the ways our own family of origin dealt with conflict has a big part to play here: the message we received from our parents and other adults may have been “all conflict is bad“ or “We don’t talk about that sort of thing.” Serious issues may have been repeatedly “hidden under the carpet”. This may have started in childhood with a family member who, perhaps, had a problem with alcohol abuse or difficulty managing anger or serious mental health issues.  It simply wasn’t safe to express any kind of disagreement. There was always a sense of fear of retribution.

Family values that discourage any type of conflict or disagreement may also impact an individual’s willingness to assert themselves when they have a differing perspective. For example they may fear ever talking up to anyone in authority over them – such as a teacher or manager. People who grow up with opportunities to constructively express their thoughts and feelings, learn that dealing with differences can be healthy and rewarding. The development of assertiveness skills has both social and practical benefits. Courage to face the fear and stress inherent in the dynamics of conflict is gained through experiences in which managing disagreements is supported and encouraged. Selective disagreement, when handled appropriately, has the potential to generate benefits.

When is avoiding conflict appropriate?

Some general rules may be: 

  • When an issue is trivial or other issues are more important or pressing 
  • When it is not the right time or place
  • When the potential cost of confronting the conflict outweighs the benefits in addressing it (this requires assessment and judgment – it is not an easy decision)
  • To buy time and give angry people an opportunity to “cool down” so that tension can be reduced. Taking a break can help people to regain perspective and composure.
  • To refrain from making a rushed decision and allow time to obtain more information or support.
  • When it is more appropriate for others to resolve the conflict – it is important not to get drawn into conflicts which are not ours.
  • When the issue at hand is a “smoke screen” for the real problem that needs to be addressed – (again this requires assessment and judgement – what is the core of the problem, what are just the symptoms?)

Conflict avoidance couples prefer to hold back strong emotions and let as many issues slide as possible. The advantage of this style is that these couples save time by not getting hung up on irrelevant details of disagreements. However, for this style to succeed long-term, couples need to find a way to address their major issues. Even if they appear small and insignificant, you can’t ignore some problems. They simply don’t disappear with the passage of time. The longer someone tries to pretend everything is fine, the more intense the anger becomes. It ultimately escalates into hostility. What started off as a well-meaning person trying to avoid hurting their partner’s feelings spirals into aggression. Their partner might feel manipulated because they see the thin attempt to pretend the anger doesn’t exist. If enough time goes by, the person might not attempt to hide their anger at all.

Favourite resources

These are some of my favourite writers and speakers about communication:

  1. Say What You Mean – A Mindful Approach to Non-Violent Communication –  book by Oren Jay Sofer 
  2. Rick Hanson – a series of excellent podcasts he has made with his son Forest about all kinds of human relationships . Rick is a highly respected psychologist and author.   
  3. Dr John Gottman – world-renowned for his work on marital stability and divorce prediction, John Gottman has conducted 50 years of breakthrough research with thousands of couples. He predicted divorce with 90% accuracy based on the first three minutes of a conversation. What he noticed was that couples who started their conflict conversation with criticism and elicited defensiveness in their partner ended up divorcing whereas couples who used “gentle start ups” or began their conversation expressing their feelings and needs stayed together.His excellent website contains numerous videos and blogs about his work and findings.
  4. Esther Perel “Where should we begin?” Psychotherapist Esther Perel is the New York Times bestselling author of The State of Affairs and Mating in Captivity. Her TED talks have generated more than 20 million views and she is also the host    of the popular podcast Where Should We Begin?    3 TEDtalks. See also:

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Need Some Advice or Support?

If you are struggling with any of the issues raised in this article, or indeed any other emotional issues or life challenges and would like to talk things over in complete confidentiality, call Alison Winfield, Mindfully Well Counselling Cork on 087 9934541.


See also: Managing Anger in RelationshipsBuilding strong relationshipsCommunication Styles