I have observed a common pattern across many areas that I work (and live) — people avoiding dealing with tense or conflictual situations in their relationships with others. And almost always, not dealing with the situation creates additional problems or makes the conflict larger and more intense (often involving more people than were originally involved).
And it happens in lots of settings:
- in family businesses, between family members working together
- in office settings, between coworkers who can’t get along
- in marriages, between spouses
- in extended families, between parents-in-law and their children’s spouse
- in schools, between teachers and parents of the students
- in wealthy families, between siblings who are inheriting wealth
- and on and on.
Now, I am not going to try to address all the issues relevant to conflict in relationships, that would require a book (or two). But let’s look at some core concepts.
First, why do people often try to avoid conflict? I think there are lots of potential reasons, but let’s identify a few.
- Many people do not like emotionally-charged situations, and they feel if they raise the issue underlying the conflict, emotions will get out of control.
- Most people don’t like others to act or communicate in an angry way towards them, and will do almost anything to avoid this type of interchange.
- Some individuals believe that, in conflict, someone must either “be wrong” or have done something wrong, and they don’t want to be accused of this.
- Most of us, when we have done something wrong, don’t like admitting it or apologizing for our error.
The problem is — not dealing with conflict in a situation doesn’t make it go away. In fact, frequently, things get worse. When there is tension between two people, or when there is a relational break (that is, the two people are not communicating much at all, if any) — not dealing with the issue creates additional problems, including:
- Others notice the tension and it makes them feel uncomfortable.
- Communication between the two individuals becomes minimal and ineffective.
- Other people get pulled into the conflict, and often begin to “take sides”.
- The people involved in the conflict experience a lot more emotional tension in their lives, with their emotions “building up”, and often spilling over into other areas of their lives.
- The relationship becomes more and more distant, sometimes to the point of total cut-off between the two parties.
Now, I am not suggesting, that if you are in the midst of a conflict in one of your relationships, you should run out and “deal with it”. Why? Because most people who have the habit of avoiding conflict don’t have very good success at resolving conflictual situations on their own — they haven’t been practicing how to deal with conflict in their daily lives (we all have it, you know), they have misbeliefs about what should be done (“we just need to sit down and talk it out”), and they may not have the skills to deal with the situation effectively.
So what should you do?
First, take stock of your relationships and see if there are any that currently have significant tension or conflict that is getting in the way. Admit to yourself that there is a relationship that needs attention.
Second, observe how the tension in your relationship is affecting your life and those around you. For you to seriously consider dealing with the situation, you are probably going to need to be convinced that the conflict is creating problems in your life. You may want to ask those close to you in the situation (coworkers, family members) how the tension affects them (don’t ask it in a way where you are looking for support for your position in the conflict).
If possible, seek some help from someone who can help you deal with the conflict in the relationship in a positive way. Get some counsel from someone you admire and observe that they seem to be able to address relational tensions in their lives in a healthy way. Sometimes it may be beneficial to talk to a professional counselor, business coach, or facilitator — to help you and the other person meet together to resolve the issues creating the conflict.
Do some reading that can help you grow in dealing with conflicts in your life. Whatever the conflict you are currently experiencing, if you are a habitual “conflict avoider”, be assured this will not be the last difficult relational situation you have to deal with — there will be more. So it would be wise to start to grow in your ability to deal with tensions in relationships in a healthy way. There is a great book, Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most that a number of my clients have found to be quite helpful in guiding them through tough conversations they needed to have with someone in their life. Additionally, Lewis Smedes has written an excellent book, The Art of Forgiving, that is also extremely helpful.
I have conflict in relationships in my life (just ask those close to me), and I am still learning how to deal with those tensions in a healthier manner — I think we all can. Let’s just commit together to not let tensions in relationships fester to the point where they poison our lives — it will make all of our lives healthier.