Conflict is bad. This is often the logic for avoiding conflict. We feel uncomfortable when it arises between two or more people.
In an earlier article I discussed the advantages of conflict. In this article I hope flip to the other side to address the disadvantages of avoiding conflict.
DOING NOTHING CAN MAKE SENSE
To a conflict avoider the fear is that things may escalate out of control. Raised voices, pointing fingers, threatening and intimidating body posture, and ultimatums lead many to withdraw or shut-down. Rather than risk making things worse, their hope is that doing nothing will be best until the storm has passed.
There is a logic behind that reaction that makes sense. When escalated enough, people say things that they would never say in calmer moments. Certainly, if conflict always ended up this way no one would want to engage in it. Not only do these actions squash dialogue but they wreck any attempt at problem-solving. Avoiding conflict makes great sense when contrasted with disagreements that are consistently dangerously destructive.
ADULT CHILDREN OF ALCOHOLICS (ACOA)
As a common example, conflict avoidance is a trait of many alcoholic families where disagreements can be disproportional to the issue at hand, unpredictable and illogical. Arguments just break out spontaneously, seemingly without cause or justification. These kinds of intimidating and demeaning random meltdowns are always destructive emotionally and often worse. The only upside is usually with the one who blows up because everyone else runs away or shuts down.
Children who grow up in these environments are often expert at avoiding conflict. It becomes a natural defense that makes a great deal of sense…in those environments. There are times when the only logical response is to get away or hide until it’s over.
Dr. Janet Woititz, author of the classic book Adult Children of Alcoholics (1983) lists thirteen characteristics of children of alcoholic families. Click HERE to see the list that includes several conflict-avoiding techniques such as lying when it would be just as easy to be truthful, seeking approval and affirmation from others and guessing at what normal behavior looks like.
AVOIDING CONFLICT LIFESTYLE
The problems begin to emerge later in life when workable conflict resolution skills are required for their own family’s life, their work environments and social interactions. Inevitable differences of opinion or perspectives become threatening instead of enlightening. Agreeing with whatever is said is so much easier than expressing a differing point of view. Give in. Go with the flow. Don’t make waves.
IT IS IMPOSSIBLE TO NOT COMMUNICATE
When conflict arises we all have at least three options for addressing it. Engage, do nothing and disengage.
Talk about the conflict. Bring it up. Learn to explore someone else’s perspective and gain from their experience. Start a quest to discover what the other person thinks and why they think the way they do. Engaging is a way of honoring the other person; respecting their opinion; communicating that you are invested in them. The key is to avoid trying to fix the problem; rather, consider making understanding a priority, first.
There are times when we need to walk away; but, not with the idea of refusing to come back to the topic. A frequently used “STOP technique” is to call a ‘time-out’ and schedule a better time and place to thoughtfully engage with careful attention to each other. Many times, working to understand one another is more important than being understood by the other. When both people are engaged in making the other understand, no one is listening.
This approach to conflict continues the dysfunction of the alcoholic-like home because it leaves everyone guessing. The illusion is that doing nothing is best because communicating nothing or a neutral message is not provoking. The reality is that doing nothing communicates a message that, in many circumstances, is anything but neutral and unprovoking.
How that unspoken message is interpreted by the other person is dependent upon the status of the relationship. With healthy couples the other partner is more likely to believe the best and give the benefit of the doubt to the silent partner. For example, they may conclude that the silent partner simply forgot, didn’t hear the question or misunderstood.
SILENCE IS NOT ALWAYS GOLDEN
Conversely, when communications are already strained, silence can be understood in a negative way. This is when relationships can become more stressed because the interpretation is “You don’t care,” or “You are trying to punish me.” Once these negative perceptions become part of the resolving of conflict, they become the primary issue to be addressed. Often, the original grievance fades into the background as couples work to get past the perceptions that may or may not be true depending upon how they are interpreting the other’s silence.
The challenge of any interpersonal relationship is to communicate what we wish to say clearly and consistently. This can be very difficult to do. Which is probably why we do not do it as often as we should: it’s a lot of work!
So, we engage in conversation where one is speaking while the other actively listens and reflects upon what is being said. The energy it takes to truly listen is often worth the time and effort. Managing the complexity of accurate dialogue between two people is a powerful tool for understanding and, ultimately, resolving conflict.
Conversely, addressing conflict with the silent treatment often makes relationships harder than is necessary. This is because there is so much room for mis-interpreting what is not being said.
Conflict avoiders may favor the do nothing approach because they are not having to deal with the uncomfortable nature of disagreement. They just ignore it and move on, tamping down their feelings for the sake of keeping the peace.
Nonetheless, the silence can be deafening as people draw their own conclusions such as “he doesn’t really care” or “she’s mad at me.” In this case, silence is not golden. Silence can be more deadly than the conflict itself.
A great place to start learning the necessary skills for better communication is ePREP training coupled with a licensed marriage and family therapist who is specially trained in interpersonal communication practices.