Stop Being a Conflict Avoider Find Your Voice and Play Big!
I coach bright, competent, accomplished women who are weenies when it comes to dealing with conflict in their key relationships, both at home and at work. Yes, their relationships may look good on the outside. Even their work is impressive, but these women are exhausted trying to meet the demands of everyone around them.
The reason it all looks good on the outside is that these women spend vast amounts of energy managing around potential conflicts, but with a severe cost to themselves. They believe they have no choice, they feel trapped and powerless, and they think it’s all up to them to make happen. It’s sad to see these women give up so much of themselves, erroneously thinking they have no choice.
How Do I Know?
I was one of those women. For years, I thought my significant other had an anger problem, my job was too demanding, and my boss was overbearing. I was exhausted, miserable, and felt so terribly alone.
These women are what I call Conflict Avoiders.
Let’s Look How Angie Avoids Conflict
On Monday morning Angie’s boss told her she’d have to work late on Thursday. Angie agreed to do it, but she wasn’t looking forward to telling her husband Travis that their date night was going to have to be cancelled. He was always so reactive.
Angie lay the groundwork with Travis Monday night at dinner.
Angie: “Geeze, my boss is being such a pain. He’s demanding that we work more hours to get this project done.”
Travis: “Seems like he’s always asking you for extra work. I don’t know why you don’t ask to be switched off that project.”
Angie: “Are you going to watching any games this week?”
Travis: “I haven’t really thought about it.”
Fast-Forward to Thursday Morning Angie: “Oh, by the way, I forgot to tell you, but I’m going to have to work late tonight. I can’t do our date night.”
Travis, frustrated: “That sucks! Why didn’t you tell me earlier? I could have made other plans. I hate that you always tell me at the last minute.”
Angie, trying to stay positive: “I asked Sharon if Hank wanted to watch the football game with you tonight.”
Travis exploding: “What the f**k! Oh, my God, stop managing me! I don’t like Hank. Plus, I’m not interested in tonight’s game. We had plans.”
Angie, feeling defensive: “Why do you have to be so inflexible?! You think I want to do this? This is my job. I don’t want to miss date night either. I have no choice, and here you are making me wrong!”
Travis: “I bet you didn’t even tell your boss you had a conflict. Did you?”
Angie just looked defeated.
What Conflict Avoiders Don’t Know
These women don’t yet understand is that conflict isn’t a problem to be solved, managed, or avoided. It is a natural part of any healthy relationship and provides an opportunity to speak up, show up, and engage with another adult who has a different opinion, perspective, or desire.
To some, this view of conflict seems obvious, but to real Conflict Avoiders, any sign of conflict is threatening. A sense of threat floods the body, and they will do anything to resolve it – even if it means throwing themselves under the bus.
I worked hard to overcome my Conflict Avoider tendency. Years later, I’ve found my own voice, my own power, and my tolerance to hang in during conflict. As a result, I have a sense of freedom and empowerment. (Well, most of the time.)
Today, I can easily spot the Conflict Avoiders on the teams we consult with. I coach them to reclaim their voice and their power – both professionally and personally.
Are You a Conflict Avoider?
Through the years, I’ve found that Conflict Avoiders often share a set of similar beliefs and strategies. Take the two tests below to see if you come out as a Conflict Avoider.
Conflict Avoider Belief Checklist Conflict Avoiders tend to assume or believe that:
A “good” relationship is one where is everything is smooth.
A difference of opinion is a very dangerous situation.
If someone is upset, it’s not safe.
When someone is upset, it is my responsibility to fix it.
If you checked two or more of the four boxes, you’re probably a Conflict Avoider.
Conflict Avoider Strategy Checklist
Conflict Avoiders work hard at trying to minimize other people’s reactions to new or changing plans, direct feedback, or news. They utilize a variety of strategies in an attempt to get the message across while softening the blow, including:
Hinting – Rather than saying anything directly, Conflict Avoiders hint at the issue, hoping the other person will pick up on it. This is what Angie was doing when she talked about how demanding her boss was.
Asking questions – If hints don’t work, Conflict Avoiders move to asking leading questions rather than making statements about themselves, hoping the other person will put the pieces together. Angie also utilized this strategy, when she asked Travis if he was going to be watching any games.
Burying the lead – In this strategy, the Conflict Avoider disguises the important information by mixing it in with other information.
Procrastinating – Conflict Avoiders will wait until the last minute to say something, praying that somehow they won’t have to say anything at all. Unfortunately, this strategy often backfires, causing an even bigger reaction. Angie could have told Travis on Monday night about the Thursday conflict, yet she waited until Thursday morning.
Blurting – Conflict Avoiders are so uncomfortable talking about things directly that they blurt out what they have to say in front of people who may not be involved.
Managing – Thinking they know best, Conflict Avoiders pre-manage a scenario to try to compensate for the change. Angie did this by seeing if Hank wanted to watch the game with Travis.
If you regularly or repeatedly use three or more of these strategies, you’re probably a Conflict Avoider.
What Conflict Avoiders may not realize is that all of the strategies they use to keep things smooth are really ways of not having to deal with the other person’s reaction. In fact, these strategies are designed to control or manipulate people and situations.
Hmm, funny, isn’t it? The very complaint these women have about those demanding, overbearing people in their lives – that they’re too controlling – is the goal of their own conflict avoidance strategies.
How To Become a Straight Shooter
In my own journey from Conflict Avoider to Straight Shooter (okay, closer to straight shooter – I’m a work in progress!) I had to learn things that were foreign to me. Who better to ask for help with this issue than someone who considers conflict a natural part of relating. Susan Clarke, my partner, is that person for me. She, and others like her, have a set of Straight Shooter beliefs and strategies:
Straight Shooter Beliefs
A difference of opinion is a natural thing. (OMG, really?!)
They believe: “I don’t have to agree, fix, or manage the other person.” (Wow.)
Though not always comfortable, emotional reactions, even strong ones, don’t need to be avoided.
I know, right?! Unbelievable. So what type of strategies do these people use?
Straight Shooter Strategies
Say what you think, feel, and want directly.
They see their situation or opinion as their own truth not the absolute truth. I’m often surprised that my opinionated partner, Susan, will actually shift her opinion based on other input. (Including mine!)
Let people react without trying to take it away or fix it.
They simply give people the space to have their own reactions. In fact, they often listen and reflect back how they believe the person is feeling, without making the other person’s reaction wrong.
Don’t take the blame
They consider the other person to be an able, resourceful adult who can solve problems on their own or in partnership. Amazingly, they don’t seem to believe that they are unsafe if someone is distant (upset with them).
Back To Angie
Hopefully, looking back at the original scenario, you can now detect the signs that Angie is suffering from being a Conflict Avoider.
This is not to say that her husband isn’t at times demanding, overly loud, or angry. But Angie plays a part in his reaction when she doesn’t take responsibility for speaking up and saying what is true, early and directly. She does the same thing with her “demanding” boss, by not telling him she has a personal conflict. Imagine if Angie had not avoided conflict.
Angie: “Travis, I don’t like it, but I have to work Thursday night. I’m not willing to say no to my boss this time, so I have to cancel our Thursday date night. I imagine you might be upset, but I wanted to let you know. If you need to vent, go ahead.”
Travis may get angry, but now he can decide how he wants to spend his Thursday night and if he wants to fight about this issue for the next few days.
I say to you Conflict Avoiders out there: It is up to you. You can continue to try to meet the demands of everyone around you or you can realize that you can speak up and say what you think, feel, and want directly and early. Yes, people will have feelings and reactions, but you don’t have to take that away from them. The other person is an able, resourceful adult. So are you.
CrisMarie Campbell and Susan Clarke
Coaches, Business Consultants, Speakers and Authors of The Beauty of Conflict
CrisMarie and Susan work leaders and teams, couples in business, and professional women.
They help turnaround dysfunctional teams into high performing, cohesive teams who trust each other, deal with differences directly, and have clarity and alignment on their business strategy so they create great results.
Check out their website: www.thriveinc.com. Connect with CrisMarie and Susan on LinkedIn. Watch their TEDx Talk: Conflict – Use It, Don’t Defuse It! Find your copy of The Beauty of Conflict: Harnessing Your Team's Competitive Advantage here.