Jane is struggling to handle conflict:
“I get so mad I can’t even speak!” said Jane. “I literally bite my tongue, or my lip, to stop me from saying anything, because I know if I don’t I’ll blow my top and we’ll have an Almighty row! I hate handling conflict. But when I don’t say anything, I just get resentful and angry.”
Jane has 3 issues relating to handling conflict:
- How Jane thinks about conflict — or the way she represents conflict in her mind.
- As a result of 1. She tries to avoid conflict.
- Jane doesn’t have the skills to handle conflict in a way that helps her be heard and understood.
Unfortunately, Jane isn’t the only one to encounter these problems. So let’s look at conflict from a wider perspective, but with some specific examples.
Look at the word ‘Conflict’
What images, sounds and feelings spring to your mind in response to seeing the word?
Most people associate the word conflict with negative images: battles, fistfights, arguing, or a combative and forceful disagreement. With these kinds of pictures in our heads, it’s no wonder we avoid conflict.
But avoiding conflict doesn’t make it go away
In fact, the more you avoid conflict, the more likely you are to experience it. It’s true — as you’ll see. So let’s explore the topic a little more, as well as ways to handle conflict — like a hero.
You might relate to the real people I’ve written about in this post, and gain some insights about how you can change your way of thinking about conflict, your responses to it — or both!
Here are three cases of conflict avoidance — and their outcomes:
1. Jane’s husband, Gareth, has a short fuse
Gareth doesn’t hide his feelings. He prefers to get any problems off his chest at the time they concern him. Even minor inconveniences seem to irritate him, and if Jane disagrees, an argument ensues. Gareth becomes angry. He raises his voice, paces up and down and occasionally bangs his fist on the table. Gareth doesn’t always direct his anger towards Jane. Nevertheless, Jane pictures Gareth being angry when she thinks of conflict.
Once he’s let off steam, Gareth’s anger dissipates as quickly as it built. He’s back to his normal, affable self. Jane suppresses her anger — yet it’s right there, just beneath the surface.
Jane doesn’t enjoy arguing
After 12 years of marriage, Jane’s concluded that it’s not worth saying anything when Gareth is irritable. She feels uncomfortable arguing. So she keeps her thoughts and feelings to herself and bites her tongue — sometimes until it’s almost bleeding.
She can’t keep those explosive feelings inside forever
Of course, now and then, when she’s so angry she could explode, she tells Gareth explicitly how she feels. And she doesn’t just inform him about the current issue she’s frustrated about.
Oh no! All the other conflicts she’s bottled up and hasn’t handled rupture and flood out of her like lava from a volcano!
Gareth feels overwhelmed when Jane lambasts him with this multitude of problems. A vicious argument ensues. This just confirms to Jane that she should have kept quiet in the first place; and that she should avoid conflict at all costs.
2. Darren is an engineer who’s at a loss for words
In Darren’s new role, he has a team of guys working for him. They’re a pretty straightforward bunch of blue-collar workers who call a spade a spade (unless they trip over one!?).
Most of them are experienced in their roles and know what works ‘on the job’. Before Darren’s current job, he’d always worked with other engineers who sought and respected his point of view. But in his new work environment, his team questions his instructions and argues with him about the best way to get the job done. He feels at a loss to explain his decisions to people without an engineering background. He interprets his teams’ challenges as conflict, disagreement, and antagonism.
3. Judy is too scared to speak up
She has 8 years of experience in the company she works for, and she knows she does a better job than most people in her team. They always ask Judy for advice because she’s the most experienced member of the staff. In a casual conversation, she’s just discovered that her salary is lower than two, less experienced people in her team.
She feels hard done by
The discovery has knocked her confidence and self-esteem. ‘Maybe I’m not as good as I believe I am,’ she thinks. She doesn’t want to ask for more money, because she avoids anything that could cause conflict. But now she’s questioning her own ability and doesn’t have the confidence to look for another job.
Their concept of conflict is out of whack with reality
For Jane, Darren and Judy — like many others — conflict has unwanted connotations. They perceive conflict as; an argument, a disagreement, antagonism, hostility, a free-for-all, or a fistfight! Imagine the pictures, sounds and feelings that might accompany those representations!
If you want to handle conflict like a hero, it’s important to think about it in a different way.
Try reframing it as a way to resolve a problem. Does it feel more manageable? After all, many great changes can come out of conflict.
Another problem arises from trying to avoid conflict
The people who avoid conflict are often the most conflicted. By avoiding conflict with other people, they end up in a conflict with themselves!
How dodging disagreements affects each of these people
1. Jane — the conflict avoider
Although Jane’s become quite skilled at avoiding conflict with her husband, the battle inside Jane has escalated. She constantly has make-believe arguments with Gareth. In her mind she says all the things she’d like to say to him if only she had the courage. Bitter and heated quarrels go round and round in her mind, causing untold mental, emotional and physical dis-stress. She never says them out loud because her unconscious images of conflict make her fearful.
2. Darren — the gentle heart
In Darren’s mind, the word ‘conflict’ conjures up a picture of a verbal argument followed by a fistfight. (Yes, honestly!) This makes him feel downright uncomfortable when challenged. It’s easy to understand why Darren would avoid conflict, being a gentle soul at heart.
3. Judy — the undervalued employee
Judy doesn’t know how to approach her boss about how undervalued she’s feeling. She doesn’t know how to get her needs met without getting angry and loud or, conversely becoming moody and sulking. It seems more comfortable to avoid it. But once again she retains the conflict — inside herself. She feels resentful towards her boss and her co-workers, and she looks for evidence to support her feelings.
She finds the evidence
Of course, if you look for anything hard enough, you’ll find it. Judy notices that some other team members get more time off than she does. They get given the perk jobs. She still says nothing, but each scrap of ‘evidence’ feeds the seething anger building inside. She’s come for coaching because she needs to build her confidence so she can get another job — thus still avoiding conflict.
A repeated pattern
Under cross-examination ???? I discover she’s repeated this pattern of avoiding conflict, in both her work and personal life, for as long as she can remember. I give her a task to do before she returns for her next appointment. It’s just a small task;
She is to tell three people each day
- Something she genuinely appreciates about them or their behaviour,
- What it means to her and
- How she feels as a result.
I give her a couple of examples:
“I really appreciate it when you give me the report I asked for on time. It means I can get to work compiling my report straight away and don’t have to do it over the weekend. I love having a work-free weekend.”
“I love it when you make us both a drink when I get home from work. It’s great to have that time to check in with each other before we get involved in dinner and household chores.”
That’s all she has to do.
This simple task accomplishes two things; first, it’s positively focused (many people feel more comfortable giving bouquets than brickbats). Second, she’s telling people how she feels.
An improvement in well-being
The following week, Judy feels accomplished. She’s had favourable responses from letting people know the positive impact they’ve had on her. Her confidence is growing.
The next step is to address her pay issue
I have her practice getting into a calm and curious state. Curiosity is a delightful state to cultivate, because it keeps your mind open. Then I get her to visualise a meeting with her boss where they are each talking calmly and both listening to what the other has to say.
Now, she’s to tell her boss how she feels about her pay, as it relates to her co-workers. The format is the same as the one she practised the week before, except this time she’ll say what she didn’t appreciate about a behaviour. I.e
- When I discovered I was being paid less than two other staff members who have less experience than me…
- I was shocked. I felt undervalued and hurt. It really knocked my confidence.
- I’m thinking that maybe I should look for another job.
(You might notice that b) and c) have been reversed in this example. The order isn’t important so long as you include each piece.)
There’s another segment to add; to tell him she wants to understand the logic behind her lower pay.
We practice with a few role-plays, and then she leaves to undertake the real conversation.
Fast forward a week
Judy arrives, grinning from ear to ear, and — I swear — several centimetres taller. She couldn’t wait to tell me how she’d done her homework, how her boss had responded and how she would get a raise in pay — backdated!
More importantly, Judy felt intensely proud of herself. She’d addressed the issues calmly, so that her boss could hear her concerns. As I pointed out, she’d handled — and survived — a conflict! There was no blood or guts on the office carpet.
“It was so easy! Once I changed the way I thought about it, I really wanted to give my boss a chance to sort it out for me. And he did! It seems unbelievable now that I built it up into such a big deal.”
For Judy, talking to her boss was the first step in a journey of authentically valuing herself, so she no longer suppressed conflict inside her. And, because she began respecting herself, others appreciated her more.
The odd thing is, over time, she had fewer conflicts to deal with!
In one of my training courses, Jane realised she had been unintentionally contributing to her husband’s anger and her own resentment. She didn’t address issues as they came up but bottled them all up inside. Eventually, she became so resentful that they all came out in a tirade. This made it almost impossible for her husband to isolate and deal with them all. He just felt utterly overwhelmed.
Jane was so bitter most of the time that even when her husband was pleasant and considerate, she didn’t thank him or do anything else to show she’d even noticed. She got the same homework I’d given Judy; to tell her husband how she appreciated his thoughtful gestures and the impact that they had on her.
There were two reasons for this
- To feel comfortable saying how she felt in non-threatening, non-confrontational situations, so her husband could hear her.
- To notice the pleasant side of his nature — the reason she married him in the first place.
By concentrating on what she enjoyed about his personality, she noticed him repeating the behaviours she wanted a lot more frequently. It also made it much easier for her to say how she felt in ‘conflict’ situations without them antagonising one another. When she could talk quietly and calmly, she found he would listen. This meant she didn’t have to bottle things up inside. They dealt with issues as they arose.
Darren simply changed the conflict pictures he had in his head! Instead of making pictures of people fighting and arguing, he made pictures of people talking and listening to resolve a problem. He learnt that questioning is a great way to understand. When his team questioned him about his engineering plans, he stopped being defensive. He answered the questions openly and honestly.
Clarification was often all that was needed
Many times, his team needed more information to ensure they could achieve the goal. Darren discovered something else, too. When he listened to his team, often, they would come up with better ways of achieving the desired result.
Their suggestions were frequently more practical and economical than those Darren had thought of. He and his team were learning from each other and going from strength to strength.
7 tips to help you handle conflict — like a hero
- Notice how you think about the word conflict? What images, sounds and emotions become clear when you put your attention on the word ‘conflict’?
- Suppose you thought about conflict as an opportunity to resolve an issue. Would this change how you feel about how you might handle conflict?
- Remember, you can’t avoid conflict. If you don’t address it with the other person(s) the conflict will stay within you. In the long term, it’s likely to cause mental, emotional and physical dis-stress.
- How are you making the situation worse by avoiding it? What message do other people receive by your action or inaction and is that the message you intend them to have? If not, do something different and notice what responses you get.
- Practice noticing how you feel in different situations and try putting a word to your emotions. You can do this in your head to start with. (‘I’m feeling confident, upset, uneasy, disappointed, joyous, etc.’)
- Practice telling people how you feel when they do something you’re grateful for. It’s often more comfortable to say, ‘I really appreciated the way you listened to my side of the story. I felt valued and relaxed.’ Or ‘I was grateful for your support for the proposal, I felt so much more confident and in control’. Notice what happens when you do this.
- Finally, use the same template to tell people when you’re unhappy about a situation or behaviour. Give them the opportunity to respond and listen carefully, making sure only one of you talks at a time.
Want to learn more about handling conflict and dealing with disagreements?
Tags: Communication skills, Conflict, Resilience, Thinking and mindset