How Conflict Avoidance Creates Conflict, and What To Do About It

If you’re averse to conflict, and can’t bear the thought of getting yourself into one, you’re not alone. So many people would much rather have a root canal than bear the thought of actually confronting a potential conflict situation, with a spouse, a coworker or boss, or a family member. Unfortunately, not dealing with conflict doesn’t mean the conflict isn’t there anymore; chances are, it will become worse by not dealing with it, and have additional negative effects.

The problem is, when we avoid conflict, it usually ends up hurting us more. If we avoid talking about the issues that might lead to conflict, other people are forced into making assumptions about us, which don’t represent our true intentions.

Others might take your avoidance personally, rather than truly understand you don’t like to engage in conflict. They might react to us through those assumptions about our withdrawal or not talking about it, and then create other problems on top of the original one. They might think you’re having a totally different problem than you’re really having if you keep quiet, don’t say anything or don’t acknowledge what you’re feeling. Those people may be able to intuitively pick up the negative tension coming from you, without you having to say one word.

For example, if you’re married or in a relationship, and you avoid conflict, your spouse may start to think that they are flawed, or that they are the problem in the marriage. He or she may take things more personally than they need to. They may not know what keeps you avoidant or withdrawn, and be forced into created assumptions (albeit false ones) about what is really happening inside of you, because you’re not dealing head on with the conflict.

Sometimes, the tension you avoid may come out when you’re drinking, or through inappropriate statements or behavior. Many passive-aggressive people – conflict avoiders themselves – use tactics like sarcasm, guilt, or just plain withdrawal to deal with a potential conflict. They might dance around the issue, never being straight about their feelings. They may use these “safer” means to get their point across, or their anger through, which creates more problems internally within the conflict avoider. When we repress our anger or frustration, it only harms ourselves.

Conflict avoidance also prevents you from getting what you want in life. It may not give you the job promotion you wanted, or deepen the relationship you really care about. Conflict avoidance is based in fear, and if you live life in fear, you’re creating an alternate and less desirous outcome for your life in many ways, some of which you may not be aware of.

Conflict avoiders are afraid of others’ anger and criticisms of them. They fear rejection by others, so they don’t set themselves up for the conflict that could bring on that rejection. Many times, conflict avoiders are also people pleasers, who try to make others feel good and happy to their own expense. Sometimes, people pleasing goes hand-in-hand with conflict avoidance, although they’re not necessarily the same thing.

There are things to look out for and tools that can help you if you avoid conflict. It can be turned around, like so many things, but it takes effort and practice, and some courage to put yourself in uncomfortable positions.

Here are 8 ways to deal with conflict avoidance if this is your problem:

  1. Ask yourself: what is the absolute worst that can happen if I confront this person or situation? Can I deal with those consequences, even if they get mad or reject me?
  2. Try to sift through what’s rational and what’s irrational when considering approaching your conflict. See what your mind is telling you, and see what your fear may be generating that could be irrational.
  3. Try approaching a small conflict first, then build up to larger ones. Acclimate yourself to what it’s like to deal with conflict on a small scale before you move on.
  4. Use “I” language when confronting the person or conflict: “You know, I’m having a problem, and need to talk…” or “I’m feeling uncomfortable or upset about something that you did (or said) to me last week, and I’d like to talk through it.” Don’t blame the other person, or pin it on them, to maximize your chances of success.
  5. Be clear on what you want: you’re going to have so much more success if you know what you want, and clearly express that to the person you’re talking to. Not knowing, or not being clear, feeds insecurity or fear, which might help make you avoid the conflict.
  6. Remember that people’s feelings are their own! You’re not responsible for their feelings or their reactions. If they indeed get upset with you, that’s theirs and theirs alone. You’re responsible for your stuff, and not other peoples. You don’t need to caretake other people’s feelings and let that prevent you from dealing with a conflict. Don’t give others the power over you, and move forward. You can be considerate of their feelings, just not responsible for them.
  7. Look at how you may have learned how to avoid conflict growing up in your family. Did you learn it from an avoidant parent? Was conflict avoided in your family as a child? Challenge some of these family messages you may have picked up, and make conscious changes to turn this unconscious pattern around in your own life.
  8. Be proud of yourself when you successfully confront a conflict situation or person. Identify the guilt or regret your mind may be producing, and let it go.

If you respect yourself, and deal with your conflict, other people will respect you, too. They may not always agree or like what you’re saying, but you’ll be confident enough and have the right tools to be a pro in dealing with conflict.

Conflict is not easy to deal with, but it’s inevitable in life. No two people are perfectly synched so that they agree on everything all the time. Dealing with conflict is often times a lot less scary once you’re actually doing it; the fear comes from easing up to it in your mind. Take the risk, and you’ll be glad that you did.

About Jason

As "The Man That Men Will Talk To," Jason Fierstein, MA, LPC is a private practice counselor and psychotherapist for men and couples in the greater Phoenix, Arizona, area. He works with struggling men to find happiness in their lives, and with their wives.
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2 Responses to How Conflict Avoidance Creates Conflict, and What To Do About It

  1. Alex says:

    Great article. Thank you!

  2. Jim Garner says:

    I resented what my sister said to me for a whole year, which hurt my feelings,but i finally got the courage up to confront her.

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