Getting over your fear of conflict
Updated: Nov 17
BANG!! Went the glass coffee table. In a million little pieces on the floor.
Or so my mum told me afterwards. I wasn't there. My mum and dad had an argument. No, let me rephrase that. My MUM was having an argument. And my dad got so frustrated that he landed the heel of his shoe on the glass table. With the inevitable result.
It's probably fair to say that a lot of what you learn about conflict comes from your early years.
For the longest time this meant that I wasn't very good at arguments. I avoided conflicts like the plague.
I was afraid of my anger. I was afraid of defending my boundaries (if I knew what they were in the first place). I was afraid of the results of conflict - and, you know, the consequences for various items of furniture.
I wanted to be 'nice' (now THERE's a word you don't want appearing on your grave stone!). I wanted to be liked. Which came at a cost. To my health. To my relationships. To my self-esteem (it's amazing how much you can resent yourself for not speaking up when you should have!).
Now, when I speak to my coaching clients I'm hearing the same thing. The fear of conflict. The wish to be liked. To live a peaceful life. The wish to avoid conflict - pretty much at all costs.
And I believe it's stopping you from doing the best job possible. It's stopping you from getting your voice heard. And it's stopping you from being happy.
Read that last sentence again:
Your fear of conflict and you avoiding it at all costs is stopping you from being happy.
Yeah, that sounded odd to me too at first. But here's why I think this is the case. And what you can do about it.
Conflict is natural
First of all, stick any two people in a house (or in an office). Make them do things together for a long time. Conflict is bound to happen.
Because there are two different people at play here. With their own backgrounds, their own thoughts, their own feelings, their own fears, their own opinions and their own agenda.
Multiply this to tens, hundreds or even thousands of people and it gets worse.
Conflict is natural. Not only that, conflict can be a good thing too!
Yes, that's me saying that! Conflict helps things to get better. If everyone is after the same good result, then conflict means that everyone will be coming up with solutions that make things even better.
If you think of conflict as a good thing, something that is bound to happen, how does that make you feel about conflicts now?
Disagreement is respect
I learned this one from my partner. His view is - and has always been - if I don't respect you I won't bother arguing with you.
Yeah, it took me a while to get my head around that one as well. You need to respect me to argue with me? At first this sounded as outlandish to me as the one where he told me that 'the English always have fights at weddings' (is that even true?).
But what I've come to understand is that if you don't rate someone's expertise and knowledge you're less interested in working out a solution between you. Because - you know - it's not worth it. You can handle it on your own.
Think of it like this. If you have a disagreement at work, it means that someone else is valuing your input. If that is the case then tuck that knowledge away and handle the conflict with the same respect that person has just given you.
What is the bigger picture here?
In change management we call it the VISION, the goal that we collectively work toward. It's one of the first things we work on. To establish that end goal. So that everyone knows what we're working towards. Even if we disagree about how to get there.
And that is one of the keys, isn't it? Because - if you accept that disagreements are natural - the next step is to consider:
Are we all clear on what we're trying to achieve here?, and
What are the different ways in which we can achieve that?
How are YOU feeling about it?
Yeah, that all sounded great. Very rational, and all that. But it's not that simple, is it? Because what you KNOW in your head and what you FEEL in your gut and your heart are two different things altogether.
Oh, emotions. I can write entire blogs on that subject alone!
But what I'm going to say about it here is this. I'm just reading this fantastic book by Lisa Feldman Barratt, How Emotions Are Made. It talks about how emotions are - well - made, solely by the predictions your brain are making.
This means that - if you have experienced conflict being handled in certain ways (say, by glass tables being smashed) - this influences your brain to make certain predictions. About how things are likely to go. How likely it is that you will be able to resolve that conflict.
And until you prove differently that is likely to continue to be the prediction your brain will make when it comes to conflicts.
So, why not do a bit of digging. Understand how you're feeling. Understand where that comes from. And choose to change that prediction mechanism in your brain.
Know your boundaries
Another point I want to make here is this: boundaries. Oh, how lovely it would be to know exactly where everyone's boundaries were. What is off-limits. What buttons (not) to push.
But, let's face it, we're not always that clear ourselves. About where our boundaries are. What is acceptable (behaviour) and what isn't. What our absolute MUST HAVEs are and what we are reasonably happy to compromise on.
Which often leaves us with an uncomfortable knot in our stomachs, some unexplained frustration or even anger, and the knowledge that we SHOULD have said something but - yet again - we didn't fight our corner (well enough) and let other people dictate what happens next. (I hear you).
Your boundaries. Knowing where your boundaries lie is SO important to be able to deal with conflict!
How to be assertive
Assertiveness. A word that - as a kid - I associated with local women's groups holding evening sessions in our local library. You know, all uncomfortably seated on purple, brown and orange cushions (yes, it was the seventies), balancing a cup of herbal tea and talking about how your husband didn't understand you.
But I've learned some valuable lessons since, and have come to understand that assertiveness is the key to conflict resolution.
The most useful advice I ever received was when I worked in a relatively unhappy team. There was a lot of mumbling and grumbling going on. Until we went on this team building day. In which we were taught how to be assertive. With a magic formula, which I'm about to share with you.
The magic formula - what to say in conflict situations:
Ingredient #1: 'I don't want you to do .....' (fill in the offending action or words)
Ingredient #2: 'Because it makes me feel .....' (fill in the emotion you're feeling - there is no arguing with how you're feeling)
Ingredient #3: 'Instead I'd like to suggest that you do ....' (this requires you to understand what your boundaries are, and how they can make a certain result happen WITHOUT trampling all over your boundaries)
A very simple formula. Which might - in the best possible case - resolve your conflict. In the worst possible case it will tell you more about the other person's motivations and gives you clues on how to move forward.
Understanding the other person
Every person thinks differently. Has different emotions. Has a brain that makes different predictions, based on their own experiences and background, which is different from yours.
Half of conflict resolution is about understanding the other person. Understanding where they're coming from.
Mind you, I'm saying it's half of the solution. Because KNOWING where someone is coming from doesn't mean that you should let the conflict go, or give in.
But understanding the other person will give you valuable clues to what that person is interested in, what his or her values are, what is important to them, professionally and personally, and what is likely to be the key to resolving the conflict.
Creating a win-win situation
And then, finally, we get to the win-win situation. Where it isn't one person winning and the other one (you) skulking off into your corner - fretting about having once again not fought your corner.
No, creating a win-win situation is about creating a result that satisfies both parties in the pursuit of a common goal.
So, there you have it, in my summary this is my magic potion for resolving conflicts:
Know your boundaries,
Know what you're both working towards
Understand the other person
Know how to say what you want (or in other words, how to be assertive, which is nothing to do with sitting on orange cushions OR having a useless whinge about your husband without doing something about it. If you are interested in resolving conflicts at home you may be interested in reading The Dance of Anger by Harriet Lerner), and
Create a win-win situation
And, to finish off, I'll tell you how that assertiveness exercise at work went. We had to stand up, look the person we were meant to have a conflict with in the eyes, and say the magic formula (see above). And then we had to switch partners. And do it again. And again.
Because, you see, this is the thing with your brain. It runs on predictions. If your brain predicts that you can't be assertive and stand your corner, based on previous experiences, it will continue to predict that that's what will happen next. With the accompanying unpleasant emotions.
By 'practising' your assertiveness you show your brain, over and over again, that these predictions are wrong. A next time it will predict differently. And it will make you feel differently as a result.
Addressing conflicts - instead of shying away from them - will make you feel happier.
What do you think? How are you when it comes to dealing with conflicts?
Tineke Tammes is an ICF credentialed Career Coach, who supports professional women in making successful transitions to careers of Freedom, Flexibility and Fulfilment! Besides that she is also a lifelong feminist, part-time portrait artist, never-only-read-one-book-at-any-time reader, and obsessive doodler. Oh, and she knows a bit about change management too.
Join her now in Pick 'n Mix - the FREE community for creative, multi-passionate women or sign up to the newsletter.