Two Step for Conflict Avoiders


When voices rise and conflict escalates, do you step forward and engage?  Or step back and assess? This post is for people who favor the latter, and for those who live and work with them.  I’ll give you another two-step for conflict resolution, a practical strategy when engagement is difficult. 

Some Conflict Avoidance is Good

Let’s start by honoring “step back and assess” as a response to conflict. Life brings endless friction. We are confronted, goaded, and obstructed from every corner. It’s hard to get through even a day without someone or something in our face.

In chronically contested space, engaging all challengers is impossible.  When someone gives you the finger for your unexpected shift of lanes while driving, do you pull over to talk things through?  Hardly.  What would be the point?  You shrug, mutter to yourself, ignore the jackal, and drive on.

So the arts of skillful avoidance are essential to survival: Silence, distance, non-involvement, non-responsiveness, impassiveness, circumspection, studied neutrality, inaccessibility, biding your time.  All have a place as strategies to avoid battles not worth the cost of fighting or for which we are poorly prepared.

Choose your battles.  Manage carefully how you use the energies you direct to conflict.   If you’re not good at conflict avoiding, get to work on it!

When Avoiding Conflict Makes Things Worse

But.  If shrugging, ignoring and moving on is our primary response to all conflict, we pay a high price.  Early in my career I was puzzled to discover that the conflicted organizations I worked with seemed to be full of the nicest of people.  In one-on-one interaction I was often touched by their kindness and good intentions.  Why were these places where people tried so hard to maintain pleasantness and decency the sites of such vicious battles?

People avoided conflict for years, but seethed inside.  Eventually feelings grew too strong to hold back, and things exploded, sometimes triggered by issues of little consequence.  "Long periods of cottony silence punctuated by periodic explosions" was how one person described her experience in a conflict-avoiding group.

When relationships are ongoing, over-use of conflict avoidance is a setup for big trouble.  When issues are allowed to fester unresolved, feelings grow.  Then, when they do finally burst into the open, they are harder to manage than ever.

Conflict resolution ability is like a muscle that requires regular use to maintain.  If you don’t  challenge and constructively confront on small issues and practice there the skills of calm self-assertiveness and thoughtful engagement required for resolving conflicts, you’ll be helpless to function well in big ones.

A Two Step Strategy for Conflict Avoiders

If overuse of conflict avoidance is an issue in your life, you can do something about it, either as an avoider or as someone trying to engage an avoider.

Start by understanding how avoiding benefits the avoider.  Conflict avoidance gives opportunity to: 1) Manage emotions and reduce stress and tension; 2) Gather information about the issues, options, and people involved before taking a stand or making a decision; 3) Withdraw, review, and prepare for engagement.

You can achieve those without staying stuck in avoidance by using a two-step approach that provides space to think things through and prepare for conversation:

1) Step One:  Have a short "tabling" conversation to acknowledge or inform your counterpart that there are issues requiring discussion.  Take care not to let this initial exchange go deep or long as this would defeat the purpose of the whole strategy.  Aim for a short, light initial indication that discussion is needed and seek agreement on a time for extended conversation later.

2) Step Two:  Have the discussion at a mutually agreed time and place, after those involved have had a chance to think through their views, expectations, hopes, etc.

I learned this version of the two-step from Dr. Barbara Date of Eugene, Oregon, who learned it from Professor Susan Gilmore at University of Oregon.  Barbara tells of a friend whose young son loved to go to the beach.  Her friend would sometimes wake up on Saturday morning, notice a beautiful day dawning, and at breakfast say, “Let’s go to the beach!”   His son would then get upset and start crying!

The concept of two-step mental processing helps make sense of the puzzle.  The boy was a person who needs time to think things through and prepare himself internally.   Whether delightful or difficult  made no difference.   Unexpected change with no time to process it was disturbing.

People wired with a deep need to do an internal review before committing to anything will instinctively say no if presented with a request or proposal that requires an immediate answer.  For them, Barbara says, “If you want an answer now, it’s usually no.  If you can wait, the answer is often maybe”.

In conflict resolution, a two step approach allows conflict avoidance to function as a true strength and sets the stage for the use of other conflict styles.  The key is to accept and work with avoidance but add planning and structure to it.

Get a detailed report 6 page report on your conflict styles with the  Style Matters Conflict Style Inventory.   Use the free 24 page "Trainers Guide to Successful Conflict Styles Workshops" to design a workshop that will energize your team.  Download it now!

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Sunday, 19 May 2024