I am naturally conflict-averse. I always have been, and I still am. But over the years I’ve learned how to better manage my sensitivity to tension, how to better communicate with those I disagree with, and how to stay true to myself while still being considerate of others.
I’m still a work in progress, but here is some of what I’ve learned so far.
1. Accept that conflict is inevitable.
If you are human, there are moments when you are going to disagree with other humans. There will be times when other people annoy you, hurt you, or confuse you. It’s a fact of life. I often wish people could read my mind and anticipate my needs better than I even can, but usually they can’t. We are not in each other’s heads. We are all operating from different contexts––different life experiences, perspectives, sensitivities, and awareness––and inevitably misunderstandings arise and differing viewpoints clash.
If you’re like me and highly value peace and harmony, conflict is uncomfortable. But it’s important to remind yourself that it’s not wrong. It can actually lead to increased intimacy and understanding of one another, if we let it.
2. Learn to be logical.
I am a very emotional person. When conflict arises, many of us become emotional. But strong emotions are often illogical and almost always unhelpful when trying to resolve a conflict. Most of us become irrational when someone hits a sensitive spot. We start to feel rejected or insecure, and then we react from fear or shame.
And then things escalate. Especially if we emotionally react by jabbing the other person’s sensitive spot.
Learning to separate yourself and the situation from your emotions is a super helpful skill. This is also called: Don’t take it personally. (Or self-regulation, if you want to get technical about it.)
If someone close to you to is confronting you, most likely their intention isn’t to reject you or tear you down. They probably just want to resolve a problem. So focus on resolving that problem.
Take a step back and evaluate what the person is saying to you, however distasteful it may be. Is it a legitimate criticism or concern? Are they speaking from their own emotion? Is it worth nit-picking about? Are they looking for a practical solution or is this really about something else?
3. Accept that being in the wrong is okay.
This is part of being logical. I don’t like being wrong or being criticized, because I feel easily shamed. So when someone confronts me about something, I can go into survival mode––I get defensive, aggressive, and/or go cold. But logically, it stands to reason that I will sometimes be in the wrong. And that’s okay.
Being wrong happens to all of us. There’s no reason to feel ashamed. You’re only human. And someone pointing this out to you is the only way to grow and change. (So it’s actually a good thing you’re being painfully confronted.)
It is humbling, uncomfortable, and painful to face your own flaws and shortcomings. But it’s good for you. Embracing that will get a lot of unnecessary turmoil out of the way. Then you will be free to find a logical solution to the situation. Apologize, adjust, compromise. Or, the issue might be deeper and require a more extended process to resolve. In that case, read on.
4. Seek to understand. Always.
This is not easy. I learned this concept as a kid from Stephen Covey’s famous 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and promptly absorbed it. Seek first to understand, then to be understood. I believe it’s habit number 4? That advice has shaped my life in a ridiculously positive way.
However, this wisdom is not easy to put into practice. Especially when you’re in the middle of a conflict and someone is shouting at you, shutting you out, or doing something infuriating. It’s essential, however, to never stop seeking to understand. The more valuable the relationship is to you, the more crucial this is.
The ways other people think or clean or communicate can seem illogical. They really can. But instead of judging or assuming, it’s always better to ask and to listen.
Sometimes your habits may just bother someone else––it may really be that surface level. But often it’s about something deeper. Often they feel disrespected, unloved, or overlooked by your actions, when you may not intend to make them feel that way at all. The only way to figure that out is to ask and listen.
5. Learn to fight it out.
Pick your battles, yes. Having the self-control to let go of something without ever bringing it up is a valuable life skill. However, if you’re reading this post, chances are, you usually struggle with the opposite problem. Having the boldness to be honest about things that bother you or hurt you is an equally important skill.
Your needs, your opinions, and your feelings are important.
It’s scary to let someone in. To really let them know how they hurt you. To admit to someone you love that you disagree. But in order to have real intimacy with someone, you have to.
Sometimes you need to simply overlook an offense. But I have learned the hard way that holding back during an argument can be dangerous. Sometimes you need to fight it out, to tell the other person exactly what you are feeling and thinking. You need to express it all because whatever you hold back can later become fuel for resentment.
But they don’t know about this sacrifice I made for them! you’ll say. They don’t understand how I suffered in that situation!
And they won’t. Because you didn’t tell them.
It’s not anyone’s responsibility to read your mind, no matter how long they’ve known you. It’s your responsibility to communicate your thoughts and needs. Where things go from there is up to the both of you.
Conflict is Scary
Because there are no guarantees. Telling someone how you really feel could change the relationship forever. You might have to face your own ugliness. You might have to face the ugliness of someone you love. It could get messy.
But working through conflict forges stronger relationships and personal growth. Avoiding conflict actively prevents your relationship from becoming more intimate, more secure, and more connected. You can’t truly know someone or be truly known without facing the sticky situations and having the awkward conversations. It might not be fun, but if it’s a valuable relationship, it will be worth it. And whatever the outcome, it’s important not to live in fear.
So as someone once exhorted me, let’s embrace the tension and run toward the awkward! At least once in awhile . . .