Why I Stopped Avoiding Conflict and How it Changed My Life

Some practical tips about conflict in everyday life and how to engage more positively with the conflicts you encounter.

by Taylor O’Connor | 11 April 2020

Photo by Zdeněk Macháček on Unsplash

“Peace does not mean an absence of conflicts; differences will always be there. Peace means solving these differences through peaceful means; through dialogue, education, knowledge; and through humane ways.” — Dalai Lama

As a kid, my strategy for dealing with conflict was simple: first cry, then run away.

I would observe my big brother arguing with our parents to get more cookies, more playtime, a later bedtime, or what have you. My five-year-old brain figured he was at about a 50/50 win-lose ratio. And I wondered if it was worth all the trouble.

I was the kind of kid who could sit alone all day and keep himself entertained. No human interaction needed. Mum gave me a pep talk the day before I went off to Kindergarten. I think she was worried I’d be too afraid to talk to anybody.

In primary school, I was cautious in my interactions with others. I’d answer questions only when called on. When other kids had arguments on the playground, I kept my distance. Extreme introversion was my safe place.

I remember vividly the day our substitute teacher lost her sh!t on me. It was sometime around the fourth grade. She must have called on me or something. I don’t know really. My mind had wandered off again. And she shouted, “HEY! HEY!! HEY!!! What are you doing? Can’t you see I’m teaching here! Everyone else is paying attention!!! Aaaaaaannnnnd…….. where… were… you???? Off in LA LA LAND?!?!?”

My classmates giggled.

And my response… nothing.

My capacity for handling conflict hadn’t evolved much beyond the cry and run strategy. Crying wouldn’t have looked good in this setting. Running would have been absurd. So I just sat there, speechless.

My interactions with this particular substitute teacher did not improve. She took my daydreaming as a grave personal disrespect to her. My ability to remain focused did not improve. And as the days passed, she carried on trying to catch me when my mind wandered and jolt me back to reality with a shout. I sank further into my shell.

I suppose my natural tendency to avoid conflict kept me out of trouble in high school and focused in college. When I wasn’t happy with someone, I would distance myself from them. If I didn’t like a particular teacher, I’d try to transfer to another class. The people I hung around with tended to be conflict-averse like myself.

But there were times I couldn’t run. If someone said or did something I didn’t like, I wouldn’t say anything. I’d just suck it up and deal with it. I defaulted to self-sacrifice over speaking up for myself. It wasn’t healthy.

It wasn’t until college, however, that I began to recognize how harmful conflict avoidance is.

During summers, I worked as a camp counselor and was involved over consecutive years in training and supporting seasonal staff. On any given year we had about five teams, each with about four or five persons per team, leading groups of about forty children in various locations. Each year there was always one team that worked together perfectly, communicated well, solved problems together, were creative, and at the end of the day just seemed to be having tons of fun. Other teams mostly got along fine. But there was always one team that just wasn’t working properly.

I was curious to observe that issues in these teams never manifested as open conflict. It was the inability of team members to address minor issues amongst them that messed everything up. It affected everything, and you could see that they were just not having fun. The best teams, on the other hand, had disagreements amongst team members, but they resolved them quickly. I became interested in breaking this pattern of conflict avoidance, but didn’t yet know how to respond any other way.

It wasn’t until some years later, when I studied conflict dynamics as part of my post-graduate studies, that I ventured outside my conflict avoidance shell. I was ready for it. And the funny thing is that I didn’t try to stop avoiding conflict. It all just sort of happened.

You see, I was part of a group of students working to raise awareness about some issue on campus. It all seemed to be going along fine, until it wasn’t of course. On behalf of our group, I went to Rector’s office to get a routine approval to use one of the university classrooms rooms for a student group meeting. And within thirty seconds of our conversation, all of the sudden, he flipped the fu*k out on me. He was screaming and calling me names, demanding the student group disband, threatening to have me expelled and physically removed from campus by the security guards, etc. etc. etc.

My response was different this time though. No more running away. This time I wouldn’t be bullied into submission.

How my life has changed since I stopped avoiding conflict

I’ve been in plenty of conflicts since then. It turns out that there are plenty of people out there ready and willing to lose their sh!t on me for one reason or another. And instead of running the other way, I now welcome it as an opportunity to practice different ways to deal with conflict.

My life is different now, for the better. And while I’m not perfect on this, I hope that sharing my experiences in engaging will be helpful for other conflict avoiders out there.

So how exactly has my life changed since I stopped avoiding conflict? Well, after some reflection, I’ve mapped eight key ways my life has changed. I can’t say that these are universal truths for other lifelong conflict avoiders like I was. I’ll let you draw your own conclusions.

1. There are more conflicts, and more solutions.

As the years have passed, there have been more conflicts. It isn’t that the conflicts weren’t there before. They were just simmering under the surface. I ignored them, but that doesn’t mean it was helping me or others. Since I started engaging with conflicts, they more often rise to the surface. While I don’t always get the outcome I desire, some of these conflicts get resolved well. Earlier, as a conflict avoider, my track record of resolving conflict was a steady zero. I’m much better off now.

2. I’m less afraid of failure.

Once I started engaging with conflict it became like second nature. Certainly, things haven’t always gone my way, but I’ve taken it as all part of the process. Just because I didn’t get what I wanted doesn’t mean that there wasn’t some positive change in some way, even if it wasn’t apparent right away. And I gain some learning each time.

3. I’m more aware of how I use my energy.

As a conflict avoider, simmering conflicts I ignored drained my energy. But this was my default, my only option. It was like I didn’t have a choice.

Once I started engaging with conflict I recognized how much energy it takes. These days, when I encounter a potential conflict, I consider the time and energy it would require. In some cases, a particular conflict is not worth my time. In others, I’m fully in it. It all depends on a number of factors. But in the end, the level and type of engagement I may (or may not) have with any given conflict is a conscious decision.

4. I challenge people in power, and sometimes power structures.

I’m just gonna put it out there. It bothers me when people abuse their power and authority. I didn’t recognize this when I was a conflict avoider. Now, I observe that those conflicts I do engage with most always involve somebody abusing their power, to bully me or others. I stand for it no longer, no matter what level of authority or influence such persons have. I’ll take them on and sometimes challenge the system that gives them such absolute power.

Some people think I’m reckless, or that I should have greater respect for authority. I’d like to think that I’ve gained some deep insight into power dynamics and human behavior. Or perhaps its that I just don’t give a fu*k anymore.

5. I’m not afraid of offending others, or being offended.

When I was a conflict avoider the thing that I was most afraid of was offending others. These days, it’s not that I’m trying to offend people. I do my best to keep the focus on words and actions, not on people. But if people choose to be offended, well, that’s their choice. Perhaps they’ll have a chance to later reflect on why they got so offended and develop some greater self-awareness. Or perhaps they’ll continue being a sh*tbag for all eternity. It’s up to them really. I’m not bothered.

As for myself being offended, well, if persons are making things personal and seeking to offend, I find it is more often a reflection of their own character than of myself. There is no sense in getting bent out of shape over it. I try to strike a balance between showing compassion for whatever personal struggles they may have and keeping firm in my conviction.

6. I’m more skillful at communicating with difficult people.

Engaging with difficult people has given me opportunities to hone my listening and communication skills. When engaging with people who have big egos and are easily triggered, it is necessary to be creative in how you communicate with them. I have learned to be more aware of not only the words I use, but also how others receive them. And it takes practice. I’ve found that people who have little control over their emotions (also commonly with patterns of aggressive behavior) often have strong reactions when you speak directly about their behaviors. While I’ve tried not to avoid addressing bad behavior, I found it best to make decisions about how I communicate based on what approach would best contribute to the outcome I hope to achieve.

7. I recognize why (certain) people are bothered by me (and have conflict with me).

While I’ve chosen to engage in some conflicts, other conflicts have chosen me. I like to reflect and find patterns that emerge across unrelated conflicts. For example, I tend to prefer to stay in the background and support others to be leaders. But in some situations where activities are falling apart for lack of leadership, I have chosen to take initiative and be a more visible lead. In these situations, sometimes I encounter people who are not happy with how I lead and allow a burning resentment to grow inside of them. And they bottle it up until it explodes.

Usually, the main issue is that these people wanted to be the leader but were too self-conscious to step forward. And often, they have lots of complicated emotions going on. Such is the pattern as I’ve observed it. And after a few occasions like this, I’ve become better at spotting these types of people and diffusing the situation before it gets out of control.

8. I have a greater imagination.

In conflict with others, I’ve experienced that it is easy to get in a deadlock. Most people aren’t thinking outside the box. They are stuck to their positions and lack the creative foresight to imagine anything beyond a win-lose solution. To come up with solutions that are suitable for everyone involved, it is often necessary to tap into your creative intuition and come up with alternative solutions. Being in the midst of a conflict and genuinely seeking solutions forces one to engage their imaginative capacities.

Apply these tips to help you engage with conflict positively

I hope these tips from my life and experience are helpful for you and you can use them to engage with conflict positively.

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