When I started out as a conflict coach, I decided to write a one pager explaining exactly what it is I do. I did this because of the fact that there seem to be a lot of misconceptions surrounding the concept of conflict coaching ( No, I am not a mediator, nor am I here to solve your conflict for you ) and it seemed convenient to me to have something concise to hand to people in case I didn’t have time to explain the idea to them fully.
Of course, after writing my texts, I sent them to a good amount of people asking for feedback. Having quite the outspoken circle of friends and acquaintances, I was expecting (and welcoming!) a good deal of constructive criticism on the content of my one pager. Maybe I didn’t convey the concept in a way that everyone could grasp it, maybe it was too detailed or not detailed enough?
I was quite surprised to receive the exact same feedback from almost everyone : maybe you should not use the word ‘conflict’. Is there a word you could use that sounds less intimidating?
This to me ironically illustrates the biggest problem our society has in relation to conflict. We are so afraid of it, we want to avoid it so badly, that we are not even comfortable calling the beast by its name. We want it to be disguised, decorated with flowers and hearts and rainbows or just to ignore it altogether. We are not only conflict avoidant, we even shy away from simple differences in opinion as to not accidentally offend someone’s sensitivities.
The main driver behind this behaviour is fear. Fear of hurting the other person, fear of hurting the relationship, fear of being rejected and so on. But not only does this attitude actually CAUSE more conflict in the long run, it also makes it difficult to get your point across in a clear manner and it is slowly but surely creating a generation which can no longer handle any form of criticism.
So, how can we learn to look at conflict in a more positive light, possibly even embracing it? Here are some things you might want to consider next time you catch yourself holding your tongue when you really want to speak up:
1. Avoidance is really an illusion
Sure, avoidance may make you feel better right now. Very few people actually enjoy confrontation. Unfortunately, sticking your head in the sand does not make your problem disappear. Eventually, whatever you are bottling up will inevitably start to fester and find a way out somehow. When the pent up frustration finally finds a release, it's usually not pretty.
You might start complaining about the situation to others, seeking support and thereby dragging them into the issue. One fine day you may just blow up over some little thing because you’ve been holding back for so long. Or maybe you’ll just drop dead from a sudden heart attack from all the stress the situation is causing you.
Either way, avoidance will create a lot more drama and have a worse outcome than sitting through some awkward conversations in order to resolve your conflict. I promise.
2. Conflict increases creativity and strengthens your character
Imagine, for a moment, a world in which everyone would agree on everything. There would be very little to no technological or medical advancement, as no one would ever question the designs and theories of their predecessors. There would be no exchange of ideas, no different and fresh perspectives on things.
How would we be able to grow as individuals or as a society? How would our businesses be able to flourish? Conflict challenges us, keeps us on our toes and helps us become more well-rounded people; questioning one's own realities from time to time is a healthy thing.
It would be better to try approaching differences in opinion with a certain curiosity, for they truly are learning opportunities.
3. Conflicts make for better relationships
This may sound very counter intuitive, as the number one reason stated for conflict avoidance is the fear of damaging the relationship with the other person.
But, as mentioned previously, ignoring the elephant in the room does not simply make it go away. Eventually you may start to feel contempt for the other party involved, as conflicts have a tendency to escalate and become more personal if they are not addressed. Your interactions with each other could slow down, stop or even become hostile.
However, if you choose to reach out and face the confrontation head on, you might come to a resolution together. Or you might not, but at least you will have cleared the air and given all involved an opportunity to speak their minds. Doing so in a respectful way will make others see you as a confident person whom they can turn to for honest feedback and leadership. You will end up with a greater understanding of one another's character and point of view, which can benefit and deepen the relationship in the long run.
So next time your fear of conflict rears its ugly head, don't run. Instead, grit your teeth, straighten your back and say what you feel you need to say. You will be a better person for it.