Few people enjoy conflict. Most of us work hard to avoid it.

That’s often a mistake.

Avoiding conflict typically means that one or both parties must simmer in a stew of resentment, which can lead to catastrophic arguments or even permanent breakup.

But psychologists tell us the reason many avoid conflict is simply because we lack the knowledge to navigate disagreement.

So…first let’s understand two facts about conflict:

Disagreement is Natural

Everyday life is a stream of moments when people are often out of sync. Even at the very start of life, research suggests that babies are out of tune emotionally with their caregivers 70 percent of the time. They learn to mend ties with their gazes, smiles, gestures, and other unmistakable baby signaling.

As adults, we need to remind ourselves that conflict has a good side. “It offers us information about how we could work with others more effectively, improve our relationships, and grow as individuals,” observes mediator Adar Cohen.

Avoiding Conflict Does Not Mean You’re Weak

Some people are especially inclined to step around a conflict or withdraw. If you’re the conflict-avoider, you may feel ashamed or resentful. On the other hand, if you’re trying to get a conflict-averse person to change their behavior or agree on a plan, you may become angry.

It helps to recognize that avoiding conflict isn’t a character flaw. In a marriage, for example, most of the fighting has to do with issues that will never go away. According to famed marriage researchers John and Julie Gottman, your goal can’t be to resolve those differences, but rather to keep them from poisoning your happiness together. It’s freeing just to realize that it’s okay for a couple to avoid most conflicts.

A photo of a difficult conversation between a young man and an older woman.
There are many styles of conflict – and conflict-avoidance. Learn where you fit on the continuum.

But avoiding conflict nearly all the time creates a particular kind of marriage. According to the Gottmans, happy conflict-avoiding couples tend to maintain separate lives. They don’t express needs often or try to persuade their partner. But they’re happy with a clearly defined area in which they may be quite connected and caring.

Other couples jump into debates and intense fights. That’s okay too, the Gottmans say. Happy “volatile” couples keep laughing and don’t show contempt. They emphasize honesty and often do a lot together.

“Validating” couples fall in-between. They’ve gravitated towards the approach Cohen describes, which emphasizes understanding each other’s feelings and point of view. Although they’ll fight on certain topics and can get into power struggles, they never get too dramatic.

The general key, they say, is to find some mix of these styles you can both handle and keep a flow of positive interactions that outweigh the negative interactions by five to one.

No matter the style, they add that there are some conflict pitfalls to avoid.

The Gottmans found that they can predict with 90 percent accuracy which couples will divorce by watching how they fight. If you express not just anger but actual contempt, your partner may respond by stone-walling; that is, tuning out or acting busy with something else or just walking away.

If you criticize with statements like “You always,” you’re likely to hear a defense. Contempt, stone-walling, criticism, and defensiveness don’t solve or manage the conflict, and are consistent divorce harbingers.

So here’s advice from the mediator: Try the validating approach in a difficult conversation. Cohen describes these steps.

1. Prepare by Imagining Success

Let’s say Sarah, your twenty-something daughter, is living with you and working. You see her as a “drama queen” and she sees you as “flat” (She’s volatile and you’re an avoider). You have decided to ask her to pay rent and also do laundry for the family, but dread a flood of accusations that you don’t love her.

Before you approach Sarah, Cohen suggests imagining that you’ve just had the “best possible conversation” with her. Imagine that she listened intently while you completely explained your request (or, as it might be, a complaint). You feel good about the future of your relationship.

What would you say in the moment when you feel good about Sarah? Cohen suggests writing down the first statement that comes to mind. For example, “I can tell you care a lot about becoming independent and I have a lot of respect for you.” Cohen calls these statements “gems.”

Next, ask Sarah to prepare a gem for you.

Then, phone or meet with a trusted friend and say what you’re going to do with Sarah. With your friend you will complete the following four statements:

The biggest emotion that I’m feeling toward Sarah is…

The biggest emotion that I expect Sarah is feeling toward me is…

The gem statement I will make to Sarah is…

My hope for this difficult conversation is…

You might tell your friend that you’re not looking for advice, but a conversation with support and sympathy might help you clarify your gem.

2. Ask Compassionate Questions

When you talk to Sarah, start with your gem. Then say that you feel that you can work out the conflict. If she’s read Cohen’s guide and done her homework, she’ll have a gem of her own. According to Cohen, his mediation clients dread this moment, yet it typically turns out to bring the most relief.

A photo of a difficult conversation between two young women in an office.
Much of conflict-avoidance stems from imagining the conversation will go poorly. So imagine success to help make the outcome positive.

Next, you might ask Sarah:

  • How are you feeling now?
  • We’re both here because we think we can work this out. What’s still in the way for you?
  • What can I do to help?
  • Is there anything else you want to say to me?

Listen. This is the biggest task of every difficult conversation. If it becomes painful, remember the hope you shared with your friend, your reward for enduring discomfort.

It doesn’t even matter whether you agree or see any value in Sarah’s comments. Listening to Sarah will help her process emotions that are causing both of you trouble.

Share Your Feelings

When Sarah is done, it’s time for you to express emotion as well as your reasoning. Describe your own experience rather than making statements about Sarah. Are you hurt that Sarah doesn’t ask you about your day? Are you worried about money? Don’t expect Sarah to be able to hear feedback about herself. However, she might hear your emotions and respond with empathy.

The final question to ask each other is: “What has changed for you as a result of this conversation?”

Share anything positive that you feel and express gratitude. Is there anything you can realistically promise to do? Let’s say Sarah asks you not to bug her for the rent money if she doesn’t pay it on time. Can you agree to give her a week of leeway when that happens?

You don’t have to decide right now. Remember, a difficult conversation is a success if you both understand each other better.

We all know we’re supposed to listen, but may not realize that listening is to our own advantage.

“There is no more productive and efficient activity in a difficult conversation than listening,” Cohen writes. The solutions will come later, naturally.

Perhaps over a lovely salmon dinner.


Temma Ehrenfeld has been a writer for more than 30 years. Her novel "Morgan" is available at bookstores.

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