What it is
Imagine this scenario: You’ve been working hard on a presentation for several weeks, spending extra hours trying to get everything just right. You’ve overseen every detail and even woke up early to prepare for today’s meeting with your boss.
Now imagine a co-worker interjecting and taking all the credit for your work. But instead of being in touch with your anger and (rightly) speaking up, you choose to silently withdraw.
Being conflict avoidant means exactly that: being afraid of possible disagreements at all costs.
Aside from our work life, avoiding conflict can manifest in our romantic relationships, friendships, and even family dynamics.
While getting out of these damaging patterns is tricky, there are ways to move forward in the face of our fears and express our emotions authentically.
What it looks like
Conflict avoidance is a type of people-pleasing behavior that typically arises from a deep rooted fear of upsetting others.
Many of these tendencies can be traced back to growing up in an environment that was dismissive or hypercritical.
People who respond to conflict this way often expect negative outcomes and find it difficult to trust the other person’s reaction.
In other words, asserting your opinion can seem scary or unnerving.
You prefer to be seen as the “nice person” at work, for example, or may shy away from open, healthy conflict so as not to rock the boat.
In a relationship, this can look like going silent on a partner, changing the subject, or enduring uncomfortable situations instead of expressing issues openly.
Here are more examples of how this may manifest:
- stonewalling, or denying an issue exists by ignoring it
- fear of disappointing others
- deliberately sidestepping conversations
- silently resenting unresolved issues
Why it’s not helpful
When you avoid the slightest disagreement, you’re compromising your true feelings and storing up frustration that can end up negatively affecting your health.
One 2013 study found that bottling up our emotions can increase the risk of premature death, including death from cancer.
Laughing nervously or plastering a fake smile on our face instead of acknowledging distressing emotions can also lead to feelings of loneliness and depression.
Being conflict avoidant also impacts our relationships because we’re cutting off all honest communication with the other person.
While avoidance sometimes seems like the best way to deal with conflict, in the long run it ends up harming our intimacy.
Strategies for overcoming it
Recognize any of the above signs in yourself? The below tips can help you deal with an issue more assertively.
Disagreeing with someone doesn’t necessarily mean “fighting.” Keep in mind that it’s not about blaming the other person or proving who’s right and wrong in a given situation.
Conflict resolution is about standing up for yourself and communicating when you feel angry or frustrated.
It’s also about ensuring that problematic issues (like the one with your co-worker) are dealt with so they don’t happen again in the future.
Make a plan
Having a plan set before confronting someone can help you feel more prepared in the moment.
Rehearse concise points you’d like to get across to a boss or colleague so you’ll feel confident when addressing them.
Clearly define what you’d like to resolve before the confrontation and write down canned, factual responses to use when needed (“I worked late for the past 2 weeks while my co-worker didn’t turn in their share of the research”).
Use your senses to quickly relieve stress
Stay centered in a distressing situation by focusing and drawing upon your sensory toolbox: sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell.
This will allow you to remain relaxed and in control of yourself during tense moments.
If you’re a visual person, for example, you can relieve stress by closing your eyes and imagining soothing images.
Similarly, if you’re more comforted by smells, you can keep an essential oil on hand to take a quick whiff of when you’re feeling anxious.
Recognize and manage your feelings
Being aware of how your emotions impact you can help you gain a greater understanding of yourself and others. Before confronting someone, try examining and questioning your feelings.
Instead of trying to sedate emotions like anger, sadness, or fear, try looking at them through the lens of self-compassion, and allowing yourself to see your negative thoughts with empathy.
You can try practicing the following affirmations:
- “It’s OK to feel however I’m feeling at this moment — my emotions are valid.”
- “I am worthy and deserving of being heard.”
- “All of my experiences (good and bad) give me the space to grow.”
Resolve issues in real-time
Rather than endlessly ruminate and allow conflicts to fester in your head, try taking a more assertive approach.
You can start by stating the issue non-emotionally and using fact-based sentences like, “It appears I worked very hard on this project and yet my name was left out of the presentation.”
Avoid being accusatory or defensive when approaching the co-worker who took all the credit for your work.
Instead, say “I’d appreciate it if, going forward, we use both our names on the project and include each other on all emails to our supervisor.”
When to get help
While it can be tempting to bottle up feelings like anger and frustration by not rocking the boat, conflict-avoiding tendencies can take a toll on your mental health.
Leaving conflicts unresolved leads to pent-up frustration and a greater sense of loneliness that can build up over time.
Speaking to a qualified therapist can help you learn how to better manage your negative emotions. You can work together on resolving conflicts more productively.
The bottom line
Some form of conflict is a normal part of our personal and professional lives.
While it’s OK to never be completely comfortable with confrontation, being able to resolve issues effectively means accepting it as a healthy part of communicating with others.
Remember that disagreeing provides deeper understanding and makes it easier to connect with our friends, partners, and co-workers.
Learning how to confront someone assertively won’t happen overnight. But you can still take small steps each day toward feeling more comfortable facing your fears and speaking up for yourself.
Cindy Lamothe is a freelance journalist based in Guatemala. She writes often about the intersections between health, wellness, and the science of human behavior. She’s written for The Atlantic, New York Magazine, Teen Vogue, Quartz, The Washington Post, and many more. Find her at cindylamothe.com.