Conflict Avoidance: Is Peace Always Worth the Cost?

Peace is a controversial topic these days, especially as it refers to international relationships.  Some believe conflict (in a military sense) is never to be used; however some see it as a necessary strategy to preserve peace in a larger sense.  In the wake of impassioned public opinion, many of us are looking inside to examine our beliefs regarding conflict and conflict resolution.

On a recent trip to NYC I had a very slow ride into the city from the airport due to a large peace rally.  The news coverage depicted protesters “slugging” police officers as well as dragging down horses.  Newscasts also carried reports of alleged police brutality toward protesters.  While many involved in these protests and in counter-protests were able to express their views clearly as part of a large group, I have found that many do not confront conflict on a personal level at work and at home.  Willingness to consistently confront conflict or to deal with “differences of opinion” on a one to one basis is not common in many organizations.  It is much easier to express dissenting views when you know support is readily available, as when your team or department disagrees with another team or department.  On the other hand, when it comes to one on one interaction, many of us have no backbone!

The cost of conflict avoidance can be great, yet difficult to measure. How often does it happen that an individual spends time, effort and even capital, embarking on a “mission” their boss has designed when they KNOW it will not work?  How many times do people go back to their desks shaking their heads and saying either to himself or herself or anyone in earshot that “we are heading in the wrong direction”?  Why do these individuals not say anything while the conversation is happening?  Why do these individuals not say anything later when thy have had a chance to think and have confirmed their initial “gut” reaction that the idea is not a good one”?  There are some legitimate times to keep your opinion to yourself- some ineffective leaders believe they know best and do not want input from others. OK.  I know that can happen, but it happens even when leaders have made it CLEAR they need and want input from others.  WHY?

In the end, the leader may not take ideas from others.  They may still embark on their original path, but at least alternatives will have been considered.  Why then, do we hesitate to confront others?  Why do some of us prefer a slow, painful death or terminal disease to confronting conflict?

The problem of conflict avoidance is real and rampant. The cost can be tremendous.  I have seen individuals leave their job, rather then confront someone with a legitimate issue.  I have seen money spent on personnel, equipment or training that did not work out and potentially could have been avoided if someone were self-confident enough to state their view.

 Why don’t we?

      The reasons for conflict avoidance include:

  1. Lack of self-confidence
  2. An unreceptive leader
  3. A previous poor experience with conflict
  4. A belief that conflict is “bad”
  5. Possessing few effective strategies for dealing with conflict
  6. We do not want to disappoint or anger others


Are you conflict avoidant ?

Ask yourself these questions:
What is your “history” with conflict?

  1. What messages did you learn about conflict as a child?
  2. Did you ever confront someone when disagreement arose and have poor results? Good results?

What is your comfort level with conflict?

  1. Avoid at all costs
  2. Confront when appropriate
  3. Love confrontation and seek it out (topic for another newsletter!)

Can you think of a time when you wish you had spoken up in a disagreement?

  1. What were the “costs” because you failed to confront the conflict?
  2. How do you feel when you hear others arguing?
  3. Take an honest look at your comfort level with conflict.  Is there room for improvement?

Strategies for improving your tolerance of conflict and using conflict to improve effectiveness

Identify and evaluate the “myths” you developed regarding conflict; conflict + anger = bad

  1. “Nice” people do not confront
  2. Conflict means anger
  3. Conflict means disrespect
  4. Conflict means someone wins/loses

Discuss your conflict “style” with a trusted friend, coach or mentor and decide if you want to change it.

Try confronting some smaller less emotional issues with colleagues, leaders:

  1. First, identify your true feelings on the issue
  2. Get your facts in order
  3. No need to raise voice or pound on tables
  4. If appropriate, summarize your thoughts in writing to aid your learning (you may or may not want to share the written ideas with others)

Read some material on assertiveness and practice in “safe” situations:

  1. Notice if others try to use conflict to intimidate to get their way.  Do not buy into it!

Be open to having others disagree with you without taking it personally:

  1. Conflict invites attacking a problem, not a person
  2. Invite a discussion; sometimes the “devil’s advocate” sparks useful new strategies

Present your disagreement without being negative

  1. You are much more likely to be listened to if you dissent by presenting another idea, (How about ___ or Have we thought of ___,) rather than stating, “it won’t work”.

If someone annoys you and really knows how to “push your buttons”, try and disarm them:

  1. Try to analyze their agenda (if any)
  2. Ask yourself, is this about (Fred) or does (Fred) remind me of someone else I have had problems with?
  3. What is the conflict really about?

Conflict in and of itself is not bad.  As a matter of fact, it is your responsibility to voice your opinions, especially if there is much at stake.  Learning to confront professionally, and respectfully are key to becoming more effective in our professional and personal lives.  Letting conflict “go underground” (which is exactingly where it goes if not put on the table) can incur devastating costs to organizations in terms of morale, personnel, productivity, and financially.

Expressing yourself as part of a group is important, yet learning to have the courage to voice your opinions independently can enhance your effectiveness.  Be a part of the group, but own your opinions in individual interactions. 

So, where is your head when conflict surfaces?  If it is in the sand, get it out or you may find yourself in a very vulnerable position!


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