How to Resolve Conflict Avoidance

Dr. John Townsend

October 19, 2019

This is simply a “you just have to learn it” skill. The most successful and happiest people I work with are able to enter into conflict with those in their life, family and work.  And I can’t begin to tell you how many otherwise talented and genuinely good people get hamstrung on their inability to have difficult conversations.  Psychologists refer to the problem as conflict-avoidant behavior.

We are conflict-avoidant when we know we need to face a problem with someone and get it resolved, but our high anxiety makes us kick the can down the road, hoping against hope that things will get better.  99% of the time, they actually get worse, sort of metastasizing into something we really don’t want.  So instead of going for the short term peace of avoidance, go for the long term solution that will really make things better for you.  Here are some tips to help you:

Deal with your anxiety.   Most of the time, we don’t run from conflict for a logical or rational reason, for example, when someone is threatening us with a gun.  There is sound logic there!  We more avoid conflict for emotional reasons, manifesting themselves as anxiety.  Figure out exactly what drives your anxiety, because anxiety always has a focus.  Some common sources of anxiety are:

  • Rejection: When someone important to us disconnects from the relationship.
  • Anger: When we don’t have the skills to handle an angry person, and we  become frightened and overwhelmed.
  • Guilt: When we are prone to see ourselves as the bad guy, and take on all the responsibility for the problem, instead of our actual contribution.
  • Loss of control: When we are more afraid of our own strong feelings than we are the other person, and we actually are concerned we might say or do something we’ll regret.

We don’t have space here to go into these sources, but often, talking it out with a mature person or counselor can do a great deal to help.  The point is, don’t let anxiety paralyze you.

Script the conversation.  Research shows that we do better in conflict when we have thought out what we want to say, in a talking-point manner.  Then we don’t get lost or confused. Write out a brief script and learn it, so you won’t need to have it in front of  you, and you can have good eye contact with the person.

Make the sandwich.  Conflict resolves more effectively when it begins and ends with authentic affirmation and care, and when the issue itself is the meat in the middle of the “sandwich.” Think how much it has helped you to have someone let you know, in a real way, that they are for you and not against you, in a difficult talk.

Know when to back off.  Some people readily deal with conflict, when they are approached, and navigate it with truth, respect and love.  They do well in these scenarios.  And some react in anger, victim statements, intense emotions, blame and excuses.  Just learn when the reactions are dominating things, and you don’t see any progress.  That means it might be time to call it a day and try something different at another time.  If it’s not working, it’s not working.

Conflict isn’t fun, but neither is surgery.  When done well, however, it can lead to a great deal of positive results in your life.



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