Ineffective Responses to Conflict: Part 2. Treating Conflict as a Problem to be Avoided

In this post and the previous one, Ineffective Responses to Conflict: Part 1.The Competitive Approach, I describe the two common ways in which we all respond to conflict at different times in such a way that it will never be resolved, simply because our actions are not directed towards doing so.

To reiterate what was said in Part 1, this article is not suggesting it is ‘wrong’ to respond in these ways, they just don’t work, and they feature in all unresolved conflicts. In many ways the competitive approach or treating conflict as a problem to be avoided represent our ‘natural’ responses of fight or flight respectively.  What mediation and conflict coaching help us to achieve is a return to the ways of responding to conflict that do work – the creation of  the  ’3 – Cheers for Conflict’ – although we are quite capable of creating Learning, Connection and Insight without using mediation or conflict coaching and frequently do in our daily lives. Sometimes, however, we just don’t, and we get stuck in a rut or a continuous repetitive cycle of competing, or avoiding and this is where conflict coaching and mediation can help.

So what is meant by ‘Treating Conflict as a Problem to be Avoided’ and why is it an ineffective response to conflict?

Disputes at any level of intensity can be frightening, intimidating, inhibiting and it can seem much easier to just ‘steer clear’ of the problem in the hope that it will either go away or give some temporary respite. And the choice to do this may be more a conscious one to give ourselves some ‘safe space’ in which to gather ourselves and reconsider our responses to the situation. If we are not ‘dealing’ with a conflict for this, conscious, reason we are already on the path towards a more effective response to conflict that will be discussed in the post on the 3-Cheers for Conflict.

But if we are avoiding dealing with the situation because we just do not want to have to face it, that is also entirely normal, even natural – we just can’t expect that response to resolve it. The situation, or one with similar features will return continuously throughout our lives whether in the behaviour of the person we presently have a difficulty with, or in the behaviour of others that we meet in the future, because we haven’t learned a different way of responding to that behaviour in a way that works for us. The tendency can be in such situations that we ‘blame’ the other person(s) for being ‘bad’ – an example of where we adopt a competitive approach alongside our avoiding – and we seek to portray ourselves as a victim who is subject to and dependent on the behaviour of others. We remain passive and feel unable or unwilling to create different responses in the situation and maintain the same beliefs, perceptions and consequent actions as responses.

All of us have experienced such situations, indeed we may be living within one at this moment. It is a very common response to conflict within our personal relationships, and within our work relationships where we can believe that to ‘deal’ with an issue would be too traumatic or risky for our emotional wellbeing or, perhaps, our financial wellbeing – not recognising that there is an ongoing damage to both of these while we avoid the difficulty.

Similarly in neighbour disputes, an occasional storyline appears in the newspapers where an individual suddenly becomes extremely violent towards their neighbour when it was thought previously that they were a ‘quiet, private person’. Often it arises that an ongoing issue over a hedge or music disturbance or some other issue has been present in the situation. In such situations dealing with a dispute has been avoided until the intensity of its impact has been so great that the response has ‘flipped’ to an extreme form of the competitive approach and a violent attack has ensued.

I once worked with a conflict coaching client who had committed a very serious attack on his neighbour, for which he went to prison. He was encouraged to meet with me to support him with his still present anger over the issue as his neighbour still lived next to him. He spent a lot of the discussion trying to persuade  me that it was acceptable to have done what he did as he had ‘Put up with it (the neighbour dispute) for 10 years and done nothing’. I explained that I was not present to say that he should or should not have done what he did, just to help him with how he is presently dealing with the situation and whether that was now working for him.

His ‘doing nothing’ for some years was his own choice, whether he was conscious of that or willing to acknowledge it or not, and so to shore up his anger for such a time and release it in such an uncontrolled manner was also a consequence of that response and not a symbolic reflection of how terrible his neighbour was, whatever she had done. His tendency was to blame his actions on his neighbour and justify them by listing the ways in which she was a ‘bad’ person.

In relationships, people who experience infidelity or other continuous difficulties can, if they see conflict as a problem and respond by avoiding it, react in an extreme manner after a period of suppressing their feelings about it, and hold the consequences in their lives for years after the relationship is over. To acknowledge their sole responsibility in creating that response rather than ‘blame’ it on the other person and justify it for years afterwards can be an enormous challenge, and while the relationship itself is over, the experience of the conflict is not resolved.

The longer we avoid the conflict, the more we are likely to turn to distractions which become addictions, suppress our feelings and become depressed or express them violently with others etc. Again, conflict coaching can help to provide a ‘safe space’ in which we can reflect on this and create different, more self-supporting and effective ways of responding, but ultimately its purpose is to help us do this for ourselves more often and more successfully. Mediation, if it is possible in a given situation, is designed to offer the same, but again, its aim is to support those directly involved in creating their own answers to the situation rather than have an answer imposed on one or both of them on the basis that they are deemed to have acted ‘wrongly’ in some way.

As for the competitive approach, these ineffective responses to conflict manifest at every level of human interaction – personal relationships, family relationships, work relationships, client/provider relationships, organisation/employee relationships and internationally and the analogous damaging outcomes can be seen in all of these where the situation remains unresolved.

In the next post I will look at the common features of a resolved conflict – the ‘3-Cheers for Conflict’ – Learning, Connection and Insight.

In the meantime, consider any unresolved conflict you are aware of or involved in. Can you recognise areas where you have treated the conflict as a problem to be avoided?

This is different to deciding ‘not now because there are more important things to deal with, but I will later‘ if you are genuine in your intention to do so. But where the wish is simply for the problem to ‘go away because it’s too much hassle‘ or because it is perceived as too traumatic or difficult a task to face, that is treating conflict as a problem to be avoided and, while understandable, will never resolve  the conflict, even if it feels like it has in the short term.

Can you see opportunities for creating Learning, Connection and Insight? Even while you are still angry, upset, frightened, frustrated by your experience of the conflict?


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