There’s a Polish proverb that sums up how a lot of us approach conflict: “A good run is better than a bad fight.”
As a couples therapist, it seems to me that most people fall into one of two categories: those who thrive on conflict, enjoying the thrill of winning arguments, and those who avoid it as much as possible. If you fall into the second category, know that you’re not alone.
You might hate conflict, or fear it, but you can’t run from it forever. Not only is conflict an unavoidable part of life, but it’s also necessary, both at home and at work. When it’s done poorly, you can alienate colleagues, potential friends, and even family members. When you try to avoid conflict altogether, you might get the short-term payoff of keeping the peace and making people happy, but that comes at the expense of your long-term satisfaction both at work and at home.
The wisest approach to conflict isn’t about developing flashy argumentation skills that will leave your opponent (or colleague or partner) speechless. Instead, it involves developing the capability for negotiating conflicts respectfully and honestly. And it’s a far more effective kind of leadership in the workplace.
People who sense that they’re conflict avoidant and who want to become more confident in their management style can benefit from learning how to engage in low-stakes conflict. Think of low-stakes conflicts as times when there’s a real difference of opinion and a decision to be made, but neither you nor the other person are heavily invested in the outcome (which lets you know there won’t be hard feelings).
Watching for these opportunities gives you a chance to practice how to handle conflict. It will probably put you outside of your comfort zone, but here are the reasons it’s well worth investing the time in learning this valuable skill:
1. You learn to be honest with yourself and others.
One big reason why some people avoid conflict is to escape the discomfort of being honest with themselves (and others) about what they actually want. Unfortunately, not openly expressing your true preferences leads to other ways of communicating them indirectly, either by being passively noncommittal or by being passive-aggressive. These indirect ways of communicating leave everyone–including you–guessing, unsure about where you actually stand.
People who don’t know what they want, or won’t express it openly, are often perceived as being impossible to please. Not being direct about your preferences also means they won’t be taken into account when decisions are made, which frequently leads to resentment and the mistaken conclusion that your wishes don’t matter. In my work with couples, I often tell people that resentment is a relationship toxin. It builds up slowly over time and eventually poisons the whole relationship.
At work and at home, being honest requires giving other people information about the range of desirable outcomes you’d be happy with. Low-stakes conflicts at home–about things like what to have for dinner or who will take out the trash–let you practice how it feels to share your thoughts about the range of options you’d be OK with.
Offering your actual opinion, to the extent that you know it, might be the start of a minor conflict, but this will let you learn how to listen to yourself. People who have never learned to pause and listen to what they really want often rely on the mind-reading abilities of those around them, and then feel disregarded in relationships. In reality, if you don’t know what you want, nobody else can know either.
2. You get to know other people better.
Starting out by expressing your own honest sentiment opens up the possibility to genuinely ask people for theirs. Expressing an opinion that doesn’t demand agreement initiates a more genuine form of conversation. Because it’s low stakes, you learn to practice asking more follow-up questions and inviting others to share their preferences. Learning about other people, especially in situations in which there is no clear right or best answer, ends up improving your relationships.
No matter how this conflict is decided, you now have more information about what the other person values–and how they make decisions. This lets you feel more comfortable in future encounters, and enables you to have more meaningful interactions. Having these kinds of conversations with colleagues at work can also help you feel more comfortable getting to know an intimate partner better. People in long-term relationships often have the mistaken belief that they already know everything about each other, and so they stop asking questions or having conversations.
Practicing the skills of open communication at work, with people you know less well, will let you feel more confident about having these kinds of conversations at home. The best part of learning how to have low-stakes conflicts with a partner is that these kinds of conflicts often increase the feeling of closeness and emotional intimacy.
3. You learn that conflicts are rarely winner-takes-all.
Conflict-avoidant people tend to feel trapped when they perceive the likelihood of a disagreement because they view conflict as win-lose. And neither option seems appealing. Losing the argument feels upsetting, but it can be equally upsetting to imagine how the other person might feel if they lose the argument.
Having a low-stakes conflict introduces you to the expansive middle ground where sometimes you get your way and sometimes you don’t and either way, life goes on.
In other cases, once you’re willing to engage in the reality of disagreements, you can discover that there are multiple possible resolutions to conflicts beyond either person’s initial preference. It’s not about win-lose, but rather understanding the importance of thinking creatively about how to best identify each person’s needs and figure out ways to maximize outcomes to meet those needs to the greatest degree possible under the circumstances.
When you understand this principle, you can start to view work conflicts differently. It may not matter how something gets done so much as it matters when it’s done–or the how might matter far more than the when. When you stop treating conflict as a win-lose battle, you can start becoming more strategic about focusing the conflict on the one point where you really need agreement.
4. You become a more confident thinker.
Being in the habit of having thoughtful, respectful low-stakes conflicts gives you a free education about how to see things from many different perspectives. You find that you’re more able to articulate what it is you actually think. You start really listening to ways other people approach problems. You learn to focus conflicts on the essential points where agreement is important.
As you continue to practice this, you become more skilled in expressing yourself confidently in bigger stakes conflicts. You will have put in the time to quickly discover what you believe the best decision is and you’ll know how to articulate the reason why, according to the other person’s values. This starts out any conflict–even high-stakes conflict–with the other person feeling heard, valued, and respected. No matter what’s decided, this approach will result in you coming out a winner, every time.
5. Other people will find you more trustworthy.
As it turns out, people who are levelheaded in how they approach conflict, able to state their position but also consider other perspectives, are highly respected and sought after. You can become known as someone who actually solicits honest feedback from others–which always results in better decisions at the office. And at home, your partner can trust that you’re able to actually say what you mean in a loving and respectful way, which frees them to become more confident in showing up vulnerably to your relationship. You won’t be a shifting target any longer, which makes you a sturdy and dependable ally.
Going back to the Polish proverb, perhaps we can all agree that avoiding a bad fight is a good idea. But taking a respectful and honest stand while being willing to be flexible takes a lot less energy–and is ultimately more satisfying–than a good run … unless you’re a fan of running, in which case, we can agree to disagree.