Conflict as a Problem to be Avoided - an Ineffective Response to Conflict

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When we see conflict as a 'problem', it can lead us to try to avoid it - as if that were possible. 

As has often been stated on this website, we cannot avoid conflict, what is important is how we respond to it.   

When people are used to the responses to conflict being destructive and upsetting, they will often see the conflict and any future, similar, situations they encounter as a 'problem'. The response of avoiding it, or trying to pretend it is not there, can be just as destructive and ineffective as the responses that occur when conflict is seen as a competition

I am not trying to say here that 'there are people who treat conflict as a problem and there are other people who treat it as a competition'. We may see it in both ways, even with regard to the same conflict. 

If our initial competitive response doesn't work we may withdraw into a response that hopes it will go away. Or, we may respond by avoiding any acknowledgement of the conflict, only to find at a later date we feel so confused, frustrated, angered by the situation that we use an extremely 'competitive' response. 

For example by killing someone in order to 'win'. 

It would therefore be another ineffective response to say 'You are a competitor' while to another person 'You are an avoider' as this is challenging the person and not the behaviour. This isn't in keeping with the Principle of Effective Communication that we challenge or, observe and review, the behaviour and not the person. 

The reason that labelling the person and not the behaviour is ineffective, and yet quite widely practiced, is that it continues the practice of the 'tennis match of labels' that is a feature of most disputes and doesn't actually resolve what happens. It only tries to explain away what happens rather than lead to a resolution. Great for the analysts looking in but not much use to those involved. 

The problem with seeing conflict as a problem to be avoided

So let's look at the impact of responding to conflict as if it is a problem and why this form of response is ultimately ineffective, even if, like a competitive response, it can seem to work in the short term.

Denial of the existence of a difficult situation or conflict of some kind means that we do not develop new ways of responding. This is often what happens when we see it as a problem.

Instead of engaging and learning from it, we avoid it, say it doesn't matter, say we are not affected by it or hope that it will blow over. There is often what is described as a 'fear of conflict'.

We can only speak for ourselves with respect to this and only we can know if we are responding this way. Others might say we are but they will be speaking for themselves and projecting their views on to us if they do. It might be what they would do in the situation and they assume we are doing the same.

We may be genuinely unaffected by a situation, in which case there is no problem in the first place and so there's nothing to avoid. Only we can know if this is true or not. As has been mentioned before on this website, conflict resolution is always about self-awareness and not about changing or controlling others.

But where there is an avoidance of conflict because of a fear of the consequences of addressing it or because we see it as a 'problem', we will often do the following:

*Suppress our feelings and say how much it doesn't bother us. Often!

*Be embarrassed that we have a problem and so not like to 'make a fuss' as if it shows some form of weakness or is a social taboo to 'not be getting on with someone'.

*Avoid speaking to the person or persons that the conflict is with.

*Avoid going to, or living in the place associated with the conflict.

*Become angry with or withdraw from people we know, who are not associated with the conflict because our difficulty has to come out 'somewhere'.

*Start to use things and activities to distract us from our thoughts and feelings about the conflict such as drink, drugs, sex, gambling, eating, spending money, cleaning, etc. These can sometimes then become addictions, staying with us even when the circumstances of the conflict are not present any more.

In this way the conflict, paradoxically, is still very much present in us. So it hasn't actually been resolved, and we certainly haven't managed to avoid it. If anything, we have extended its effects far beyond the original impact.

Again, only we can know this about ourselves and observe it in ourselves. There will be plenty of people willing to analyse our behaviour and Rescue us and tell us that we are doing the above.

For those tempted to do the Rescuing, remember, it may just be that the person you are analysing genuinely likes drink, drugs, sex, gambling, eating, spending money, cleaning etc. They can, and have to, speak for themselves. They own their responses to their conflict and only they can.

The 'Martyr' Syndrome

An unfortunate outcome of treating conflict as a problem and avoiding it is that we can, in time, start to speak of ourselves as if we are long suffering and deserving of sympathy - what could be called 'Martyr Syndrome'. Active non-listening from others can entrench us in this belief as we will generally prefer to tell people who seem willing to listen about how much we've suffered and agree how terrible it has been for us, than those who may not want to agree, or even to listen.

A sad extreme of the Martyr Syndrome is that it can lead us to justify extreme acts of violence after we have spent a long time avoiding resolving a conflict we are involved in - because 'look at how much we've suffered'

We often hear in the papers of apparently quiet, peaceful people who have killed their neighbours over the cutting of a garden hedge and that there had been a 10 year dispute over the issue.

I met someone recently who had committed a very serious attack on his neighbour. 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. A lot of our discussion was spent with him telling me that it was almost acceptable to have done what he did as he had 'Put up with it for 10 years and done nothing'.

Instead of acknowledging that his 'doing nothing' was his own choice and that to shore up his anger for such a time and release it in such an uncontrolled manner was also his choice of response and not a reflection of how terrible his neighbour was, he continued to ask me 'Wouldn't you do the same?'.

As I said to him, how I would have responded is irrelevant as I wasn't him, I didn't live next to his neighbour and I don't have the same view of the world as him or anyone else. What I was there for was to try to help him think of more effective ways of responding in the future, both for him and for anyone else affected by the conflict. For all I know, I might have done something much worse! What others would do is irrelevant to our own choice of action in any conflict situation.

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In relationships, people who experience infidelity or other continued 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.

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.

Self-awareness

But we are creating this response, usually unconsciously, but nevertheless it is still our response and we 'own' it. If we were conscious of responding this way we would almost certainly stop avoiding the problem and start to seek ways of resolving it.

When we have not considered that there may be a different way of responding we tend to adopt a 'blame approach' towards others for 'causing us' to behave the way we have, rather than a no-blame approach which acknowledges that there is a problem that needs to be resolved together, or even by finding a better way of responding just for ourselves. The latter is much easier when we stop believing that others 'cause' us to feel, think and act in destructive ways.

We do not acknowledge in ourselves or others, that it is ok to make mistakes and that they provide opportunities for learning. Instead, without seeing the opportunity for learning from a mistake, we feel trapped into just one way of responding and therefore feel compelled to 'justify' our actions, saying that we had no choice and that we were 'forced' to act as we did by the actions of others.

Gaining that self-awareness is the first step towards finding a more effective way of responding. The aim of this website is to provide support in achieving this.

The Boiling Pot

In terms of the boiling pot analogy, when we see conflict as something to be avoided, we are still putting a lid on the pot. But instead of watching over it and keeping the lid down as we do in the competitive response, we put the lid on and turn away and pretend there isn't even a pot there.

Of course, it will still boil over as we are not doing anything to put out the fire or to stop it being fed. In that sense, it is no different to the Conflict as Competition approach to conflict.

Ultimately they are both ineffective responses to conflict.



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