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Conflict Avoidance: Get Over It

You can be a highly respected and valuable leader but if you have trouble having the tough conversations or shy away from conflict your credibility is on shaky ground. And in case you had any doubts, the whole organization knows if you suck at this. Truth be told, in the real world there are very few leaders who excel at addressing complex people issues head on.

I’ve thought a lot about why this is the case. It is not for lack of self confidence or competence. It is not because the leader simply doesn’t see the conflicts. It is not because a leader doesn’t see the damage that avoidance creates. As a psychologist I have loads of theories about family history and life experiences but those are all beside the point. Most of us have some tortured past events that cause us to avoid unpleasant interactions or differences. Big friggin’ deal. We are grown ups now and leaders with vast responsibilities. Time to get over it.

I believe that leaders avoid conflict because they never learned how to address it productively. They (most of us!) never developed comfort, tools, approaches to hearing different points of view or toning down unnecessarily aggressive conversations or finding common grounds in disputes or simply stating that certain behaviors are unacceptable and lead to negative consequences. It’s a learning issue not a personal flaw. It appears as a personality deficit (and it may have its origins there) but unless you are willing to get into therapy to resolve this you can still get much better at it if you learn some new tricks.

So pull on your big girl/boy panties and try one/some of these new behaviors.

  • Create a helpful mantra. You probably tense up, get nervous/anxious or have a powerful flight response when exposed to strong differences of opinion. Find a phrase you can repeat that will calm you down. “Nothing bad is going to happen.” “You can handle this.” “Hear the message underneath the anger.” Whatever will work for you. And take several deep breaths to signal to your body that you are not in danger.
  • Name it. When you are in a meeting with someone who is hostile or facilitating a heated team debate deflate the emotion by simply stating “You are clearly upset about this. Can you take a breath and tell me what is so difficult?” You need to understand that escalation of emotions can gather steam unless someone puts the brakes on it. You will still need to address very different POVs but at least the intensity will be at a more productive level…usually.
  • Remain neutral when appropriate. A common dynamic that makes small disagreements big ones is that warring factions seek allies. Each party will seek your support by selling an idea, telling you how stupid someone else’s idea is, badmouthing a colleague, signaling catastrophe if you don’t take this side etc. If you are conflict avoidant you will naturally believe whoever is sitting before you. It’s the “I believe the last person I spoke with” syndrome. This only complicates the situation. You end up being wishy-washy, everyone thinks you are on their side and nothing is actually resolved. Resist the temptation to take sides in these situations. In the conversation say, “Let me think about that.” Then find time alone to sort through all the POVs and determine where you are and make sure that it isn’t related to who was most compelling.
  • Prepare and rehearse. Schedule the dreaded meeting to talk with the low performer or difficult personality or saboteur. Carefully plan how you want to conduct the conversation. Determine the best outcome, focus on behavior not personality, select the 1-2 most salient points to make, describe the behavior you want to see going forward. Make notes on all this…it will calm your own nerves. If you have someone you can role play this with, that would be ideal. You can get some feedback about your tone and clarity and you can try on the new behavior without risk. All this prep work will help you step up.
  • Put the onus for change on the other person. One thing that holds us back is thinking “This person is a pain in the butt and I have to fix him”. Yes, you need to address the issue and supervise the person. But the longer term change of behavior needs to come from the offender. If Joe is undermining his peers you describe the behaviors that are your evidence of this and then tell Joe, “This is unacceptable. Tell me what you are going to do to fix this?” Spoon feeding the specific development plan or putting the responsibility on yourself will not create any changes in Joe. Even more, it will piss you off and you will get more avoidant and Joe will still be a problem.
  • Hit the pause button if things have gotten out of control. Some amount of disagreement and pushing and shoving is a good thing. It usually leads to better decisions. It is usually the tone that crosses the line. If you are facilitating a team discussion and things get hostile or quietly seething or disrespectful you need to stop the conversation. “This is no longer productive. I won’t allow this to devolve into a shouting match. Let’s take a 10 minute break and when you return I expect everyone to speak more civilly.”

Most of us struggle with conflict. Some like to stir it up and play devil’s advocate and push others until they finally react. More people would like us all to just get along. To make the best decisions you need to tolerate multiple points of view and new ideas. When everyone is being polite that can be easy and you won’t feel much distress. But in the real world people are messy: too aggressive, too sneaky, too frightened, too competitive with peers….too human. As the leader you need to get comfortable with all this. If you don’t you may be appreciated as a good leader but no one will give you the prize for being the whole package.

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