Potent strategies for turning conflict aversion into effective conversations

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What is conflict aversion? Broadly stated, conflict aversion is an indirect way of dealing with an issue or a person to avoid confrontation. Conflict averse people tend to avoid conflict at all costs and have inner dialogues that rarely get voiced – much to their detriment. Consequently, their viewpoint is usually not represented in situations and discussions they may care passionately about.As coaches, we find conflict aversion at the core of many situations our clients are working through. We believe this is an important topic because If not managed, conflict aversion will likely have a negative impact on relationships and outcomes at some point in one's life or career. When people who have something to say don’t join the conversation, good ideas may never come to light and unique perspectives will not be shared. Even worse: assumptions are inevitably made from the various parties’ perspectives and the environment becomes ripe for misunderstandings, resentment, and further disengagement that can lead to project or program failure.

Conflict aversion is not rare. Many people we’ve coached with over the years report conflict aversion to some degree. You might wonder why a person is conflict averse. Often it’s a reaction to the environment and a question of safety. When leaders encourage competition among team members, the intent might be to motivate or encourage creativity and output. But the outcome more likely discourages conflict averse team members because it threatens safety, trust, and relationships. Conflict aversion may develop from experience or it may be temperament –  an aspect of one’s personality that runs deep. No matter where it comes from, you don’t need to stay there.

So, if conflict aversion sometimes gets the better of you, take heart. There are effective strategies you can use – whether you are a conflict averse person or whether you are working with one. The end goal is to improve relationships and outcomes and this can be done by improving your communication.

Okay, so how do you do that?

Being conflict averse is an emotional reaction. It’s a feeling of impending doom when you think about having to speak up because you have a sense of what will happen. The words aren’t even there to say because you may be too nervous to talk. Thoughts are running through your head like, “I’ll sound stupid,” “No one will listen, they’ll just argue,” “I’ll look bad.” Know this is common –  even and especially for super smart people.

The first step is to take control of your nervous system by breathing slow, deep breaths (no one has to know that you’re doing this). This will help calm you. Next, ask for clarification from the other person. Repeat back exactly what they say. People love this because it tells them that you were listening and you heard them. Example: “What I think I heard you say was….Is that correct?” This give you further opportunity to calm yourself as you continue to breathe and slow the pace, reflecting back what you hear. You created a conversation rather than a confrontation. How great is that!

Now that you’ve calmed yourself by using the above process, you might consider a few additional strategies available to you in Back Pocket Coach. One that comes to mind immediately is Strategy #20, the powerful and simple question, “May I ask you a question?” This is a great multi-purpose strategy. And in this particular example, using the question leads you further into the conversation in a polite and non-confrontational way. You show up as curious and interested in what the other person has to say. And you are taking all the confrontation out of it. Before you know it, your conversation will be proceeding smoothly.

Know someone who’s dealing with conflict aversion? Share these strategies.