“Conflict can and should be handled constructively; when it is, relationships benefit. Conflict avoidance is *not* the hallmark of a good relationship. On the contrary, it is a symptom of serious problems and of poor communication.” Harriet B. Braiker
Avoiding or delaying a difficult conversation can hurt your relationships and create other negative outcomes. It may not feel natural at first, especially if you dread discord, but you can learn to dive into these tough talks by reframing your thoughts.
Begin from a place of curiosity and respect, and stop worrying about being liked. Conflict avoiders are often worried about their likability. While it’s natural to want to be liked, that’s not always the most important thing. Lean into the conversation with an open attitude and a genuine desire to learn. Start from a place of curiosity and respect — for both yourself and the other person. Genuine respect and vulnerability typically produce more of the same: mutual respect and shared vulnerability. Even when the subject matter is difficult, conversations can remain mutually supportive. Respect the other person’s point of view, and expect them to respect yours.
Focus on what you’re hearing, not what you’re saying. People who shy away from conflict often spend a huge amount of time mentally rewording their thoughts. Although it might feel like useful preparation, ruminating over what to say can hijack your mind for the entire workday and sometimes even late into the night. And tough conversations rarely go as planned anyway. So take the pressure off yourself. You don’t actually need to talk that much during a difficult conversation. Instead, focus on listening, reflecting, and observing. For example, if a team member has missed another deadline, approach them by asking neutral, supportive questions: “I see the project is behind schedule. Tell me about the challenges you’re facing.” Then listen. Pause. Be interested and proactive. Gather as much detail as possible. Ask follow-up questions without blame.
We Communicate Through These Ego States (Parent, Child, Adult):
Whenever we interact with others, transactions take place between our different Ego States.
It’s easier to explain with an example. Here’s a conversation between a boss and his employee and in brackets the Ego State they use.
- At what time is the train due? (Adult)
- – It’s late by 5 minutes (Adult)
- Absolutely typical! (Critical Parent)
- – Yes, they always manage to run late and they never give any warning! (Critical Parent)
- I checked your document for our meeting. It’s full of spelling mistakes! You should have run the spell-check. (Critical Parent)
- – Oh, I’m sorry. It won’t happen again. (Adaptive Child)
- I can hear the train arriving. (Adult)
- – That’s good, we’re not too late. (Adult)
- Let me help you with your luggage. (Nurturing Parent)
- – Oh, thank you very much! (Free Child)
- Oh wow! They’re giving out free Champagne! (Free Child)
- – Fantastic! (Free Child)