Avoiding a Difficult Conversation? 5 Suggestions to Make Conflict a Constructive Experience

Avoidance is a common response to dealing with conflict. It makes sense really, it’s the brain’s way of keeping us safe. Conflict sets off our stress response system (you’ve probably heard of this as fight, flight, freeze, or please), which has major implications for how we proceed in the situation. The problem with avoiding a conflict is that it’s typically a short-term solution, and may make things worse in the long run. It has more of a chance of getting worse than it does going away, so the sooner we undertake the conversation, the sooner we can come to a resolution.

For the most part, conflict has a negative reputation, but that’s not always the case. Conflict can be constructive and lead to beneficial outcomes, such as helping the parties to be heard, which can facilitate emotional processing, strengthen the relationship, and build trust. By hearing someone out you may shift your own perspective and be better able to generate creative ideas to move towards a resolution.

At the organizational level, conflict can help to clarify or improve policies and procedures, lead to transformation or social change, increase a sense of safety for employees, and demonstrate willingness on the part of the organization to address issues.

If you’re interested in trying to resolve a conflict and make it a constructive experience, here are 5 suggested steps:

1. Look at what’s making the conflict difficult in the first place

Why are we so scared of conflict? Is it the emotional intensity? Not being able to ask for what we need? Not knowing how to handle it? The fear of damaging a relationship? Fear of not having control of the situation?

Whether it’s your own conflict or you are managing someone else’s, the first step is to get really clear on why this has moved beyond just a regular old conversation. What’s causing you stress? What’s holding you back from dealing with it? What are you most worried about?

In their book Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most, Heen, Patton, and Stone set out three areas that can potentially make conversations challenging: differences in perspective on what actually happened, our…

Sarah Albo | Your Conflict Coach

I write about dealing with conflict in our personal and professional lives.