Over the past few years, I have developed an interesting in peace-making. Having been a target of bullying in the past and experiencing some very painful conflicts as a consequence of my naivete, I have had to learn the hard way about conflicts. Even though I knew in theory that there were dangerous people, I always assumed that people were basically good and well-intended, that is commonly not the truth. I desire and want peace for myself and others, but the reality is that there are other people who prevent peace. Conflicts are a tough thing, and I learned the hard way how painful they can be.
Are you scared of conflict? You are not alone. The vast majority of people have anxieties about conflict. There are many reasons why this is the case. Firstly, the very idea that someone may be dissatisfied, disappointed, angry, or disgusted with you can be quite a vulnerable position to be in. If someone has negative feelings for you, they might do something to hurt you, such as distancing from or even severing an important relationship, badmouthing you to other people, seeking vengeance, etc. Beyond that potential consequence, it can potentially elicit the idea that we did something wrong, and this can be a painful experience. The perception of negative emotions directed towards us has an automatic impact on our sense of vulnerability, although this degree and intensity of this feeling of vulnerability varies based upon one’s own personalities and past interactions with these other people.
It also doesn’t help that conflict are often metaphorically framed as fights, battles, wars, etc. in our common parlance; this only reinforces the anxiety surrounding conflict as if conflict is a zero-sum game: if they win, I lose, so they must lose so I win. While sometimes conflicts can be a source of establishing a deeper connection and intimacy, we only experience this as a reality when both people value each other more than themselves; such a valuation means we are willing to give up ground with our grievances for the sake of the other. But unless all parties are willing to give up ground in conflicts, which is not the instinctial reaction we have to our own anger, there will be “winners” and “losers” in conflicts. Hence, the commonly real experience of conflict as a zero-sum game means the war metaphor is true much of the time. Because the metaphorical language of war is true much of the time and we then use this metaphor in automatic ways to describe conflicts, it leads us to expect it to be true about all conflicts and not just some. This only heightens anxiety about conflicts.
As a result of strong anxieties about conflict and the intensity of emotions that correspond to the degrees of our anxieties, we can be inclined to address conflict in a rather exaggerated manner. If we see our responses to threatening events through the fight-flight model, there are three types of responses we have towards conflict than tends towards extreme: direct aggression and threats as a strong fight response, avoidance as a strong fleeing response, and passive-aggression as a strongly ambivalent response between fighting and fleeing. The first two responses only reinforce the zero-sum view of conflict in the recipients. The effects of direct aggression and threats need not be explained, as its effects are intuitive for most of us. The victims of passive-aggression through surprise but veiled attacks, if the source is not discovered, can lead the person into a panic as to where the fight is coming from. The avoidance style of conflict will leave the feelings about what happened the same.
However, if we do not succumb to the strong emotions, we can respond to conflict along the fight-flight model with less intensity and more effectiveness in maintain and strengthening relationships. Direct expression without direct threats (but maybe with statement of consequences for bad behavior) is a milder, more restraining version of the fight response that can allow the nature of the conflict to be understood by the parties and then worked through. Strategic avoidance as a mild version of the fleeing response can allow time for emotions to simmer for all parties so that either the party will no longer be concerned about what happened or emotions will be cool enough to switch to a more direct approach. Then, there is covert action that can try to assuage the issues of the conflict in an indirect way, trying to reduce negative emotions so that the conflict either become inconsequential and passes on or can be addressed well.
It is important to note that we don’t engage in these conflict styles just randomly. Each conflict style, both in the extreme and the more moderate versions, have a certain set of beliefs, expectations, and fears that we have that drive us to act in that style.
Direct aggression tries to control because they feel others are going to attack, whereas direct expression roots in a belief that a conflict cannot be adequately resolved without understanding and/or agreement. Direct styles can be root in desires for control the situation, either in a uniltaeral control through threats or bilateral influence through common agreement. However, the milder version may be rooted in a desire to understand so as to know what to expect from the other party(ies).
Outright avoidance stems from a belief one is in danger if one even engages in the conflict, whereas strategic avoidance feels that now is not the right time. A need for safety stands behind the avoidant style of conflict, but the milder, strategic version may be motivated not by a desire for safety but to address conflict in the best way at some indefinite point in the future.
Passive-aggression entails a person feeling they must be compelled to act against their opponent but that there are risks to doing it directly, whereas covert action stems from a feeling that something must be done to remedy conflicts but to be too direct may lead to consequences. Ambivalent styles mean there are opposing, conflict desires, such as conflicting desires for personal safety and yet a desire to control the other in the more extreme version. The milder version may be motivated by a desire to address the conflict but in a way they feel is non-threatening or likely to work to their advantage.
Because our different styles of conflict are rooted in different needs, when people with different conflict styles clash, there tends to be a movement towards the extreme as the conflict progresses. For instance, a direct style and a covert style clash, the evasiveness of the covert style will frustrate the person with a direct style, leading them to become more angry, defensive, and threatened, even if the covert style is being employed in a milder manner. Meanwhile, the direct style may simply be a direct expression without threats, but those operating with the covert style may fear this is the more extreme, aggressive style. As people with different styles refuse to engage in the conflict in a way that addresses the desires, or even needs, of the people with the opposite styles, conflicts have a way of escalation if people do not adjust their responses but simply push towards the more extreme. Why? Because conflicts persist as people feel their own interests remain threatened and vulnerable; while time can alleviate these feelings of vulnerability and threat, this is only the case when there is a lack of action by either party. Further action without the satisfaction of the other party will exacerbate negative feelings, potentially leading to intensification.
But here is the thing: if you want to address conflict in a way that builds relationships, then people of different styles will have to change how they address the conflict in some way. Of course, in conflicts, everyone has a predilection to think their interests are more important than their own, therefore we might be more inclined to rationalize the other party should accommodate and our interests outweigh theirs. Furthermore, those in positions of power tend to be less inclined to accommodate because a) their beliefs about insulation their power may provide and b) their social status leads them to think their own interests have greater weight. Thereby, those in power put the burden of accommodation on the other party. (Unfortunately, in cases of conflicts where abuse or oppression is involved, the party that has power places a double burden on the victim, power both being used to victimize and then used to make the victim accommodate. For instance, consider how American racism has mistreated African-Americans and then tries to force them to be quiet about this mistreatment.)
There are many reasons for conflict inertia, but at the heart of conflict management and resolution is the alteration of these styles so that ingrained habits and styles that are part of the problem can adjust to allow for resolution, as hard as that might be. People more skilled in conflict resolution will employ different styles: they typically pull from a range of the milder styles of direct expression, covert action, and strategic avidance. Occasionally, if the circumstances truly do necessitate, they may employ direct aggression to put down an aggressor or outright avoidance to keep an aggressor away from them (but stronger forms of passive-aggression almost never works well in resolving conflicts due to the confusing nature). But the heart of conflict management and resolution is a flexibility of styles, seeking to match the right response to the specific circumstances.
So I encourage you to ask yourself this question: what style do you tend to employ in conflicts? Do you tend towards the more extreme version or do you engage with the milder styles? Do you have multiple styles of addressing conflict that you employ or are you habitually stuck in one style? If you find yourself tending towards the more extreme version and/or if you are stuck addressing conflicts in only one manner all the time regardless of the circumstances, you are likely a contributor to the conflicts you are a part of, because you likely do not address the interests of other parties. You likely think other people are wrong in conflicts. You might report a string of injustices against you from many people across many different situations and circumstances. Now, there are the occasional people who do get repeatedly targetted unfairly, it is generally because they have not learn to stand up for themselves and do not adequately protect themselves from others, they neither fight, flee, nor something in between. The solution for them is to learn how to address conflicts. But if you do constantly act to protect yourself in conflicts and rarely accommodate to others no matter the circumstances, you’re problem isn’t learning to address conflicts; you aren’t a perpetual victim but you’re actions put yourself into conflicts routinely. Unless it is specifically your job or task to engage in conflicts or address issues that are prone to stoke conflicts and it is only in those circumstances where you experience constant conflict all the time, then you are likely a major contributor to the conflicts you face in life. Consider maybe it is you who needs to change in conflicts, rather than putting the burden on others. Consider that if you were more willing to be concerned about other people’s interests, you might not get into conflicts all the time.