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Are You Conflict Avoidant or Conflict Seeking?

Some people avoid conflict at all costs; others seek it out. Which is better?

Parents of a two and a half year old cannot agree on how to handle his newly developing temper tantrums. The mother wants to give him a time out to help him calm down. The father cannot bear for the boy to be upset and wants to give let him have whatever he is demanding. “I know it’s wrong,” says the dad. “But I have this feeling ‘he’s just a little kid. He wants it so badly. Why can’t we give it to him?’”

A manager has to discipline a member of her team. “I really hate it,” she says. “I did everything I could to get out of it. And when my boss made it clear that I didn’t have a choice, I started finding excuses to be out of the office or away from my desk when the guy I have to talk to was around.”

Another manager, on the other hand, will fight with anyone who disagrees with her. “She just seems to be eager for a battle,” says one member of her staff.

A man whose neighbor has put a new shrub on his side of the boundary between their homes yells at the neighbor that unless he moves the shrub, he will be hearing from the man’s lawyers.

Another man whose neighbor mows his lawn early on weekend mornings is upset and frustrated. But when they see one another as they head out to work on Monday morning, this man acts as though he has suddenly remembered something and goes back into the house.

Some people avoid conflict at all costs; others almost seem to seek it out. Which is better?

The answer is complicated.

According to many conflict management specialists, most people prefer to avoid clashing when possible. There are negative consequences to avoiding conflict, however. In business, when an employer or team leader avoids dealing with negative behavior, for instance, it can seem that they are accepting unacceptable acts. According to specialist Kenneth Hekman, when bad behavior is accepted, business operations are often disrupted—if not immediately, then in the long run.

James Kerr, global chair of N2Growth, writes that when leadership avoids conflict in a business setting, “Communications become strained, teamwork diminishes, productivity suffers, the ‘Customer Experience’ is compromised, the ‘Best and the Brightest’ leave, and brand value weakens.”

When it comes to personal life, conflict avoidance can increase boundary violations and decrease mutual respect between intimate partners, parents and children, siblings, and friends. Unaddressed anger and resentment can fester, potentially resulting in a sudden and unexplained explosion over something minor and even unrelated. Silence and withdrawal can also be a reaction to these feelings. The result may be the end of a connection to someone who is actually very important to you.

But jumping into conflict with your eyes figuratively closed and your temper flaring can be equally disruptive to business and personal relationships. In fact, such behavior can create some of the same problems in personal and work relationships as conflict avoidance.

Although you might think that brash and pushy behavior is the quality that makes a person a strong leader, the opposite is actually often true.

Leadership coach Terri Bozkaya puts it this way, “While all busy human beings experience impatience from time to time, overly pushy, bullying or aggressive behavior is often indicative of weakness rather than strength. The weak man or woman wants to appear stronger, bigger and smarter than s/he believes him or herself to be. In over-compensating for that weakness, responses to others come out as terse or belligerent.”

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Learning to manage conflict is extremely important in every area of life. When handled well, disagreement and conflict can lead to positive change. For instance, I often encourage couples I see in therapy to explore little, unimportant things they disagree on as an emotional “exercise” that builds “conflict muscles.” The more comfortable you are talking about an unimportant disagreement, the more easily you will be able to handle differences about important things from child-rearing to spending money and having sex.

In business, the ability to resolve disputes can make the difference between success and failure. A strong leader, successful employer, and valuable employee neither avoids nor seeks out conflict, but finds ways to manage differences and maintain positive alliances at the same time.

There are numerous programs to teach conflict management in our personal and work lives. One study found that “training does not reduce the occurrence of conflict, but it clearly has an impact on how conflict is perceived and can mitigate the negative outcomes associated with conflict.”

In other words, conflict management does not mean ending all conflict but learning how to live and work with it. In a review of several models of conflict management, Amy R. Overton and Ann C. Lowry found six common principles running through them all:

  1. Conflict is inevitable and that both positive and negative consequences may occur depending on how the conflict is managed.
  2. The results are likely to be better with active engagement rather than avoidance.
  3. People must be motivated to address conflict.
  4. Behavioral, cognitive, and emotional skills can be acquired.
  5. Emotional skills require self-awareness.
  6. The environment must be neutral and feel safe.

One book that I often recommend for couples, parents, families, friends, teachers, students, lawyers, doctors, nurses, business people, and anyone else attempting to manage conflict is Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most by Douglas Stone and Bruce Patton. The book offers straightforward, practical advice about how to talk about everything that matters, no matter how painful, difficult, confusing, or embarrassing it might be.

When I suggested the book to the parents of the 2 and a half-year-old having temper tantrums, I told them that they would also be doing their child a favor. The sooner they got comfortable talking about and finding a workable solution to their conflict over how to deal with his tantrums, the sooner they would start teaching him to resolve difficulties in a healthy, productive way as well. At 2and a half he would need help their help to talk about what was bothering him. When they were arguing about how to address his meltdowns, they could not help him find words to substitute for the tantrum. And ultimately he was going to need the words in order to manage his own emotions.

Because that’s what’s important: talking to whoever it is that you’re having a conflict with about whatever it is that you’re conflicted about. It’s not an easy thing to do, but it’s an important part of being a functioning, successful, and happy adult.


Also, please note: I love to know what you think about what I’ve written, so please leave your comments below, and if you have questions about the content or the ideas in this or any other post, put them in your comments! If you’d like to get feedback from other commenters, feel free to ask them questions as well. However, it is not possible for me to respond to individual requests for personal advice through email or the Internet. Thanks so much for understanding. FDB

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