Conflict Feels Scary

For the column of January 18, 2004

Have you ever been in a situation when you angered or disappointed someone and they refused to work out the conflict? They may have been aloof and avoided you or shared their reasons for their feelings with others but not with you.

Conflict feels scary. Most people have had no formal training in conflict resolution, other than some parental guidance. Most of my clients report that they avoid conflict at any cost.

What were you taught about conflict? Did you have a rage-a-holic in your family? Is there a fear of retaliation if you discuss what is bothering you? Did you grow up with an avoider? It’s tough to resolve issues when the other person won’t acknowledge or talk about them. Maybe you lived with a person who would walk out in the midst of a disagreement, leaving you feeling angry, alone, and abandoned.

As an adult, you can address conflict differently. Conflict between two people is inevitable. In healthy relationships, two people can share their feelings and the issues that lead up to the problems. When two people are able to voice their feelings, a “clearing” occurs where both parties are heard, understood, and validated. The “offender” assures the other person that they will not repeat the offending behavior. A sincere apology is typically offered and then time becomes the healer. Time and changed behavior typically assures the angry person that the”clearing” rectified the situation.

In unhealthy relationships, unresolved conflict can lead to further problems. Both parties tend to misperceive things and become defensive, which can actually fuel further conflict. Although defensiveness is protective and keeps you from getting hurt, it also keeps you from seeing the other person’s side.

Do you avoid conflict? Do you hope that if you don’t deal with it, it may disappear? Although feelings can be suppressed, they will assuredly come back to haunt you, and the relationship, if they are swept under the rug and not dealt with directly.

Not all conflict is resolvable. Frequently, when people have been hurt, angered, and/or disappointed, they psychologically file it in their subconscious with all of the other disputes they have experienced from their past. This can result in them overreacting to your issues and not seeing it for what it really is.

It takes two people to work through conflict. If one person is unwilling to resolve it, you have no choice but to learn all you can from the experience, honor your feelings, and move on.

If you are experiencing conflict with your partner, it is imperative that you bring it out in the open. It will benefit you if you share your fears before you begin. “John, I am afraid to share my fears with you, because I don’t want you to leave me.” After you describe your fear you can address the issue. “I got the cell phone bill today and I saw that you called your secretary at home 64 times this month.” Or “Lucy, I am afraid to talk with you because I don’t want you to keep the grandkids from me.” The grandmother can then describe how hurt she is because she has not been given as much time with her grandchildren as the other set of grandparents.

Feel good about the fact that you have dealt with the conflict openly and honestly, regardless of whether the other person is willing or able to work it out with you. Conflict is a natural part of life.

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