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Don’t Sweat Conflict

Many of my clients fear conflict. They are angry about something or someone, but they fear telling the other person. They do a great job of sharing their feelings with me, but when I advise them to deal directly with the other person, they assure me they don’t feel capable or confident of doing it.

There is no doubt that conflict is scary. For most people, sharing conflict brings about a fear that others will react angrily to the conflict. They report, “If I tell someone that I am angry, they may yell at me or make fun of my feelings and then I would not only feel the original conflict, I will feel more anger because they don’t respect my feelings.”

Although this can indeed occur, I tell my clients that it is important to externalize the feelings and assert one’s self. I also remind them that, “No one can make you feel.” In other words, you get to choose how someone else affects you. We own the power to experience feelings for what they are and then alter those feelings to decrease the intensity.

In previous columns, I have stated that 90% of someone’s reaction “is not about you, it’s about them.” Let’s look at some typical types of conflict that naturally occurs in human behavior to illustrate this concept.

  1. A woman is getting married and is no longer available for social gatherings. Her friend tells her angrily that she is being selfish now that she is getting married. Although the engaged woman can certainly choose to include her friend, she also knows that her life has changed along with her priorities. Her friend’s anger is really about past abandonments, i.e. her parents’ divorce and her own breakup with a boyfriend.
  2. A husband stops helping his irresponsible son and states clearly that he will let his son suffer the consequences. The wife gets angry and tells him he will be responsible for his son’s failures. In this situation it is the wife who feels like a failure about her son’s behavior and she is reacting to her husband by projecting that fear.

Think about people who have been angry with you. Can you identify times when their own unresolved feelings have likely caused an overreaction to your situation? When you recognize this correlation, conflict is easier to understand.

Here are some tips that can make the dance of conflict less scary.

  • Conflict is natural. Recognizing that all relationships have some form of conflict helps you to decrease the fear that conflict will alienate you from another person permanently.
  • Conflict makes you stronger, if dealt with appropriately. There is a great sense of satisfaction when two people work out their differences.

  • Conflict creates intimacy. Conflict can be healthy. Whenever you have two human beings working together, you will have conflict. In healthy relationships conflict will occur, be worked through, and will actually bring you closer to the other person.
  • Keep expectations realistic. Sharing conflict does not ensure that you will get your way. When you share your anger or disappointment it will give others the opportunity to know how you feel. You have no control as to how they will react to or interpret your views, but at least you will have the satisfaction of knowing you were clear and direct.

Don’t avoid conflict for fear of someone’s angry reaction. It is your responsibility not to “take on” another person’s angry reaction.

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