One of the realities of being human, I’ve come to believe, is that most people are afraid of bringing up conflict. We tend to avoid the issue by either pushing ourselves away (avoiding) or by getting angry and thereby pushing the other person away.
Either way, we don’t get down to discussing what’s really going on.
What is the explanation for this fear so many of us have?
There are many explanations – here are a few:
- Our brains are pre-disposed to scan for danger. Given that, we tend to read more conflict into situations than were probably there at the start (before our own reactions added fuel to a possible small fire). Through mirror neurons, we tend to feed each other’s stress levels, increasing the conflict and misunderstandings exponentially.
- Our history as a species is fairly violent. I believe we have an innate, built-in memory about that. If this history is of interest, check out Steve Pinker’s research in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature – Why Violence Has Declined or check out one of his talks on the subject.
- There’s also the societal angle which feeds the idea of an inherited fear of conflict. Research by anthropologist William Ury (of Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In) – suggests more peaceful cultures see by-standers acting as peacemakers. In our culture, we either think someone else’s conflict is none of our business, or we see our role as taking one side or the other – instead of a more neutral “third side” approach.
What are we to do?
I find it generally helps to start small. Start with sharing something fairly benign. In one leadership program I am involved with, they teach the concept of “pinches.” If something a team member said or did confused you or bothered you a bit, then you’ve been pinched. Keeping things fairly small and light allows us to try to resolve things at a level of less risk, less seriousness, less pressure.
Here is one person’s experience with introducing this pinch idea into a workplace.
Since we tend to find conflict threatening, whatever we can do to help another feel safe and save face, will increase the chances of being able to hang in long enough to get at the substance of the conflict – instead of just the emotions of it.
I love to hear your stories!
“Curiosity will conquer fear even more than bravery will.”
… James Stephens