Communication Managing Self

Conflict avoidance at work – don’t do it!

Written by Julia Menard

Recently, I had the privilege once more to spend a full day exploring, teaching and learning about how to approach difficult conversations in the workplace. The more I go into this subject, the more nuanced it becomes! Even though I’ve been delivering and refining this conversational framework and workshop for over 10 years, I’m always discovering new insights, questions, puzzles.

This time, the query that grabbed me as I reflected on mediations I’ve been involved in is: is it true that we generally don’t seem to want to have the difficult conversations at work?

My sense is we are a conflict avoidant species, generally speaking. Most of us are adept at identifying what could go wrong if we bring up a subject with someone (or if we try to broach it again). We’ve got the risk part of the equation down pat.

Take a look at these beliefs for why you shouldn’t bring up a difficult conversation and see if any are familiar to you:

  • If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all
  • Better let sleeping dogs lie
  • It will go away on it’s own
  • It’s not worth the effort (energy/time)
  • I will hurt their feelings
  • Why bother?
  • I have brought it up several times and nothing seems to change
  • They will be upset with me and try to hurt me and make my life miserable
  • I will be seen as unprofessional if I don’t handle it right
  • It’s none of my business
  • It is no big deal (but then bad-mouth the person to others)

I’ve heard all these and more. I’ve used a few myself at times with my own difficult conversations.

Yet, as Cavell Boone, a Family Court Mediator for the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador, and former Labour Relations Officer, has said:

“Conflict avoidance in the workplace is demoralizing, unproductive, and very costly, both directly and indirectly.”

So why are we avoiding?

There are many reasons, and some are valid. Conflict can indeed pass if left on its own and difficult conversations can often use some time for cooling down.

The challenge is when we go back to reflect on whether we should bring up the subject at some point – we hit our negativity-bias. As humans, our brains have evolved to focus on negative inputs over positive ones. We are primed to scan our external worlds looking for, and confirming, possible threats and risks. So, it is no wonder that so many conversations which should happen, and happen early, don’t happen at all.

In fact, an often-repeated story I hear from those who advise managers and leaders in the workplace is: a manager asks for some advice (whether calling Human Resources or their Coach or their supervisor) on how to approach firing someone.

The first question the Human Resource manager or coach or boss will ask (or should ask) is:

“Have you talked to the employee directly about your concerns?”

I have learned that, often enough to be surprising, the answer is: “No.”

I get it! Negativity bias is hard-wired into us and something we have to consciously work to overturn. Daily. Our “monkey minds” continually tell us it’s scary out there and we better do nothing so we can keep safe!

How do we overcome our negativity bias?

I am not advocating going around complaining about every little pinch that seems to bother us. That would probably result in a lot more negativity and grief in the world!

We can start, however, by accepting that conflict is inevitable in every workplace. At some point or the other, the “honeymoon” period will be over. That shouldn’t signal the beginning of the end, but in fact, a turning point to more intimacy and opportunity for further growth. Conflict is not only inevitable, but it is a gift.

A metaphor I’ve adopted for conflict the last few years, is to think of it as a strong river and me as a kayaker navigating the waves. Where would I be without the river? It carries me from one place to the next. It can be treacherous if I don’t have my helmet, safety jacket and paddles – so I make sure I’m prepared. But the river gives me excitement, it demands my full attention, and it promises to teach me things about myself and about life that I never knew possible.

One of my mediation clients exemplified this attitude. When given an opportunity to reflect on the conflict and difficult conversations ahead of her, she came into the conversation wanting to learn. What had she been missing that led to the situation at hand? What could she learn? How could this conflict show her where she still needed to grow?

Her approach and her questions led her to the fruits of conflict.

May they be yours as well!

As Cavell Boone also said: “My hope is that people come to accept that conflict is inevitable and that they can use it as a productive force for creativity and innovation.”

About the author

Julia Menard

Have you ever wondered why you can be so calm and rational for your clients, but when it comes to your own life, stress can creep in so easily? That’s the quest I set out on when, after 20 years as a mediator, my own marriage disintegrated. I teamed up with a therapist from Portland, and we wrote a book that captures much of what I’ve learned over the last five years about finding a the calm in the chaos. Hold On To Yourself: How to Stay Cool in Hot Conversations is the result. If you are interested in mindfulness, finding the leader within and engaging the gifts in conflict, then check out my website and sign up for my free monthly newsletter at:

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