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  • Writer's pictureChuck Cusumano

Conflict Resolution: Avoid It or Address It?

By: Betty Gebhardt, LPC

Conflict Resolution: a topic that is commonplace in most organizations, businesses, and teams. But why?

Before we unpack this further, let’s start with you. When you hear the word “conflict,” what do you notice? Take a few moments and just sit with that word without trying to escape or run from any uncomfortable feelings it may bring up for you. Stay with it. What do you feel when you hear the word “conflict"?

Did you feel tension in your stomach? Notice resistance to it? Anger? Did you try to quickly move on from it to a happier thought? Does it excite you?

The key to resolving conflict first begins with you. The more you are aware of your own reactions to the thought or experience of conflict, the more you will be able to manage it and help those around you work through the conflict that is inevitably going to happen if you have any interaction with human beings.

Avoidance is common when it comes to conflict due to the fear it naturally provokes inside of us. Conflict and Fear often accompany one another and if we are not comfortable with them, we will do everything in our power to avoid them – thus causing problems in whatever organization, business, or team you are a part of.

Conflict provokes:

  • Fear from the past (negative experiences with conflict)

  • Fear of the unknown

  • Fear of failure

  • Fear of rejection

  • Fear of hurting someone’s feelings

  • Fear of not being liked

  • Fear of really any difficult emotions (inadequacy, shame, disrespect, disappointment, etc.)

Fear amplified (also known as Anxiety), gives us two options: we can either AVOID it or we can ADDRESS it.

Avoidance, while leading to short-term relief, will only lead to increased fear in the long-term so the healthiest way to deal with conflict (and the fear it causes) is to address it. This is not a fun process… mainly because it’s vulnerable to address fears in any context of our lives.

So, how do we address it?

One way we can address it is by being courageous enough to have the hard conversations.

Harvard’s recommendation for addressing conflict both in our personal and professional lives, comes from the book Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen.

Essentially, the authors break down Difficult Conversations into three separate conversations:

  1. Option 1: The “What Happened?” Conversation: The goal of this conversation is to understand the intention of the person who is being accused. It is common to jump to conclusions about others’ intentions, thus impairing our ability to separate what each party is experiencing as their reality of what caused the conflict. Our goal here is to be curious about what was truly the intention of the party causing the conflict versus simply the impact.

  2. Option 2: The “Feelings” Conversation: What I have learned through being both a counselor and a coach is that oftentimes people will calm down from a conflictual conversation once they feel heard. Option 2 is about doing just that – helping people feel heard. We do this through using active listening skills. This involves paraphrasing and reflecting back what the other party is communicating and specifically acknowledging how the conflict has caused the person to feel. It also involves us showing empathy for these emotions and asking open-ended questions to show our care, concern, and understanding.

  3. Option 3: The “Identity” Conversation: When conflict occurs, it can cause wounded parts of us to get activated, leaving us feeling less than, inadequate, incompetent, disrespected, or unethical. Our sense of self can feel threatened in these moments, causing us to deny and dispute “blind spots” we may have, such as our bad temper or extreme sensitivity. Our goal in this conversation is to be aware of how the conflict may threaten someone’s view of themselves and offer suggestions towards improvement. This encourages them to maintain a positive self-image while also encouraging growth.

But, conflict resolution is so difficult!

How do we begin to have compassion for these moments of conflict in our workplace? Organizations, businesses, and teams are simply microcosms of family units. The difficulty with this is that each one of us grew up in a different family system that all handled conflict differently. Not only did each of us have different experiences with conflict, but we also had different experiences with communication, authority, and other complex interpersonal relationship dynamics. This is why conflict resolution is hard. It’s hard because we are dealing with unique individuals with different experiences and different emotions that then all try to work together.

So, what do you want to do with the “hard”? Avoid it or address it – you are the only one who gets to decide.

How can you become comfortable with your own feelings of discomfort around conflict to better lead others in resolving their own conflict?

What would it look like to implement having difficult conversations into your workplace? Home? Marriage? Friendships?

If you need help working through these questions, or with conflict resolution within your professional or personal relationships, we're here to help at!

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