When faced with conflict, some people “feel as though the costs outweigh the benefits,” or they struggle to contain emotions and may be concerned about how those emotions will be seen (Adolfsson n.d.). These kinds of feelings can lead to a behaviour commonly referred to as conflict avoidance.
Intuitively, conflict avoidance makes some sense: fighting can “stress the body out severely” (Thorpe 2016), and “most people prefer to avoid clashing when possible” (Barth 2017). Indeed, it is difficult to confront negative emotions, whether in an intimate relationship, family relationship, or in the workplace. However, as Barth explains, “when handled well, disagreement and conflict can lead to positive change.” Keep reading to find out more about how to support clients who experience or exhibit conflict avoidance behaviours in their relationships.
What Is Conflict Avoidance and What Are the Causes?
Conflict avoidance is an accurate description of the set of behaviours it describes. That is, conflict avoidance refers to what people do in order to not engage with conflict. As noted above, it is a common behaviour in many kinds of relationships and it often stems from a “fear of provoking displeasure or negative emotions in others” (Thorpe 2016).
Thorpe goes on to explain that “conflict avoidant people tend to have learned, early in their lives, that conflict is a frightening, negative experience” as opposed to “something that can actually resolve problems.” An individual who wants to keep the peace at all costs may be said to be conflict avoidant. As you will understand from your relationship counselling training and life experience, there may be many underlying causes for conflict avoidance depending on the individual.
Conflict Avoidance Tactics
Although conflict avoidance may save someone from a difficult conversation in the moment, it can lead to increased feelings of resentment (Wolters 2019), suppressed anger, or sudden eruptions of emotions in other situations (Barthe 2017). This is why clients may seek out the support of a professional who has completed relationship counselling courses.
When assessing clients, it is important to recognize the tactics that indicate conflict avoidance. It is possible that “serial conflict-avoiders will have a series of unconscious manoeuvres to get out of fight situations” (Thorpe 2016). Strategies include stonewalling, where someone just “tunes out” (Baechle 2019); procrastination, where an individual puts off a difficult conversation; and joking, where someone makes light of a possible conflict (Wolters 2019).
These tactics and others can “increase boundary violations and decrease mutual respect between intimate partners” (Barth 2017). As Baechle points out, “if you keep avoiding conflicts to save the peace in your relationship, you inevitably start a war inside yourself.”
How to Support Conflict Resolution
Many professionals agree that “conflict can be healthy and lead to growth both individually and externally” in a relationship (Adolfsson n.d.). When you counsel clients through conflict avoidance, you have the opportunity to present strategies for healthy conflict resolution.
For example, Wolters suggests asking questions such as “how long have you been feeling this way?” as an alternative to defensiveness. These kinds of questions reflect an effort to understand where someone is coming from, which is a key to conflict resolution. Other professionals encourage conflict-avoidant clients to prepare for conflict by organizing their thoughts before, as well as reflecting on conflict afterwards (Adolfsson).
Although many find conflicts difficult to engage in, as a counsellor you can remind clients that “conflicts allow you to explore your deepest emotions and to talk about them with your partner (Baechle 2019). If you help your clients focus on clear communication and sensitive attention to underlying causes, you will be able to support them in overcoming conflict avoidance.
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Adolfsson, Danica (n.d.). Conflict Avoidance and Managing Conflict. The Psych Professionals. Retrieved from: https://psychprofessionals.com.au/conflict-avoidance-managing-conflict/
Baechle, Irina (2019). Lessons from a Couples Therapist: Conflict Avoidance Can Destroy Your Marriage. Psych Central. Retrieved from: https://psychcentral.com/blog/lessons-from-a-couples-therapist-conflict-avoidance-can-destroy-your-marriage/
Barth, Diane F (2017). Are You Conflict Avoidant or Conflict Seeking? Psychology Today. Retrieved from: https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/the-couch/201710/are-you-conflict-avoidant-or-conflict-seeking
Thorpe, JR (2016). 7 Signs You’re Chornically Conflict-Avoidant. Bustle. Retrieved from: https://www.bustle.com/articles/133535-7-signs-youre-chronically-conflict-avoidant
Wolters, Patrice (2019). The Challenge of Conflict Avoidance in Relationships. Marriage.com. Retrieved from: https://www.marriage.com/advice/relationship/the-challenge-of-conflict-avoidance-in-relationships/