Conflict is an unavoidable part of mature adult life. No one with a rational mindset chooses conflict, but some of us know it is a reality and have developed skills with which to address it.
Others just walk away, ignore it, lie, and so forth, and I’m asking this second group to take a closer look at that.
Being good at conflict resolution doesn’t mean you like it; it probably means you’ve already had more than your share and you’ve had to adapt to survive. I had a horrific childhood where avoiding conflict was literally not an option, so that’s where my conflict resolution skills come from. Not trying to claim superiority here—having conflict resolution skills doesn't make me better than anyone else as a person, and TRUST ME I'd trade this skill set in any day if I could go back in time and have a stable, non-abusive childhood.
But Doc Brown and Marty McFly were only fictional, we don't have the ability to time-travel, and since I can't undo the past, I choose to talk about conflict resolution in the present, because I’m really stunned that people who just opt out of it don’t see how much further damage they’re doing, albeit unintentionally.
Even if you never master it, we can all achieve a greater comfort level with conflict, and please consider that “comfort level” can mean a bare minimum of being able to deal with something, not that arguing is your favorite way to spend an afternoon. Being able to deal with conflict directly doesn’t mean it doesn’t take a toll on me, it means I’ll still work toward a resolution while it does.
Since there is no finite end to conflict in our lives, those of us who are able to more functionally address it end up enduring so much more of it because we don’t shy away from it, and we end up handling our share as well as that of people who do run away. Life is not fair and some people can float through without ever facing their issues, which I guess is none of my business since I’ll never live that way. But good for them.
There are people who pick fights, and I don’t understand that, either. I'd like to be optimistic about the humanity in us all, but I do believe that there are definitely flat-out bad and mean people in the world. Still, I tend to not think of the world in terms of "mean girls" vs. the rest of us. As an actor, the best way to approach portraying a villain is to think of them as the hero of their own story, and you could be railing away against some "mean girl” while someone else might be off somewhere saying the same things about you.
I was recently having an exchange with a woman who I would later find out is disastrously not good with conflict. It needed to be no more than a three-ish volley back-and-forth, certainly not an argument or a major issue of any kind, in my opinion. I was asking her a simple question but I understand that it could also have come off as an accusation. No one likes to feel accused or attacked, so I proceeded with caution and a smile on my face.
She said nothing and avoided eye contact in such an extreme way that that felt rude to me, which was escalation #1. Feeling slighted, I dropped some of my sugar-coating and asked again. Escalation #2. She then told a lie in answer to my question that was such an obvious lie that the words hung in the air in front of her mouth, unsure of why they were brought into the situation, as preposterous and unbelievable as they were. Escalation #3.
I started to find a way to object to her lie with facts instead of insults, because I didn’t want to insult her or fight, I just wanted to resolve the situation, and she simply walked out of the room while I was speaking. Didn’t say anything, just walked away, out of where we had been standing and then out of the building entirely. Escalation #4 like a motherfucker.
I felt so utterly disrespected that I suppressed an urge to chase after her. That’s my impulse—to handle things in the moment until they’re squashed and then move on. It was a real “take five deep breaths and count to ten” moment; I was so angry. But I didn’t see any benefit in following her in that moment. Besides, that would make me a bully, giving her further justification to run away.
I could have expressed my rage at being lied to and walked away from, but that would have been venting, which I could do with anyone, and not resolving the (potential) conflict I was asking about in the first place.
I vented to others, and in doing so, I recalled times when this person had said in totally different contexts how awful she is in dealing with conflict of any kind. She’s not someone I have to encounter regularly, so I had to jog my memory of our previous encounters, but once I did, I pieced together a perspective from which her behavior, which I deem deplorable, made sense to her and was not necessarily a personal attack on me.
What she failed to realize is how deeply she escalated it, and created conflict that wasn’t even there.
This happens all the time, and it’s so exhausting. Not replying to that message, call, email, whatever because you don’t want to or feel like you can’t deal with it? No reply is still a reply, and it’s a disrespectful one. If you’re dealing with someone who doesn’t really care about you, or there’s just not much at stake, they absolutely might just drop it as well, and huzzah that you never had to deal with it.
In a situation where someone really cares, however, or it’s an important relationship to your life, that other person might persist in seeking resolution with you, making you both feel even more stressed, which in turn escalates the initial conflict. You might feel attacked or accused or hounded by someone’s increasing efforts to address a situation, making you even more stressed about the situation itself.
From the other perspective, the one I know too well, you make me into a nag if you ignore or run away from something important. That can create a self-fulfilling prophecy or a negative outcome by default, like the couple who’s arguing where one person ignores the other, making the more direct person either raise their voice or otherwise redouble their efforts to get through, thereby transforming into someone that most people would not want to talk to, which justifies ignoring them or worse. This cycle can go on and on.
People who don’t face things head-on set this cycle in motion really frequently, and I’m so tired of it. Please consider that the person who respectfully but directly addresses conflict in your life is tired of picking up your slack. Please consider that for every difficult conversation that makes you anxious or that you don’t “want to” be having, we don’t want to be having it either but it might be necessary. Please consider that we might have anxiety around it too, and employing tools that make it show less on the outside doesn’t eradicate it.
Conflict resolution tools are learnable! They're Googleable, and I’ve even written tips on conflict resolution myself here. There are support groups and therapy for more severe problems, but before those steps are even taken, you have to see the need to take them.
If you have an intimate partner or other person in your life who knows that they will be called on to address conflict for you, and you occupy some commensurate life role for them in return, that might work for you, and congrats. For everyone else, “I don’t do conflict” is just not an option unless you are a transcendental zen master who has evolved past the general human condition and also does not ever interact with us regular folk.
Do conflict. Please don’t run toward it, seek it out, or create it, but do your best to look it in the eye when it comes, and address it. The power of many of our stressors can diminish simply by looking at them and calling them what they are, and conflict is firmly in that camp.
The woman who ran away from me that day was not being intentionally disrespectful, she was doing her best in the situation. Her best at this point is the very least, so it came across to me as hateful. She showed me what she was capable of in that moment, and I responded with that understanding, having pleasant and innocuous exchanges with her in the days that followed that incident, accepting that I wouldn’t ever get a direct answer to my initial question, and it was up to me to move forward without one.
That’s where she is right now, but I think she’s capable of more. One day she’ll avert her gaze from someone who reads it as an eye roll, and they might clean her clock. Or walk away from someone who’s talking to her who does chase after her, with disastrous consequences.
Massive arguments can arise because one party turned away from a minimal conflict. It’s time to do better. I implore you.