Dealing with Conflict

Many of us avoid conflict for fear of how we will be perceived or causing permanent damage to a relationship. But avoidance isn't always a good solution.

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Many of us hate conflict and avoid it at all costs. This can be particularly true when it comes to conflict with people we care about. Often we avoid honesty expressing ourselves for fear of causing damage to a relationship or changing the way we are perceived by others. This can be particularly true if we have not had positive experience of managing conflict in the past or if we learned as children that expression of anger or negative emotions is unacceptable in some way.

We may want to address our grievances and even rationally know it's the best thing for us to do, but the idea of doing so makes us so uncomfortable that we find ourselves unable to act. Conflict makes us feel too vulnerable, and instead of expressing ourselves we push away our hurt and anger.

Why does conflict make us so uncomfortable? The answer is different for differnent people. A simple process of self enquiry can give us a starting point for understanding what is going on.

We can ask ourselves: What holds me back from expressing myself in this situation?

This may generate a number of answers. Often clients say things about fears that they will not be heard or that the relationship will be damaged irreparably. We can continue the enquiry process, taking each of our answers and asking ourselves what it would mean if that were true. For example, we may fear that the relationship will be damaged. If we ask what it would mean if this were true, we may conclude that we will be rejected or lose the relationship. If we continue the enquiry even further we may discover that rejection also holds some meaning for us. By doing this process we can discover something about the root of our avoidance. This can help us understand why it is so difficult for us to deal with conflict.

But avoidance has its own problems. Research links unexpressed emotion to stress and health problems. Avoidance can also be detrimental to our relationships. When we sit on our feelings, resentment builds. We may express our feelings indirectly through passive aggressive behaviour such as withdrawing, sulking or being difficult. The person this behaviour is directed at often gets the message, but may not know what they have done to deserve it and can end up feeling badly treated themselves. When we don't get to process our grievances we are also prone to becoming highly sensitised to certain kinds of slights from others leaving us prone to mishearing, misinterpreting and misdirecting our feelings.

As daunting as it may be, it is possible to approach conflict situations constructively, in a way that honours and values the relationship. Here are a few tips as a starting point:

Start with good will

Often when people hurt us in some way they are not deliberately setting out to do so. Coming from a position of goodwill doesn’t mean denying our anger or frustration, but means avoiding shifting to a place of feeling entirely negative and allowing one problem to colour our whole experience of a relationship. Instead, we can remember the positives and approach the situation from a position of curiosity. It may help to think about how we would like someone to approach us if we had hurt or angered them in some way. We are generally more responsive and able to hear negative feedback if it is delivered with sensitivity rather than as an attack.

Look for the co-created element of the problem

Our response to the way others treat us is often, in part, due to our own areas of sensitivity. For example, imagine that we are brought up in a household where our opinions are disregarded or not sought. We may grow up to be particularly sensitive to similar experiences of not being heard. A friend who repeatedly talks over us or dismisses our point of view may get us really upset. In doing this our friend is pressing on one of our hot buttons. That’s not to say that they have not done anything wrong. What it does mean is: own our part. When you get away from blame, we avoid attacking. Then the other person doesn’t get defensive and is more likely to remain available for a constructive discussion. We can approach a conversation with openness to another perspective. We could say something like, ‘I had a really strong reaction when you said x the other day. I’m really sensitive about not being heard and I wanted to talk it over with you.’

Let go of being right

When we feel wronged we can become convinced that we are all right and the other person all wrong. We want the other person to realise how awful they have been, be sorry and never do it again. But many conflicts are not so easily organised into the goodies and the baddies. We move forward more easily when we can let go of convincing the other person of our rightness, and instead allow both parties to be heard and share their experience of the other and work together towards a solution.

For more practical tips on how to deal constructively with conflict, see: How to do conflict

Sally Hilton

I am an Integrative psychotherapist with 10 years experience of working with clients on issues including anxiety, depression and relationship problems. I work with clients from all over the world via my online practice offering psychotherapy via video call, voice call, email and instant messaging. I can be found at