When I was in college I had a small desk calendar that taught me a new French word or phrase every day. Obviously most of these words were forgotten before I learned the next one, but one phrase instantly stuck in my memory: L’esprit de l’escalier — which literally translates to the spirit of the staircase, but metaphorically illustrates the experience of when you think of the perfect conversational reply too late. We all have these moments, but I experience them frequently (maybe too frequently?). Of course, there is no “normal” way of feeling or living, but I know that I’m more afraid of conflict than I should be. Because of this fear, I often times don’t say the things I should say. Which means I play the “l’esprit de l’escalier” game pretty frequently. Pro tip: it’s very satisfying to play while stuck in traffic. But sadly, there’s never a winner.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been afraid of conflict. When I was five, my mom noticed I didn’t seem to like the fish sticks I was eating for dinner. I didn’t, I hated fish as a child, and still do to this day. When I told her I didn’t like them, she asked why I had never told her and took them away immediately. I don’t know why I didn’t speak up sooner. My parents never made me eat food I didn’t like, so why didn’t I say something?
As an adult, I have bigger fish to fry than fish sticks. Particularly, I’m very afraid of conflicts in the workplace, which brings me back to l’esprit de l’escalier. There are so many workplace conflicts that I didn’t resolve properly. Where I didn’t advocate for myself or tell my side of the story. I know that this does me more harm than good, even if I do avoid an awkward conversation.
My fear of conflict doesn’t surprise me — I know many other people who feel similarly to the way I do. But what does always surprise me is when I meet someone who seems not only comfortable with conflict — which is probably a good thing — but who thrives on it and seems to seek it out. I wanted to see if I could learn more about my fear, so I asked Miriam Kirmayer, Therapist and Friendship Researcher, a few questions about how a fear of conflict develops and how to successfully handle conflict.
Is a fear of conflict a genetic trait or one caused by life experiences?
While there is no specific fear of conflict gene, we do all differ in terms of our predisposition to experience and express difficult emotions as well as our stress response to situations we perceive as threatening. When it comes to conflict, our past experiences, including our interactions with the people closest to us and the behavior that was modeled for us growing up, can impact how comfortable we are expressing our needs and how open we are to hearing someone else out. These experiences can also shape the beliefs we have about conflict itself, which impacts our willingness to engage in conversations we might perceive as threatening.
When we are stressed about other things that are going on in our lives, we also have less room to navigate and cope with conflict. Stress has a cumulative effect, and unless we develop ways to cope with bigger stressors and daily hassles, it can have a dramatic impact on our ability to tolerate and manage interpersonal conflict.
What are steps you can take to overcome a fear of conflict?
This question comes up quite a bit in my clinical practice as a therapist where I work with people who are experiencing conflict with friends, partners, family members, or colleagues.
We all have ideas or assumptions about what conflict means for ourselves and our relationships. Often times, these beliefs contribute to and maintain our fear of conflict and make it harder to have productive conversations. As a starting point, it helps to recognize what our beliefs about conflict involve and how these might be getting in the way of our relationships and well-being. Do you feel like asserting your needs will invariably cause conflict? Are you afraid that conflict will lead to the end of an important relationship? Does it feel like experiencing conflict means that you’ve done something wrong? Identifying your ideas about conflict and questioning whether these are true won’t make conflict go away, but it can make it much easier to navigate if and when it comes up.
When we’re afraid of something, be it a spider or conflict with someone who is important to us, our natural tendency is to withdraw or avoid. And while this might work short-term, over time it reinforces our belief that we should be afraid and actually maintains our anxiety and fear in the long run. That’s why one of the most effective ways to overcome a fear of conflict is to gain experience with it. Expose yourself to whatever it is you are fearful of in small, manageable steps. Imagine what a difficult conversation will feel like, practice being assertive with other less threatening people, and work your way up to a situation that you previously would not have thought you were capable of handling.
How can one cope with anxiety caused by conflict?
Conflict is inevitable in any close relationship. It isn’t the absence of conflict that makes for a close relationship, but our ability to work through it in a healthy, constructive way. Remembering that conflict is normal — and even expected — can lessen the anxiety we experience when we feel threatened by actual or impending conflict.
It also helps to challenge the ideas or assumptions we have about conflict. Are you predicting the future or catastrophizing? How likely is it that the worst-case scenario will come true? If it did come true, how would you cope? Challenging these kinds of thoughts can help you to feel more confident and prepared going into a difficult situation or conversation.
At times, it can also help to take a step back and respect your need for time and space. The idea isn’t to ignore the conflict or person with whom you disagree, but to take a step back to be able to re-engage in a healthy way. Take a few moments before returning a stressful phone call or email. Or excuse yourself from a stressful situation for some fresh air and a few deep breaths. Just be honest with yourself about whether you are hitting the pause button or taking a more permanent escape route.
It also helps to establish good baseline habits and self-care — sleep hygiene, proper nutrition, exercise, mindfulness, and social connection all do wonders for our ability to manage and cope with conflict.
Some people seem to thrive off conflict and aren’t afraid to ignite it. How do you resolve conflict with someone who is eager to keep the disagreement going?
Conflict can be even more difficult to manage when the person we’re interacting with has a different communication or conflict management style. If you’re faced with a situation where someone seems to thrive off conflict, pointing out the ways in which they are stoking the flames will usually only escalate things. The key is to focus on your own emotions, reactions, and experiences as well as the dynamic between the two of you. Use language like “I” and “me” or “us” and “we”. Remember that, despite your different approaches, you are both likely coming from a similar place of wanting a resolution to the conflict.
If you feel like things are becoming too heated and you need to take a break, by all means do so. Just be sure to let them know that this isn’t meant to be experienced as you avoiding them or not wanting to work through issues, and that it is in fact the opposite — exactly what’s needed for you to re-engage.
Conflict can occur in any relationship. Should we be handling professional conflicts differently than personal conflicts?
We as women tend to be apologetic for voicing our opinion or needs, especially in a professional setting. And, unfortunately, a fear of conflict can hold us back from taking credit for our successes and contributions, pursuing new opportunities, and reaching our potential. Knowing that asserting our needs doesn’t always lead to conflict, and that conflict isn’t always inherently bad, can make it easier to speak up in a professional setting and reach our goals.
That said, the power imbalance that exists in all relationships can be even more significant in a work setting and can make it difficult to speak up or engage in conversations that might involve conflict. Never should we feel as though we cannot or should not address harassment, bullying, or inappropriate behavior of any kind. But in weighing the pros and cons, we might sometimes choose to overlook differences of opinions or situations in which things feel unfair or to withhold information that we would typically share in a conflict with a friend or partner. If you do decide to avoid expressing your needs or perspectives, focus on why you are doing so. Feeling as though it’s a decision, as opposed to something that is outside of your control, can make it easier to accept and to move forward in a constructive way.
What should you do when you’re caught off guard by conflict?
If you find conflict especially difficult to manage, it can help to have a few coping strategies at your disposal. See if you can set aside a few minutes before diving into a stressful interaction. Taking a few deeps breaths or visualizing a relaxing, safe space like your favorite vacation spot might seem trivial, but can go a long way toward helping you to feel relaxed and ready to engage in a potentially stressful situation. Remind yourself that conflict is normal and that you won’t feel the sting of it forever, and challenge self-destructive and self-critical beliefs that might be getting in the way.
Are there times that conflict avoidance is the right path to take or should conflicts always be addressed head on?
The old advice to work through conflicts and avoid going to bed angry with the people we love is sound. But there are times when taking a step back from an argument or conflict may be the best course of action. If conflict has the potential to become harmful or violent, or if you’re worried about your own safety or those around you, it’s best to take a step back and cool down.
If you’ve repeatedly expressed your views or needs and you just aren’t being heard or respected, it might also be best to take a step back and reflect on how you want to proceed – whether it’s by letting some things slide, re-engaging when you’re both in a different headspace, or finding a new way to communicate.
The reality is, in a long-term relationship of any kind there will be times when we need to let some things go. Avoidance really becomes a problem when it is a pattern and we’re left feeling chronically unheard, disrespected, or disappointed. This can lead to resentment or heartache and take away from the closeness we feel in our relationships. It also sends the message that our needs aren’t worth sharing, which can take away from our overall sense of self-worth.
How do you tell the difference between constructive and destructive conflict?
This is a great question because it highlights that conflict isn’t inherently negative. Ideally, conflict leads to mutually beneficial outcomes or resolutions. It can even bring us closer to the important people around us.
Obviously, conflict can become problematic when it devolves into disrespectful arguments, but there are other subtler ways that conflicts can become destructive. Conflicts should ideally be resolved through solutions that work for everyone involved. That’s why conflict can be destructive when one person’s needs are consistently prioritized over another’s. It can also be destructive when it involves ruminating or rehashing the same issues over and over again without coming up with a new solution or plan of action.
Conflict might not always feel good in the moment, but it ideally can leave you feeling as though you’ve worked through something together, you’ve been heard and respected, and that you’ve come to a solution that will make things easier in the long run.