Have you ever backed away from a difficult situation because you didn’t want to talk about it? You needed to bring up something that you knew would trigger strong reactions, maybe even conflict, but rather than go there, you ducked it. You stayed silent. You skipped the meeting. You didn’t answer the phone. You avoided someone.
Sometimes it’s a good idea to avoid a difficult conversation, as when tempers are way too hot and a productive discussion would be impossible. If your own temper is in full gear, and that little voice is saying to you, “You’re about to say something you’ll regret”—that’s a time to duck a difficult moment.
It can also be a good idea to skip it, or at least save it for later, when it’s apparent someone’s feelings are hurt, or about to be, and a difficult conversation would only exacerbate an already painful moment. Again, a discussion at a time like that is rarely fruitful.
However, there are those other times when we shouldn’t avoid difficult conversations—like telling a colleague she’s doing something wrong, delegating a task to an unwilling employee, or asking a teammate not to leave his dirty lunch dishes in the breakroom sink. It’s time to speak up when the consequences of not doing so are (1) the work will suffer, (2) ill feelings will linger because something persists, or (3) misunderstandings will get worse.
Avoiding Trouble Leads to Trouble
Sometimes avoiding conflict and not speaking up can lead us into serious trouble. For example, when:
- We do something ourselves rather than delegate it to someone who should do it because we know he’ll push back, argue or complain.
Result? The person who should delegate spends time he doesn’t have doing work he shouldn’t be doing. He doesn’t take on a challenging management task (delegation) and misses the opportunity to grow. And the employee’s grouchy behavior wins.
- We ask someone else to say it for us—to deliver bad news, for example, or to announce something that’s bound to be unpopular.
Result? We lose credibility. People don’t trust us to be forthcoming with important news.
- We talk around the edges of something, rather than getting at the core issue, the difficulty, or point of contention. For example, it’s easier to thoroughly revisit the details of a just-solved technical problem, which few will disagree about, and avoid talking about impact of the problem (on schedule, customers, budget, etc.), which everyone disagrees about.
Result? The impact of the problem manifests anyway—missed deadlines, dissatisfied clients—and we’ve missed the opportunity to manage that by anticipating the impact and forming a team approach to what’s coming.
There’s another type of conflict avoidance, probably the worst of all: We unpin a grenade and then leave the room before it explodes.
Unpinning the Grenade
I once worked for a VP who was a conflict-avoider of championship caliber, a nice guy who went twitchy in the presence of any dicey conversation. One day towards the end of an amiable staff meeting—moments before we were about to conclude—he announced that we would all be reporting to a new manager, someone whom most of us did not want to work for, and that the change would be effective the next day. He waited about five seconds as we sat in silence letting the news sink in, then wished us all a good evening and left.
I’m not exaggerating, and the repercussions were significant:
- He went down in our estimation when he did that.
- He created backlash—the entire team now not only unhappy about the change but also about the way it was handled, all of whom had friends to whom they said, “And here’s how it went down,” as the story went viral in the ranks.
- He didn’t set the new manager up for a smooth transition. It was going to be tough anyway, but his unpin-the-grenade-and-run method of delivering unwelcome news made it worse.
In short, his conflict avoidance wasted both good will and time. (When people spend time complaining, especially when the repercussions go viral, that’s time wasted.)
That’s an example of conflict avoidance gone overboard. But whether it’s pathological conflict avoidance or avoidance that’s ever so slight, here are three things that can make it easier to tackle conflict in conversation.
- Rehearse. Think through what you’re going to say, and try it aloud—perhaps while you’re alone in the car and no one can hear you.
One reason people sidestep a tricky conversation is they’re afraid of getting tongue-tied in the moment. When the stakes are high—and they often are when conflict is looming—think ahead of time about what to say so you won’t find yourself at a loss for words. Anticipate questions and accusations, even arrow slings, and then practice how to answer the question or catch the arrow mid-air—before the moment arrives.
I’ve done this myself many times, and I guarantee you it works.
- Don’t try to win.
The reason most conflicts escalate is that the two (or however many) sides are in it to win. It’s a small-scale war: I win; you lose. But conflict doesn’t have to go there. We don’t have to be RIGHT about dirty dishes in the breakroom sink. We just have to express that we prefer they not be left there.
Think how different a tough conversation would be if victory weren’t the objective. What if the objective were to make the other person win? (You’ve heard of “thinking outside the box”? We’re going way outside.) Imagine a conflict situation where our goal is to make sure the other person wins. For one thing, we’d listen much more closely. When we’re solely focused on personal victory, we don’t listen well. We try to bark over the other person. Then he barks, then we do, and right away no one’s listening.
Try that perspective shift. Imagine you want the other person to win. If you can take your imagination there for a few minutes, you’ll find conflict much easier to navigate.
Important note: You’re shifting your internal perspective to open your mind to the other person. That’s not the same thing as abandoning your objective. You still want to leave the conversation with an agreement that there will be no more dirty dishes left in the breakroom sink. You’re advocating for what is necessary, without the ego investment.
- Resist speeding up.
When people disagree, the pace often accelerates quickly. We start out slowly, maybe even tentatively, and the next thing we’re talking faster, louder and more forcefully. We’re interrupting, and sometimes we can’t think fast enough to keep up with the rush.
Take a breath (or two or three) and don’t leap into the racing lane with everyone else. Keep talking, make your points, but stay in control of your speed. If you’re worried you won’t be getting attention if you’re not as loud and fast as everyone else, raise your voice but not your level of agitation. Persist, but resist speeding up.
Engineers, in my experience, take a lot of ownership and pride in the work they perform. In part, that’s because they bring knowledge and proficiency to the job—an ability to think things through and to keep technical details active and organized. In short, subject matter expertise is highly valued among engineering professionals, as it should be, and it’s often the source of conflict.
That kind of expertise doesn’t help traverse conflict. Technical expertise—the ability to solve complex math and logic problems with certainty—is a different skillset from the ability to steer through conflict. But keeping these three tips in mind about how to approach conflict should help. And remembering the downsides of dodging challenging conversations will, I hope, inspire you not to.
Susan de la Vergne is a writer and communication instructor who worked in software development and Information Technology leadership for a very long time.