I’ve been spending some time of late considering conflict and what it means to be conflict-averse. One thing I’ve noticed is that I don’t know anyone who describes herself as conflict-averse. I think it must be like a sense of humor and good taste: not everyone is funny and tasteful, but everyone thinks they are. Not everyone is good with conflict, but no one wants to admit that they aren’t.
People who grew up with me will tell you that I never seemed to shy away from conflict. In elementary school, I decked a boy two years younger than me because he was picking on a two-year-old (I still maintain that my action was justified. I mean, really, who picks on a two-year-old??). As a teenager, I spoke my mind freely and easily and often. And even now, in many areas of my life, and with many people, I am quite comfortable being clear in my thoughts and feelings. But not in every situation, and not with every person.
I have noticed that this is often true of other people, as well. Most people, it seems, have areas of their life wherein they are more willing to tackle conflict and do so in a productive manner. Maybe they’re good at it with their friends, but terrible at work. Or maybe they are great with their kids, but awful with their parents. (Parents, by the way, seem to be a conflict averse area for many, many people.)
For me, it is less about the type of situation and more about the type of person. For the better part of my adult life, I saw myself as something of a conflict wimp. A large part of this perception stemmed from my ex-husband’s pronouncement that I didn’t “stand up” for myself enough, that if something was bothering me about him or our relationship, I should voice it and express it. I can appreciate the value in those words and the truth in his analysis that I was not always forthcoming with him about my feelings. But I didn’t have an explanation. Indeed, I was truly puzzled by my own reticence to broach matters of importance to me with him, and some of my guilt, post-separation, generated from a fear that if I had been more confrontational with him, perhaps we could have created a better relationship.
But yesterday, I had an amazing aha moment. I finally realized that there is a difference between being conflict-averse, i.e afraid of conflict and unwilling to face it, and simply choosing not to engage in conflict for reasons that are valid and real. Sometimes, as in the case of my ex-husband, the person with whom you are engaging is not ready or willing or maybe able to hear any of the truth in your words. Sometimes that person needs to come to the truth themselves. Sometimes it is wise to simply let things go, knowing that our words will be wasted and our efforts misunderstood and misinterpreted. I learned this week that there is sometimes wisdom in not being confrontational, depending on the situation and/or the person.
This is hardly a novel idea. Activists and pacifists have written tomes about when to confront and when to act passively to achieve laudable goals. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s plea for passive activism was an acknowledgment that the audience that black America was trying to reach wasn’t necessarily ready to hear the message, and so needed to be dealt with less directly.
What I’ve learned is that we simply need to be clear with ourselves in our reasons for avoiding or choosing not to engage in conflict. Being strong does not require that we engage with someone when the engagement will merely feel like pounding our head against the defensive wall they immediately pull up. Being strong doesn’t mean sharing every feeling we have, when we are fairly certain, based on past experience with this person, that our feelings will not be valued and honored. Sometimes being strong means choosing what is best for us in that situation, regardless of whether it is what the other person wants us to do or how they want us to handle it.
None of this is without nuance, of course. I know that I have moments of sheer conflict-avoidance, and that I will continue to do so. Realizing when we are simply avoiding something, as opposed to making a conscious and valid choice, is a difficult thing. I mean, not many of us are aware when we are practicing denial or avoidance.
So, maybe the next time you or someone else labels your behavior as “conflict-averse,” you might take a breath and a step back and consider several things;
1. Am I avoiding broaching something?
2. If yes, why am I avoiding broaching it?
3. Does this reason serve my best interest in some meaningful way?
Because maybe, just maybe, you’re not being weak or conflict-averse. Maybe you’re just being wise or self-protective.