In common with other personality characteristics, we all vary in our approach to conflict; some of us will go out of our way to avoid disagreement, while others will go out of their way to engage in it. Most of us are somewhere in-between, and where we 'sit' on this continuum contributes to an overall sense of how "agreeable" we are in communication with others. The impact of our approach to conflict can be significant. Whilst we readily comprehend that being overly combative can be problematic, many fail to recognise how problematic being overly conflict-avoidant can be.
I frequently encounter clients who, often for fear of conflict, experience being overlooked and not taken seriously, or being seen as passive and lacking in authority, and who are frustrated at their own anxiety in speaking up, and so on. These can be career limiting effects but sometimes the impact is more profound and far reaching.
I was reminded of this when I was approached for help by Alan (not his real name), a senior executive who, being highly conflict avoidant, had failed to deal with an under-performing director. Over a period of two years this director, let's call him Tim, had used his aggressive and abrupt communication style to bully and intimidate his team and some of his peers, leading a number of them to leave the organisation. In that time, Alan hadn't once discussed this behaviour with him. Matters came to a head when a particularly highly valued director, who had battled for over a year to work effectively with Tim, met with Alan to say that if he didn't receive appropriate support and backing in dealing with Tim, he would leave. In the wake of this latest resignation threat and a lengthy period of problems Alan recognised finally that he had to act, and that meant facing up to and changing his approach.
When we first met, Alan outlined his proposed plan for speaking with Tim about the situation. This largely centred on comments about how well regarded he was, what a great job he was doing and numerous other "strokes" clearly intended to please and/or pacify him. He intended to follow that with a vague and light comment about difficulties with Tim "upsetting some people". When I challenged him on this approach his anxiety quickly became apparent, revealing itself initially as anger towards me. This provided us both with useful material to think and work on.
When we pieced together the history, and heard the stories of those affected by Tim's behaviour, the, at times harrowing, impact Tim's communication had had was clear: People being brought to tears in the office, people frightened to come to work, people leaving their jobs (in one case without another job to go to) as the situation with him had become so stressful and unacceptable. Even the more robust and combative were said to have to steel themselves before having any kind of communication with him. And in all this time, Alan's fear/dislike of conflict had led him to look away and not deal with it.
Now Alan's problem had increased: Tim had been "getting away with" this behaviour for a long period of time without mention or any feedback so that it was quite consolidated. In ignoring it, Alan had communicated his passivity and weakness to Tim. Failing to accept some minor discomfort to deal with this conflict in the first place now left Alan with a much more difficult situation to deal with.
Alan and I worked together, successfully, for seven months during which time he learned to think, behave and communicate assertively. In a very tricky and challenging development period for him, he did achieve effective communication with Tim and while he didn't manage to achieve a major change in his behaviour, Tim's subsequent resignation did effectively resolve the problem. In being unwilling to confront and deal with a difficult issue initially, a number of people were avoidably harmed and Alan himself continues to work on developing his authority and winning the respect of those in his organisation.
If any of the following apply to you, you may be avoiding conflict to an unhelpful extent:
In our culture we are brought up to be "nice" to others. In my work over the years in helping people develop assertive behaviour I have found that people are often uncomfortable at the thought of causing upset or dislike in other people. Even in extreme situations when they know that submitting to bullying doesn't make them more popular, they continue to behave in this passive way. Assertiveness coaching can help you to develop more fulfilling and effective relationships at work and at home.
Sarah is a Leadership and Executive Coach. To contact her email firstname.lastname@example.org, call 01223 655667 or see www.sarahjaggers.co.uk