The Healthy Side of Conflict

How to Productively Resolve Differences and Stop Dreading Confrontation

When most of my patients talk about dealing with conflict, they express an unwillingness to rock the boat. They might envision all the negative things traditionally associated with conflict, such as yelling, frustration or the inability to get another person to see their point of view. The thing about conflict is that it can (and does) pop up everywhere: home, work, among friends and romantic partners — quite simply, conflict is a part of life. Some people choose to avoid conflict because they don’t have the temperament for all that arguing and discord. What if I told you, however, that there are advantages to conflict? Healthy conflict resolution is actually a positive thing for all types of relationships. Conducted appropriately and faced head-on, resolving a conflict can actually enrich our interactions and improve our understanding of ourselves and those around us.

Why is Conflict Scary?

Why does conflict have such a bad reputation? Probably because most people see a conflict as resulting in one winner and one loser. In other words, the winner gets everything they argued for, and the loser goes away feeling angry, unheard and even embarrassed. Engaging in conflict can also be intimidating because often, we don’t know how to do it properly. While discussing one issue, we tend to bring up other, unrelated things. This happens commonly among married or romantically involved couples. A discussion about who empties the dishwasher turns into an argument about who takes more responsibility around the house, which partner works harder, who is more controlling about how housework is done and so on. Without the proper approach to conflict resolution, it’s easy to see how something simple can spiral out of control. It’s no wonder conflict is perceived as something to avoid altogether.

Conflict Could be Good

Believe it or not, the right approach to conflict resolution is quite healthy. I coach my patients in the “reframing” of conflict resolution — approaching it strategically and with a goal in mind, not armed with defenses and preconceived ideas about the other party’s motivations.

The benefit of working through something together, rather than avoiding it, is that it helps us see multiple perspectives, increases our fl exibility and provides an opportunity to let go of frustration and grudges.

Start by thinking about conflict resolution as a win-win, rather than a win-lose. This strategy allows each party to come away with something they want, employing flexibility as a path to compromise. Identify the problem at hand and commit to resolving only that issue — avoid dragging out past conflicts. It’s also important to listen to what the other person is saying and really absorb their perspective, instead of silently wishing they’d stop talking so you can voice your own ideas and wants. How can this win-win approach work in different types of relationships? Some patients ask me about the differences between conflict resolution in marriages vs. professional relationships, or even in solving problems with their teenagers.

Conflict Among Couples

Couples conflicts include a lot of emotional investment from both partners. It can be difficult to manage conflict among couples because, like the dishwasher scenario, conflicts between couples often get derailed by attacks or “old” issues.For couples, seeking that beneficial win-win relies on hearing what the other person is saying, rather than defending your own point. Practice active listening and remember that this person is your partner, not your opponent. In a healthy marriage, this means they are not expressing their feelings in an effort to malign or attack; they just want you to know what’s going on in their head. Hearing and acknowledging their feelings demonstrates validation. Remind yourself, and your partner, that you do care about what bothers them. Thinking about this will allow you to consider ways in which you can take action and ensure you both feel as if you’ve won.

Disagreements at Work

At work, the fear of conflict stems from imagined repercussions. We avoid workplace conflict because we think we’ll get in trouble or wreck our professional reputation. But avoidance leads to passive-aggressive behavior and ultimately damages workplace relations worse than if you had dealt with the problem in the first place. In this situation, remember to set your emotions aside. Disagreeing with a colleague will not reflect badly on your talents or abilities, as long as it’s done in a professional way. Remember to practice active listening, demonstrate that you understand your coworker’s perspective and work with them to determine a solution that will prevent anyone from going away feeling like the “loser.”

Manage Your Expectations and Start Small

Reframing conflict so it’s a win-win for everyone is so beneficial, but it definitely takes practice. I always tell patients that it may not be perfect the first few times. It gets easier when you adjust your perspective and realize that there is always going to be conflict in our relationships. You might dread being in the middle of conflicts, but when you regard the resolutions for the opportunities and understanding they can provide, you may begin to accept them as a necessary and healthy part of life.

About the author

LESLI B. HUGHES, LCSW TPMG BEHAVIORAL HEALTH