Here’s What Conflict Avoidance Looks Like (and What to Do About It)
Conflict avoidance can stem from a desire to avoid discomfort, people please, or as a result of existing mental health conditions.
By: Sarah Fielding
Clinically Reviewed By: Don Gasparini Ph.D., M.A., CASAC
December 19, 2023
Table of Contents
You’re unlikely to meet someone who truly enjoys engaging in difficult conversations (perhaps beyond the conflict resolution bit at the end). Undoubtedly, everyone, at one time or another, has gone out of their way to evade these challenging moments. But, for some people, conflict avoidance is more than just an occasional thing; it is a staple of how they move through life. The most obvious marker of conflict avoidance is, as its name suggests, avoiding conflict. You might also forego regular obligations or social events—anywhere potential conflicts could arise.
“Let’s start by acknowledging that some conflict should be avoided,” says Charlie Health Clinical Director Ann Matino, LCSW, pointing to emotional abuse, stonewalling, or other conflict that makes you fear for your well-being. Barring these instances, Matino says it’s also important to note that conflict is a part of life. “No one can get through life without it,” she says. Below, we delve into why people avoid conflict and how to develop conflict management skills.
Why do we avoid conflict?
“There are many reasons individuals may avoid conflict,” says Matino. “It is important to assess individual perceptions of why this behavior is occurring, how long it has occurred, and what the person is gaining or losing — taking into account that all people who avoid conflict as a practice are not all alike.”
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One of the main reasons someone might avoid engaging in conflict is the hope of also eschewing discomfort. The actual act of engaging in a situation that can have contention or disputes is often uncomfortable. It’s easy to think, “Why should I engage in this when I know it could make me feel awkward or on edge?”
But, as Matino points out, conflict avoiders can actually feel even more discomfort in the long term. Think about all the times you’ve put off having a meaningful conversation or let frustration build inside you instead of voicing your feelings. In the end, conflict avoidance brings more drawn-out discomfort. According to Matino, here are some other reasons why someone might be conflict-avoidant:
Fear of being rejected or hurt
Yes, things might not resolve how you hope, but one technique that might help is keeping the conversation about the issue at hand versus ever personally targeting the person. It can be a much less painful conversation if they follow your lead.
Mental health conditions
If you live with conditions such as extreme anxiety or social anxiety, then facing conflict can feel all the more daunting. This can be compounded by low self-esteem, which can leave you doubting yourself or your decisions, and a lack of energy from disorders like depression.
The hope of side-stepping a power struggle
Sometimes, discussions can undo the current status quo, which can be a challenge, but if it’s necessary, then it’s necessary.
Lack of desire to discuss emotions
Saying how you really feel can be an incredibly vulnerable experience, but it can also be freeing and build a stronger bond between you and the other person.
Attempt to people-please
Sometimes in life, you are going to have to ruffle some feathers and not give people precisely what they want. That doesn’t make you a bad person; you’re just a human with your own needs, boundaries, and feelings.
Concern about the relationship ending
A healthy relationship should be able to withstand honest, respectful communication about issues at hand. If you’re really scared that engaging in conflict could ruin a relationship, ask yourself how strong that relationship is to begin with.
3 tips for how to develop conflict management skills
It’s impossible to get through life—and have it resemble anything near what you want it to—without engaging in conflict from time to time. “If an individual’s goals include healthy connection and relationships, and feeling joy, contentment, and fulfillment in life, consistently avoiding conflict most likely will not lead to goal achievement,” says Matino.
Work with a mental health professional
1. Practice acceptance
You can’t resolve a habit unless you accept that it exists in the first place—and the habit of conflict avoidance is no different. You might come to this realization on your own or through the help of a loved one or mental health professional. Once you do, Matino recommends asking yourself: “What functional impairments or problems am I experiencing because of my inability to enter into conflictual situations?”
2. Incorporate mindfulness
Part of the issue with conflict is, again, that discomfort. Mindfulness practices like meditation teach you to stay grounded in your body without trying to change things or dissociate when things get challenging. It can also give you a chance to explore the root of what’s bothering you and become more trusting in yourself. These practices can lead to healthy conflict resolution. Similarly, you can use self-help books or other reflective devices to enhance your mindfulness practices.
3. Work with a mental health professional
Sure, it sounds straightforward: engage rather than avoid conflict. But that change can be tremendously difficult and scary to navigate. A mental health professional can help you do so and dig into what might be at the core of your resistance to conflict – such as past trauma. A mental health professional might use techniques like systematic desensitization, exposure therapy, dialectical behavior therapy skills, or physical activity.
How Charlie Health can help conflict avoiders
If you’re struggling with the mental health effects of conflict avoidance, Charlie Health is here to help. Charlie Health’s virtual Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP) provides more than once-weekly mental health treatment for young people dealing with complex mental health conditions, including those struggling to cope with interpersonal conflict, workplace conflict, and more. Our expert clinicians incorporate evidence-based therapies into individual counseling, family therapy, and group sessions. With treatment, managing conflict and your mental health is possible. Fill out the form below or give us a call to start healing today.