Help me get over my fear of conflict.
September 16, 2011 7:58 AM   Subscribe

Help me become ok with conflict. I avoid conflict. Not just overt, head-butting conflict, but also minor disagreements, disapproving looks, divergent preferences... all the way down to the friction generated by the give and take of an interesting conversation. Anything short of complete harmony, and I'm looking for a way out. Sometimes this means avoiding the person or situation. Sometimes this means just shutting up and smiling. Sometimes it means not developing an opinion of my own until I know what other people think first. My absolute fear of conflict is a drag. It makes me and my life pretty bland and I want to beat it. Tell me how to beat it.

To start, I am in therapy. This is how I've come to realize that I have this problem. But I want to tackle this from all sides. I'm looking for tricks, tips, and activities that I can get involved with to expand my comfort zone on the Smiles-to-Punch-in-the-Face scale from a 1 to a nice solid 8.

Bonus points for activities in which conflict is an integral and inescapable aspect of doing it at all.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (16 answers total) 45 users marked this as a favorite
take a debate class at your local community college. it'll help with conflict aversion in a structured space and as a bonus, you get public speaking training as well.
posted by nadawi at 8:03 AM on September 16, 2011

This is round-about, but: Boxing! Doing some boxing classes at a local gym changed my idea of conflict, because it was the Epitome of conflict in my head, but the other women and the trainers were always hugely supportive. Once someone has given you a hug for throwing a really good punch near their head, you begin to see that other people won't be destroyed by dissent. That you've got good stuff to offer, and by never putting it out there and always agreeing with them, you've been depriving of that chance to dodge, that valid opinion.

[Also, therapy, getting a better sense of myself, understanding my own positions and boundaries and all that helped - but it sounds like you're working on that, too, which is great!]
posted by ldthomps at 8:08 AM on September 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

This is roundabout too, but: Do you read?
If you read a bit, and think about what you read, then you'll be prepared to develop cogent opinions and may feel more confident about expressing yourself even when others may disagree. If you train yourself to do that in a civil, respectful way, then the most disturbing elements of conflict can usually be avoided. Things can then become interesting--real conversation--without becoming hostile.
And the therapy can continue to help with the fear factor.
Good luck.
posted by fivesavagepalms at 8:32 AM on September 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

You've said you're afraid of conflict, but you haven't actually articulated your fear. Are you afraid that other people won't like you if you disagree with them? Do you fear your own physical reactions to conflict? Are you afraid you might hurt someone if you get mad? Afraid someone might hurt you? Afraid that you're wrong and you'll be exposed publicly for your wrongness? What is it about disharmony that gets you so scared?

I think you need to figure out what the actual fear is. Think deeply about it. Talk with your therapist. Once you have a better idea of what you're actually afraid of, you'll be able to figure out whether that fear is grounded in reality and what you can do to make the actual thing you're afraid of less scary.
posted by decathecting at 8:35 AM on September 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

Sounds like you need to go to the Argument Clinic (especially after 2:01)

Seriously though. What is wrong with avoiding conflict? Isn't this just another way of dealing with the world? Maybe you feel like you are taken advantage of? This isn't automatically solved by ratcheting up the tension. Assertiveness is not necessarily best achieved by inviting conflict.

I'd say what you have is a feature, not a bug.

Seems like you are naturally a good listener and probably a good reader of body language. I would guess you "read" people well. That's a skill. It would seem you have more social ability than you give yourself credit for. Maybe you just need to learn to use these skills in a different way.

Now if you want me to go on arguing, you'll have to pay for another five minutes.
posted by three blind mice at 8:45 AM on September 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

You can work with your therapist any number of ways. You can identify places in the world where you feel like you may be able to find a starting point in tolerating conflict. It doesn't matter what it is, as long as you feel ready for it. Return something to a store, order a coffee with 4 special steps, anything you feel ready for. It doesn't really matter if you get full cooperation from the other person or not, usually it's the anticipation and facing that fear that helps people. As you get rolling, you can discuss how to move up in difficulty, which usually involves friends and family. Also, if you know someone who you think is particularly good at it, sit and watch them. You can learn what moves feel like you could pull off, and which ones you need to work up to. Finally, I always think that an acting class would make a great compliment to therapy.
posted by DTHEASH1 at 8:49 AM on September 16, 2011 [2 favorites]

I'm going to go left field here.

It strikes me that you may actually love conflict, just a different sort than you mention. Hasn't your habit of avoidance and capitulation caused a conflict within yourself? Aren't you at conflict with the world (as it really is, not how you hope it is) and yourself by trying to avoid conflict? Who created this inner conflict? You did, with your actions and beliefs! This might seem perverse to you, you might respond by saying that conflict is only painful when it is between you and other people, but this conflict within yourself causes you suffering. You suffer with outer conflict and you suffer with inner conflict. By getting along with other people, you aren't getting along with yourself. Try to love yourself so that you realize you are currently depriving the world of your opinions, spirit and light.

In music, the same note twice isn't called harmony, it's called unison. Harmony is two different notes existing together, merging their frequencies to make something new. You exist, your "frequencies" exist, but by hiding your light under a bushel, you are striving for unison, not harmony.
posted by acheekymonkey at 9:09 AM on September 16, 2011 [3 favorites]

Sometimes it means not developing an opinion of my own until I know what other people think first.

This really spoke to me. I did this for ages, and it was really causing me problems in my early 20's. Fresh out of college, trying to navigate new social groups, and too nervous to say anything until I knew what they expected me to say. It was hard. I didn't do anything in particular to get over it, and it took years, but I'm definitely better now... or different, anyway.

I can clearly recall a boyfriend at the time saying "look, you have to tell me what you think, I don't want to lead you around by the nose when I know you must be thinking something in there, you're just not telling me!" and it was frustrating to realize that no, I was supressing it so hard I genuinely wasn't letting myself form opinions. He was good, called me on a lot of my crap. He'd ask me questions cold without telling me what he thought first, and force me to make the unimportant "where are we eating" type decisions. I remember being at the zoo, and he was infuriatingly not picking a route to follow, and saying "if you want to see the reptile house, say "let's go see the snakes" and then we'll go see the snakes. Do you want to see the snakes?" This seems bizzarre to me now - at age 36 I'm so much the "oooh, monkeys!" (grab, drag) "we're going to see the monkeys!!" type of person that it's really odd to remember that day.

There are very few situations in my life when I "argue". I don't need to have a fight with someone, or even a political debate - way more frequent is the type of disagreement such as "do you like Indian food?" "no, I think it's too mushy" and part of my brain is saying "eeeek! what if they love indian food? not liking ethnic food is so uncool! god, what am I, a picky toddler? they're going to tell me I'm being dumb!" but in fact they say "yeah, can be. Maybe you'd like the Tandoori stuff, though. But would you rather do Thai?" and the world keeps turning.

For me, it was about security - coming out of a nerdy childhood in hicksville dystopia, and having a somewhat closed group of trusted friends in college, to start trusting that adults don't act like middle schoolers. I was so used to having the things I liked (as a kid) being "weird" that even when my thoughts were nothing unusual I was prepared to hide it or get made fun of - very defensive. And though it was great to have a squad in college who understood and accepted each other, that was hardly preparation for the real world, in which nobody much cares if I like to [whatever]. Really. I was shocked to discover that I could say something and people might say "wow, that's great!". They might also be surprised, or say "huh, never heard of it", or even be mildly critical, but that didn't mean they disliked me. The thing that made me the pushy clown I am today was being in social situations with other really non-pushy introverted people who refused to take charge, and making decisions for the group because if no-one decided where we were going for dinner we would all starve to death. And then realizing that the fact that I could spout an occasional random factoid about something I was interested in got me labeled not as "weirdo girl" but "girl who knows unusual stuff about the big wide world".

Anyway. Tips and tricks... From my (warped?!?) perspective, it's not about learning how to argue/debate, it's about learning how to be comfortable in a non-follower position. So make some decisions. Form some opinions. Tell a close friend what's going on with your thinking and breaking these habits, and see if they'll make you take charge sometimes. As a game. Go to a fair and drag your friend around to whatever you want to see, no questions asked. It's harder than it sounds, if friend is actively avoiding giving you any cues. Find a restaurant you want to try, and tell 3 friends you're taking them there, and order all the food for the table. Then you can start working in accepting objections to your plans on these "nights out", and making objections to other people's plans in regular life.
posted by aimedwander at 9:30 AM on September 16, 2011 [25 favorites]

It's great to feel comfortable expressing your opinions and standing up for yourself, and I agree that that is something you should work towards. I don't think, however, that conflict avoidance is particularly problematic in itself. I am a conflict-avoider, and my best relationship was with a conflict avoider! As long as you are willing to step up to the plate when things need to be discussed (even if it is scary and uncomfortable and tear-producing) and are willing to express your needs and desires, then you can have a pretty healthy, conflict free life. It just means you can't date people who are overbearing or too stubborn.
posted by whalebreath at 10:13 AM on September 16, 2011

Since you are looking for activities: try to find a negotiation class or workshop in your area. Or if you can't, read about negotiation ("Getting to Yes" is a classic). You will learn how to communicate in a way that lets people know what you need, and how to hear someone else's contrary view and take it in stride. It will be uncomfortable at first, but it sounds like you're prepared to be uncomfortable while you tackle this.
posted by chickenmagazine at 10:55 AM on September 16, 2011

Try starting small. Maybe someone says, "hey, I really like purple shirts!" Then you come and say, "cool, I really like orange shirts!" Once you see that the world doesn't end and you start feeling comfortable offering your opinions/preferences on things in that level of uncontroversial-ness, you can work your way up to thornier stuff.

Maybe the next level is, "so, everyone, where should we go for lunch/dinner/drinks?" Instead of just saying, "whatever you guys want", offer up a real suggestion (side note: I hung out for a bit with a group of girls who would never, ever offer up a suggestion for something like this. It drove me crazy! Awesome side effect: I always got to go where I wanted). If someone says "nah, I don't like that place, let's not go there", you could say "really? I really like it --they have awesome sandwiches/pasta/mimosas, but if the group would rather go elsewhere that's cool." Again, you will see that the world will not end -- either you'll all follow your suggestion or not. And try not to take it personally when/if they don't follow your suggestion.

Stick with this "smaller" level of conflict for awhile to start feeling comfortable with it. I think it's kind of like a phobia -- you need to confront your fear in order for it to go away.

Further on, when it comes to something like politics, I honestly think there's something to be said for not having much of an opinion. Definitely know what your values are and voice them, but in terms of the other political crap . . . the world could probably use more listeners/conflict avoiders :)
posted by imalaowai at 12:56 PM on September 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

How about a conflict right here in AskMe? Who says you have to be OK with conflict? Why must you have an opinion on every subject? Why can't you just assert that you don't like conflict? Do you have to learn to like it because others say you do? Maybe those who don't mind conflict are insensitive and you're more in touch with reality? If you don't agree, feel free to tell me so.
posted by Obscure Reference at 1:10 PM on September 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

Hi, you sound just like my mom (I'm mostly kidding). I was in a "Conflict Resolution" grad program and studied conflict a lot. From the inter-personal kind to the global kind. I would definitely recommend taking a class on Negotiation or Mediation. In most of those classes you do a lot of role playing. Also, many locales have community mediation programs. Do some googling in your area and see, they will likely be taking volunteers. Learning about mediation might be a good step, as mediators are neutral third-parties meant to keep the other parties civil and on track. You don't have to engage in the conflict.

It's great that you are in therapy.

Getting to Yes is definitely a classic book. I also think practicing mindfulness is really important. Even though I have all kinds of training in mediation, etc, I still find myself getting caught up in the emotions surrounding conflict. I try to step back and observe the physical reactions (wow, my hands are really shaking, my stomach is full of butterflies... this incident is really upsetting for me). Knowing that you are conflict avoidant can be a huge first step in learning how to live that way. It's okay to prefer to avoid conflict, but it might be difficult if you are in a relationship with someone who looooves conflict. (Some of us thrive on disagreement).

Good Luck, I'll be watching this thread with interest.
posted by thankyouforyourconsideration at 1:30 PM on September 16, 2011

I definitely have struggled with this too. Something I read once sort of flipped a switch in me; I can't really explain why; I just think about this whenever I find myself trying to avoid/escape something unpleasant and it sort of jars me back to rationality:

“You can hold yourself back from the sufferings of the world, that is something you are free to do and it accords with your nature, but perhaps this very holding back is the one suffering you could avoid.”

I've seen it applied in a number of situations (addiction treatment, for one) but I really think it works here too. Your avoidance of conflict may be worse than most things that could actually arise from conflict if you actually let it happen.

I took a "Communication and Conflict" class in college--the teacher was this really likable hippie lady and she had us read this book...kinda crunchy but I loved it and have found it very useful in my post-college life. :)
posted by lovableiago at 2:25 PM on September 16, 2011 [3 favorites]

In the interest of starting some conflict right here in this thread like Obscure Reference's perceptive post -- Why do you think embracing conflict is the answer?

Presumably having a fear is based on having some internal feeling/processing mis-connect. You think that something very bad will happen to you if you disagree. Will addressing that head on with additional outside conflict address that fear internally?

Though if it is only a irrational fear, then it should go away when you find the fear to not be the case in reality. But this posits on fears being rational. When I think of fear I think of animalistic responses - animals cornered and trapped, their fur raised, ready to bite or flee. Will exposing yourself to things that create this response remove this feeling? I don't think so, nor do I think there is any kind of mountain to be conquered in doing so.

It sounds like you are being agreeable, in the sense that friendly people are often agreeable in the course of being friendly. But this is not because they agree with everything anyone says, but because they don't care if someone contradicts them in any way. Because it is friendly to be accepting of people despite their contradictions with you. In fact, for exceptionally accepting people, perhaps even because of them.

Or perhaps you are too tied into self reflected perceptions of self image. What does it say about you to like X over Z, or Y instead of either X or Z. Our opinions and other things we say, say something about who we are to other people. Perhaps you are trying to control who you seem to be to other people in this way.

I think meditation would help address these questions better. There is plenty of conflict to be found internally. Meditation is also, contrary to popular conception, very pragmatic and can address things in a very practical manner. There has been plenty said on the subject of meditation & fear/anxiety/aversion already on the green, but I'd be glad to provide more specifics if there is interest.
posted by everyday_naturalist at 11:54 AM on September 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

Hey, I realize this question has come and gone, but there are a lot of board games out there that are all about personal preference. Would You Rather? for example. No wrong answers, just pick one. But even though there are no wrong answers, there's also no right answer, and people are bound to disagree. The key thing here is that it absolutely doesn't matter if you choose night over day or day over night, it's a stupid question. But you get practice talking about why you chose something that's different from what someone else would choose.

If that's going a bit overboard into "defend yourself" territory, really any game that's open to interpretation would be good. Apples to Apples (really? I can't believe you think Canada matches that better than John Wayne!!) or Pictionary (You dolt! Of course that's a seagull!). Games are good. People argue, but it doesn't mean anything.
posted by aimedwander at 12:29 PM on September 21, 2011

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