Do you have a conflict-avoidant personality? It’s possible to overcome this people-pleasing behavior.
Conflict can make most people feel uneasy, whether a full-blown argument or a civil confrontation.
However, some people avoid conflict at all costs — even when the conflict is necessary. These people can be described as conflict avoidant. To avoid rocking the boat, conflict-avoidant people might bottle up their feelings and sidestep discussing important issues with others.
Conflict avoidance can damage your relationships and harm your mental health. This people-pleasing behavior can also make it difficult to set and maintain boundaries.
It’s possible to overcome conflict avoidance and learn to handle confrontations in a healthy, constructive way.
“A conflict-avoidant personality is a type of people-pleasing behavior where someone avoids conflict or disagreements at all costs and fears making others upset or angry,” explains Babita Spinelli, a psychotherapist licensed in New York, New Jersey, and Florida.
“Individuals who are conflict-avoidant tend to expect there will be a negative reaction and avoid even interactions that are healthy conflicts,” she explains.
How do you know if you’re conflict-avoidant? According to Spinelli, you might:
- deny there’s an issue
- fear or avoid expressing yourself
- bottle up feelings — and later explode or become passive-aggressive
- make jokes during confrontations
- change the subject when conflict comes up
- strive to be seen as the nice one
- avoid disagreeing with others, even when you inwardly disagree
Avoiding conflict altogether isn’t healthy, Spinelli says. “Avoiding conflict means bottling up emotions, and when we bottle up our feelings, it can negatively manifest in the body,” she explains. Indeed, repressing your emotions can negatively affect your physical and mental health, according to 2019 research.
Conflict avoidance can also harm your relationships, Spinelli says. “It can lead to a breakdown of communication and impact healthy connections. When we avoid expressing our feelings, we’re ultimately creating emotional distance with our romantic partner.”
Similarly, conflict avoidance isn’t good for our working relationships. A study on workplace incivility found that avoiding conflict doesn’t stop friction from reoccurring in the workplace. Plus, avoidance also led to increased emotional exhaustion.
Lastly, when you avoid conflict at all costs, it can also make it harder to create and maintain boundaries. When someone violates your boundaries, it might be necessary to reinforce those boundaries by confronting the person.
1. Consider the value of conflict
“Reframe how you are viewing conflict,” Spinelli says. Instead of seeing conflict as something that’s inevitably hurtful, consider how it can be productive.
For example, conflict can be an opportunity to share your feelings and become closer to your partner. Vulnerability can improve emotional intimacy as it can help your partner understand you better. And it can help you feel more accepted and loved by your mate.
Conflict can help you identify and resolve problems with your co-workers in the workplace.
For example, if your co-workers call a meeting about unfair schedule changes, it gives you all a chance to suggest a better method of scheduling work. Speaking up can ultimately lead to creating a fairer system that benefits everyone.
2. Build up to it slowly
Spinelli suggests “practice saying no in smaller situations with a low risk or start with conflicts that cause the least anxiety.”
Voicing your objections could include pointing out if the barista got your coffee order wrong or reminding your co-worker that they forgot to get back to you on an important issue.
Handling these small situations politely but firmly can help you build confidence. These situations are excellent opportunities to practice communication skills.
3. Face your anxieties
Your anxiety might be fueling “what if …” thoughts. You might think, “What if I reinforce a boundary with my boss and they fire me?” or, “What if I confront my spouse about forgetting our anniversary, and it becomes a full-blown fight?”
These thoughts might make it difficult for you to face conflict.
Instead, you can acknowledge the anxiety and think it through realistically. Spinelli says you can “check in on the ‘story’ you are telling yourself about someone’s reaction and poke holes in that story.”
Let’s say you want to remind your boss that you don’t answer work calls after 5 p.m. If you worry that your boss will fire you for reinforcing this boundary, you might remind yourself that your boss is a reasonable person who values work-life balance.
Of course, in some cases, the outcome you dread might happen. Spinelli suggests that you prepare mentally for this scenario. She says you could “create a plan or language on how you would address it.”
For example, you might practice reminding your boss about your boundaries and that they agreed to your boundaries in the first place. You also might double-check your company’s policy on after-hours phone calls, as you can use this policy as a backup.
4. Try anxiety-management techniques during conflict
Conflict can be anxiety-inducing for many people. This anxiety might cause you to avoid or sidestep important conversations. During confrontations, you can try to practice anxiety-management techniques.
Strategies can include engaging in deep breathing techniques before the confrontation. During a conflict, you can remind yourself to breathe deeply.
It’s also a good idea to pause before reacting. “It’s OK to express that you need a moment or more to process your feelings before responding,” Spinelli says and adds that pausing before responding relieves the pressure to react immediately. A pregnant pause also helps you think your options through clearly.
5. Consider therapy
Therapy can help address and workshop conflict. Spinelli highly recommends therapy for people who tend to avoid conflict because it can help you understand why you avoid conflict and practice conflict-management techniques.
Therapy can also help you:
- identify your fears
- reframe your thoughts on conflict
- build positive communication skills
- practice verbalizing your feelings
- learn techniques to cope with anxiety
You can learn more about finding mental health support here.
Many people dislike conflict, but in some cases, conflict avoidance can harm your relationships and health.
It’s possible to overcome conflict avoidance and learn to handle confrontation in a productive, healthy way. Consider practicing conflict-management skills in low-stress situations. Therapy and anxiety-management techniques might also help you cope during conflict.