WRITTEN BY ALICIA KOCH, FOUNDER OF THE LEGAL BELLETRIST
As a “recovering lawyer” I am no stranger to conflict.
I would easily classify myself as someone who doesn’t back away from conflict. Especially when/if I feel cornered. I will fight to the death. Which is kind of unusual since – naturally – when I’m scared, I freeze.
It’s an interesting perspective because the truth is, I never quite know which Gladiator is going to show up to the fight – will it be the Gladiator filled with bravado and confidence, ready to take on any worthy opponent? Strong of mind, of heart and of will (strong in body too. Obviously.). Or is it going to be the Gladiator who hides in the corner, in the form of a ball so small he/she/they didn’t know they could actually fit their bodies into.
I can relate in almost every way to each acute stress response – the fight, the flight, the freeze and the fawn (Simply Psychology). I fight when needed, I flee when something just doesn’t feel necessary, I freeze when I’m petrified – playing dead essentially – and in instances where I just know that I’m overpowered, where I cannot win, where placating is better, I become the fawn.
You see, I have had to learn how to “pick my battles” over the years. As can be expected, the fights or the conflicts I “lose” leave me feeling insecure, heartbroken, confused, lacking in confidence, and neglecting my self-worth.
And the biggest lesson for me, hasn’t just been my own reaction to conflict but learning – often through practical experience – how to approach conflict. How to “fight” in a way that doesn’t end with me in tears. Which battles to pick – which ones to fight, which ones to walk away from.
Because truthfully, I’m kind of soft.
Interpersonal Conflict: Picking your battles
In every single human relationship, you are generally going to find different conflict styles. Something Frieda spoke about in her article Embracing conflict: 5 benefits of rocking the boat. There is –
- the reactive approach (a person who is more passionate and reactive when faced with conflict and often seeks to provoke a similar response in others),
- the positive outlook approach (a person who avoids conflict or escapes the impact of the conflict by looking for a ‘silver lining’), and
- the practical competency approach (the person who focuses on putting personal feelings aside and seeks to address the situation as quickly as possible).
I can say with absolute certainty that I have had a reactive approach, a positive outlook approach and a competency approach at some point or another throughout my life. Sometimes during the same conflictual situation, whether that be in some of my closest (but all very different) personal relationships, or in my professional career where I have tried to avoid conflict altogether.
And they have all been massive learning experiences for me.
While personal to me, I am happy to share my thoughts on each with you.
Example 1: Romantic Conflict
When I first met my boyfriend (now husband), we had very different fighting styles. I would be all “let’s sort our issues out straight away, let’s clear the air and let’s find a silver lining”.
So – if we are being technical here – sort of a mix of the positive outlook and competency approach in conflict styles.
I didn’t believe in leaving things unsaid (especially right in the beginning of our relationship) and letting feelings “fester” like an open, untreated wound. Talk it out and let’s move on was what I thought. My husband on the other hand was very much an avoider. He would give me the silent treatment for a couple of days while he worked through his feelings. Eventually coming back to sort the situation out later. Once things had “simmered down”, as he liked to say.
The problem with this? At this point – for me at least – the open wound had become so festered that it was now boiling. I would let my famous temper get the better of me and I would explode. Using language often “fit for a sailor”, I would move to Defcon 1 extremely quickly whereafter blurting out things I didn’t mean to say inevitably ensued.
So, I guess I would then turn a volatile shade of reactive. Again, if we are being technical. I felt unheard, unseen, uncared for and disrespected. When all my husband was trying to do was prevent a full-scale war from breaking out. Funny how the opposite is actually the result.
Our fights would escalate at this point. I couldn’t see reason anymore and my once level-headed, fair partner would rise to the occasion, becoming reactive too. It was a boiling pot waiting to explode. And certainly not what two people who love one another should do.
So, we decided that for the better of our relationship (and now our marriage) we would need to learn how to fight with one another. How to approach conflict. We learnt to talk things through as quickly as possible (even if one of us needed 5 – 10 mins to “simmer down”), finding our way to building a bridge back to one another.
It took some work, and it took effort from both of us. But now almost 15 years later, we have found how important building the bridge is.
It was that or giving up on one another. And I kind of love him.
So…. Now we both feel heard, feel seen, our feelings feel cared about and for. And the respect – well without it, what kind of relationship do you have?
Questions to consider here:
- What do I really want to achieve from this conflict? Is it the principle or am I really hurt?
- Do I really care about this person? Do I want to preserve the relationship? Or am I happy to kick them to the curb?
- Is it better to go our separate ways? If not, what can we do to better the situation?
Example 2: Friendship Conflict
I said right at the start that I am no stranger to conflict. I’m not afraid to stand up for what I believe, what I think, what I know to be true and fair. But it sometimes takes a while for me to get there. Unless of course, it deserves immediate retaliation.
I tend to bottle up what I’m feeling. I store it all away for a later date. Not on purpose. It’s just how I am. My father use to call me a “dinky bottle”. You know, like the miniature bottle of champagne? Because I was small, but I would keep quiet, not say anything until one day I would just pop. Like a champagne bottle. And while that sounds cute. It really isn’t the case.
I have a tendency to bite my tongue. Perhaps in an effort to avoid conflict with those I care about. It makes me feel self-sufficient. Feeling like the “bigger person”. Letting it go, turning the other cheek and all that… But then it takes something small, something probably not meant to be insulting, and I lose it. I explode like a bottle of champagne. Every little thing that that particular person had ever done to me or said about or to me comes pouring out. I let them “have it”. I don’t hold back, and I literally release everything I have been bottling up.
This has had two endings.
The first, the person is taken aback but is sorry for what they have done. We discuss my feelings, their feelings and find a way to reach a happy conclusion to the conflict. Moving forward, more in sync and in a better place. A good result.
The second, the person is so taken aback that they flee for their lives. Never to be heard from again. Friendships have ended. Relationships have ended. And all because we couldn’t find our way to a place of understanding and peace. There are a few political relationships like this too if you think about it. Not the desired result. Bad for all intents and purposes.
So, avoiding conflict, bottling up how we feel in an effort to save the other party from pain, is honestly a dodgy approach to trying to handle conflict. Because it’s kind of like taking a 50/50 chance.
It can either create the catalyst needed to sort out the situation (especially if you’ve been bottling emotions up) or it can destroy any hope of resolution because – how do you come back from that really? How do you come back after facing conflict from someone who has seemingly avoided it for years? The behaviour that has suddenly been pointed out as wrong was accepted before. So why is how I behave now not acceptable?
It can be a bit of a shock to the system. And sometimes the other person simply cannot see their fault and instead feels attacked for no reason.
Questions to consider here:
- What is the purpose of this conflict – what do I really hope to gain?
- Do I care enough about this person/people to find a solution to the problem? Or is it only the inheritance I’m after (kidding)?
- Or do I just want to prove a point (because I’ve had enough of “unacceptable” behaviour)?
Example 3: Work Conflict
I have always been vocal about my experiences within the legal profession. They haven’t all been good. Which is why I often refer to myself – tongue in cheek – as a “recovering lawyer”.
I know in the beginning I said that I’m not afraid of conflict. Or to stand up for what I believe in. I do believe that. But the problem with this is, in just about every legal role I’ve had over the years, I have seemingly fled away from conflict. Or I have tried to placate the person I am in conflict with – whatever I need to say to make the situation go away. To “save” myself.
These are not healthy reactions. I’m aware.
I have always been too scared to say what I think or what I feel about something because, for the most part at least, I have always been shot down. Or criticised. Told I’m not good enough. I even had someone tell me to go back to law school, all because I believed there was another way to solve a problem. It was different from their view.
Each time I have remained silent for fear of ridicule or abuse or each time I have placated the person who is towering over me with their domineering stance and death stare, I have hacked away at a piece of me. Of who I am. Of what I believe in. Of what I want.
I have let myself down. So many times.
But there does come a point when you are so tired of being ridiculed or made to feel small, so many times that you take the abuse, that you just want it to stop. So, you keep quiet, you avoid eye contact. You agree, you put others at ease. Just so you can be left alone.
And the only thing not saying something or trying to ease the situation did for me professionally was to ruin my self-confidence and self-belief. I became worn out, burnt out and too scared to say anything. I was a wreck.
Therefore, despite the negative side of it, when it’s called for, taking a more “aggressive” stance, practicing the reactive approach can be very transformative.
It’s important to stand up for what is important to you – which should include your self-worth. I wonder what would’ve happened if I had stood up for myself. Would anything have changed? I will never know because I was never able to stand up and find out. And that’s a real shame.
Questions to consider here:
- Will speaking up really get me fired or will it merely raise an alternative viewpoint?
- What’s the worst outcome if I engage in conflict (especially when murder is off the table)?
- If I do get fired, is that necessarily a bad thing? It may help me find my purpose in life … and do I really want to work with people who behave like that?
Conflict: Choosing your strategy
As you can tell from the above, conflict is an inevitable part of human interaction, present in both personal and professional relationships. Or certainly in mine anyway. How we handle conflict can significantly impact the outcomes we foresee and the quality of our relationships in the long run. Whilst it may be tempting to engage in every battle that comes our way – Gladiator at the ready – strategically considering the outcome we are looking to achieve may help us decide on the most appropriate course of action – for that situation at least.
Ultimately, our goals will dictate which strategy we adopt. In his book: The
Interpersonal Communication Book1, Joseph DeVito identifies a variety of conflict management strategies. Consider which strategies you have previously adopted. Have those strategies benefited you? If not, consider what alternative strategies could be adopted in the future:
We all have our default strategies, but understanding these strategies, their pros, and cons, and being aware of the things that could potentially influence/trigger us, could influence the strategy we choose to take for a particular situation.
For example, if you’re in a negotiation and want to close the deal as soon as possible, you’re more likely to seek a Win-Win strategy (i.e., compromise) rather than go for an all-out screaming match or stomp off out of the room mid-negotiation (I’ve seen this happen)! Twice! Bizarrely, it worked on one occasion but not in the other.
In our interpersonal relationships we should seek to engage in active fighting, talking and support and enhance our partner’s self-image and worth. Avoiding the conflict, forcing an opinion on your partner, demanding time, and attacking their worth are sure fire ways to see an end to a relationship – whether romantic or platonic.
There may not be an absolute ideal way to handle conflict in every situation. Sure, we can learn from mistakes, we can try to turn a negative into a positive, we can see conflict as a path to change and renewal. Those things are absolutely possible. And true.
But find your bridges. Find your way towards building a happier, better relationship where both parties feel heard, seen, and respected. Look towards what you want for your future.
Conflict in life, even in general, is inevitable. You will need to face it at some point. But how you do so, in each situation you find yourself in, is key.
If you need help figuring out what your conflict style is or how you can improve on your approach to conflict, especially with your significant other or other important people in your life, get in touch with Frieda Levycky of Braving Boundaries who can support you as you go through this process.
(I’ll be setting up a call as soon as I finish this article….)
1 The Interpersonal Communication Book, Joseph DeVito, 15th Edition, Pearson
About the Author, Alicia Koch, Founder of The Legal Belletrist. Alicia, an admitted attorney with over 10 years PQE, and now a legal writer and researcher, has established The Legal Belletrist to assist companies (in different sectors) to write well-researched articles that speak to each company’s core business, enabling growth and commercialism.