How to Handle Conflict When You Hate Confrontation

Health Information Lifestyle


I was in the middle seat on an airplane recently, during a flight to London, when a person behind me put her bare foot on my armrest.

My heart started to pound. I knew I would have to say something. But before I could, a man next to me, who was writing in a notebook, glanced at the foot and lightly stabbed it with his pen. The foot, unsurprisingly, slid away.

For some of us, the mere thought of confrontation triggers a stress response, complete with rapid heartbeat, tense muscles and shortness of breath, said Karen Osilla, an associate professor in psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford Medicine. This causes people to avoid it, she said, “because we associate it with danger.”

But not only are disagreements inevitable, they can have benefits, said Bo Seo, author of “Good Arguments: How Debate Teaches Us to Listen and Be Heard.” Research suggests that resolving conflict in healthy ways increases your well-being, lowers stress and improves self-esteem. Productive disputes, for all their challenges, “are pathways to a bigger life,” he said.

So how should conflict-averse people deal with tense situations? I asked experts for tips on how to confront someone when you would rather do almost anything else.

If confrontation puts you on edge, practice disagreeing with people you trust, said Seo, “because honest, open-minded disagreement requires psychological safety.”

Try getting comfortable saying, “I actually disagree with that,” he said. Think of healthy dissent as a muscle you can build over time, he added.

First, take a deep breath, Dr. Osilla said, which reduces anxiety and helps you stay calm.

Next, in a polite tone, concede that you don’t know the other person’s intentions, said Sheila Heen, a deputy director of the Harvard Negotiation Project and a co-author of “Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most.”

People often waste time imagining the other person’s motivations, she said, but these are impossible to know for sure. “Either way, the impact of their action is the problem you want to solve,” she said.

Then, calmly share your concern, focusing on how the situation has affected you. You might say something like, “Hey, you may or may not be aware, but I’m cleaning up after your dog regularly in my yard,” Heen said.

After you express the effects of their actions or words, communicate your emotions, Heen said, and invite the other person to share theirs. An example would be, “I’m frustrated,” she said, or, “That comment you made stung.”

Don’t bottle up your feelings, because they can manifest as passive aggression, or translate into anger or accusations, she said. “Better to name emotions,” Heen added, instead of using them to “blame and attack.”

Once you’ve shared your feelings, have a “learning conversation” to trade perspectives and solve the problem together, Heen said. She suggested asking, “What worries or concerns you most about this?” and “What do you think I’m missing?”

Listen, ask follow-up questions and suggest possible solutions, she said. If, for example, a friend keeps canceling plans, you could discover that the person has had a major life event. From there, you can brainstorm other ways to stay connected.

Learning conversations are also helpful when spontaneous conflicts arise. If someone blurts out something offensive, for instance, “ask them a question, like, ‘Hey, can you explain that further?’” said Luvvie Ajayi Jones, author of “Professional Troublemaker: The Fear-Fighter Manual.”

The person will either double down on the remark, or walk it back. But asking a question encourages the person “to go deeper into themselves,” she said, and think more critically about the comment.

Even if we say everything right, we don’t have any control over how the other person will react, Dr. Osilla said. “In those moments, be compassionate with yourself,” she said. “Tell yourself: ‘I’ve said my piece. I’ve done what I can.’”

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