5 Tips For People With Conflict Anxiety

by JR Thorpe
Mladen Sladojevic/E+/Getty Images

If you have conflict anxiety or are conflict averse, you're basically very, very unwilling to get into a fight with anyone about anything. Some of us truly enjoy verbal sparring, but many of us don't particularly enjoy it, and those of us with serious fear of conflict will do almost anything to avoid it. The problem is that learning to argue healthily is a key part of effective adult life, from disagreements with partners to standing up for yourself at work. Scuttling away like an alarmed crab every time somebody seems intent on a disagreement is not productive, and it can hobble your professional and emotional progress.

The one very serious suggestion I have for people with a chronic fear of conflict is: therapy can help. At some point you have been conditioned to feel that fighting about anything is dangerous, harmful, makes you vulnerable, or exposes you to the disappointment and negative emotions of others. (Therapist Wendy Hill over at Achieve Solutions divides conflict anxiety into four groups: prior bad experiences with fights, serious conflict phobia, worries about consequences, and undervaluing yourself.) That can be difficult training to shift. Even if evidence suggests, as Entrepreneur reported, that workplace arguments can actually lead to better results, you won't be able to have healthy fights until you can understand your fear of them.

Beyond that, there are smaller measures you can take to deal with your serious conflict aversion and react to anybody who's trying to argue or fight with you. (No, hiding under your bed is not an option.)

1. Stop Reacting, Start Responding

In Anxious In Love, a collection of psychological advice on dealing with serious anxiety issues in romantic partnerships, Carolyn Daitch and Lissah Lorberbaum offer an interesting solution for people who can't handle conflict properly or chronically avoid it: to pay attention to their reactions and attempt to circumvent them or turn them into intentional responses.

It's the difference between the knee-jerk reaction ("oh god, they're yelling at me, I'm going to hide or placate them or start to panic") and the measured, thought-through response ("right, deep breath, let's express something rational in response"). Defusing that knee-jerk reaction, which Daitch and Lorberbaum describe as "governed by a tidal wave of unrestrained emotion," may take some therapy, as if you're acutely conflict-anxious fights are likely one of your "triggers" for panic and avoidance. Defusing triggers and moving towards intentional responses will likely mean doing some intense work on why you fear conflict, so don't beat yourself up if conflict brings on an emotional reaction even if you're trying really hard to avoid it.

2. Practice Saying "No" In Small Situations

One of the most interesting manifestations of conflict avoidance is that people can be extremely unwilling to refuse. Saying no and denying requests doesn't come easily to the conflict-avoidant person; saying yes is much less likely to lead to a fight, even if the consequences of acceptance are difficult or annoying. Psychology Today has a good way of dealing with this particular aspect of conflict anxiety: building up to it slowly.

Saying no in low-risk situations, like the supermarket or a cafe, is a kind of repetition therapy. You refuse in some way and the world doesn't end, you're not yelled at, and you don't see any disappointment or negative consequences. That's an important lesson that will likely need a lot of reinforcement before you can approach a conflict-filled situation without abject fear, but it's definitely a good place to start.

3. Use Objective Language

The business world is very interested in fear of conflict. This may be surprising, but it makes sense: in organizations involving many people and multiple hierarchies of command, being able to fight productively about work matters is crucial to moving forward. It's particularly bad if a manager or person in power can't handle conflict properly, as they're the ones who are in charge of decisions. Hence the Harvard Business Review's assessment of the difficulty, and how to change your attitude towards it.

Their suggestions are all very sensible ("stop being nice" is a very good one), but the one that really stands out is their advice about the use of language. If you're forced into a conflict when you're very fight-averse, you might start to get personal, be defensive, lash out, start blaming, or just agree mindlessly with everything — subjective responses to a deeply uncomfortable situation. The HBR suggests trying for objective language ("I saw your body language change" rather than "you reacted negatively" is the example they give), and making requests about how to change things, rather than going into a pattern of saying stuff like, "Well, I've noticed that you smell". This will likely calm both you and your opponent down.

4. Understand The Difference Between Enthusiasm And Bull-Headedness

This is an interesting one that requires a bit of a shift in perspective. If you're confronted by a particularly vociferous opponent, one who really advocates for their point of view, you may fall away in despair. There's no point in trying to go up against them, because they're never going to shift their ideas. This can be the case in family arguments as well as professional ones; there's always that one family member who can argue their point with huge passion for the entirety of a Thanksgiving dinner.

Sometimes, however, that might mean something a little different. A business strategist interviewed about the issue at the Huffington Post pointed out that "mistaking determination for rigidity" is a common issue in conflict resolution. Just because somebody is seriously passionate and excited about their point of view doesn't necessarily mean you're going to be steamrolled or that they're going to think the worst of you for going up against them. Not all arguments have to end with somebody "winning;" if you ask if the opponent is willing to listen to your side, according to the Huffington Post, many people will say "yes".

5. See Disagreements As Thinking

If there's one thing you need to watch or read about conflict aversion, it's Margaret Hefferman's 2012 TED talk on why we need to "dare to disagree". Hefferman, again, comes at the problem from a business perspective, as a former CEO, and tries to shift our understanding of fighting in professional environments from unproductive to productive. She mentions the whopping statistic that 85 percent of American and European CEOS surveyed in 2012 were in some way conflict averse, and has some suggestions about how to fix it.

"If we aren't going to be afraid of conflict," Hefferman says, "we have to see it as thinking, and then we have to get really good at it." Essentially, she views fights as "constructive conflict," and encourages them as much as possible by advocating for the construction of teams with lots of differing viewpoints. This may help to take out your personal feelings of being attacked or worried; if you conceive of yourself and your argument partner as joined, and part of a bigger "brain," you may feel less terrified and isolated by their views.

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