I Dare You
The last time we were together I asked you to answer a question. If you are avoiding someone due to a conflict, fill in the blanks: I’m afraid that if I talk to _____ about this conflict, then _____. I’m talking about a serious conflict, not a minor irritation that will go away on its own, or a decision that has no lasting impact.
I conducted an informal poll with this same question; the answers are below.
I’m afraid …
they will try to argue with me.
that the other person won’t like me.
of saying something that will seriously hurt the relationship.
of seeming arrogant.
that they’ll be offended.
that I will lose.
that I will lose my composure.
that I will lose a friend.
that I will be misunderstood.
that I will become defensive.
that I will be too exposed.
These are a few fears; there are many others. The avoidance is natural, although we all know it only makes things worse if the conflict is serious. If it’s not, you can go on to another article. As I study the list of fears, they all boil down to a fear of getting hurt or hurting someone else. That makes total sense. Smart people don’t want to get hurt, and good people don’t want to hurt others.
Avoidance goes on a long list of defensive behaviors that we employ during conflict that have no chance of resolving anything. We are the masters at avoidance, creating lots of impressive variations: sarcasm, silent treatment, lying, ignoring, leaving the room, redirecting, hinting, camouflaging body language, and the ever-popular tactic of only talking to other people. I’ve done all of those things, too. So I totally get it. Avoidance feels safer than a scary confrontation.
Conflict is complicated, no doubt. The fears are real, as are the consequences and the bruises from previous clashes.
There may be wounds that need a direct conversation, assertive pursuit of resolution, and maybe even a third person to help navigate the whole thing. However, today, I’d like to offer another kind of avoidance behavior that actually has a great chance of derailing the conflict before it has a chance to get scary.
In any potential conflict where I think you are the problem and you think I am the problem, we clearly have different perspectives. Chances are, our disagreement is not about facts; rather we disagree about what should have happened, how you should have behaved, your intentions, and who is to blame. Oh sorry, I’m totally sure it wasn’t your fault. Please don’t avoid me. Difficult Conversations by Stone, Patton and Heen is an amazing resource.  Read it; you’ll be glad. This book changed my world.
When you begin to squirm, channel your inner Scooby Doo and start looking for information. I dare you. Don’t wait or you will default into the non-effective avoidance and contributing to the list of fears. You can and should channel your inner Scooby Doo at any point, but the sooner the better. If too much time passes, it’s simply more difficult—not impossible, but harder.
When you are in conversation and tiny red flags start popping up, pay attention because at this point, there is no blatant conflict and nothing to overtly avoid. Remember, Scooby Doo has a happy expression on his face unless he’s nose-to-nose with a ghost, so make sure your face is friendly. Neutral reads negative. Purposely adopt a relaxed and friendly body and face.
Handy pocket phrases include the following:
Will you please back up a little and tell me what happened?
Personally, I like to know specifically what someone saw or heard so I can compare that with what they are assuming. Be careful with this, because you don’t want to interrogate someone. Observing and assuming are two different things. Listen for the differences and for how their perspective differs from yours.
Why do you think that?
People jump to conclusions very quickly about why people do things. This jump often occurs based upon zero evidence, and it moves quickly into a character assassination. Again, listen for assumptions versus direct conversations. You might or might not point this out, but listen closely. I spend a lot of time asking people, “Did they say that or do you just think that?”
Are there other pieces to this puzzle that aren’t so obvious?
Nothing happens in a vacuum and everyone has a part to play. If the behavior doesn’t make sense to you, it’s because you don’t have all the information. Even if you vehemently disagree with someone’s actions, they will make sense if you have all the information. Look and listen for the hidden contributions, especially your own.
Congratulations! When curiosity trumps avoidance and fear, this is the point when you actually avoid the conflict and move into understanding. It just takes the right kind of avoidance. Notice that listening was front and center in avoiding the hurt feelings and relationship damage. This doesn’t mean you agree or are happy with the situation. Once you begin sincerely listening to someone, they are far more likely to listen to your viewpoint. Just like that, you are having a conversation about differences and it’s not as scary as you think. Want to see how this looks in real life? Check out this article I wrote a few months ago.
 Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen, Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most (New York: Penguin Books, 2000).