Most of us have likely entertained the wish that a problem or issue at home or work would go away if we just quietly avoided it long enough. It is true that avoidance can be a helpful
approach to dealing with conflict in the interest of gathering more information, allowing other parties to learn from an experience, or just giving the concern enough time to work itself out. This effective approach does come with a few important caveats. One, we may need to let other involved parties know why we’re not addressing the situation immediately, perhaps for one of the reasons above. And two, maintaining a mindset of avoiding for now, as opposed to avoiding forever is crucial in case the situation isn’t moving toward resolution. If we find ourselves in the avoiding forever lane with a particular issue, or if avoiding isn’t a proper response for the situation in the first place, that’s not effective conflict management, but rather its seductive and more dangerous counterpart, conflict denial. Dangerous because it can lead to communication breakdowns, and loss of trust, respect, and productivity where there were no issues before. If this kind of conflict avoidance has been a temptation for you or your team more than you’d like, read on to learn more about the impact it can have and the steps you can take to manage conflict more effectively.
Keeping in mind we’ve all been here from time to time – overwhelmed, tired, uncomfortable with the issue at hand, or the people involved. These thoughts are offered without judgment of ourselves or others, but rather an acknowledgment of how easy it can be to find ourselves here. It’s also important to recognize that temptations to avoid are likely higher than what we’ve ever seen in our lifetimes – living in a post-pandemic, confusing, increasingly polarized world – I know sometimes I just don’t feel like I have the energy to do that too.
Life happens, as it always does, and one puts off dealing with problems over and over again as the layers pile up. Some people are much better at this than others and can be eerily successful and making a known, legitimate problem seem like nothing at all. It’s one thing to avoid a problem for now, as opposed to potentially forever. Eventually, however, the mass is too big to be ignored, issues have intensified, and it feels like it’s coming at you from all angles. And now, IT – JUST – WONT – STOP.
This is when the fear sets in, and its close friend, regret, isn’t far behind. Confidence begins to erode as thoughts race without end trying to pick apart the tangled mess and one’s optimism about the situation or even life can start to feel hopeless and helpless at the overwhelm of it all. Coulda-shoulda-wouldas are suddenly all around. Questions like, “Will I ever have peace again?” and “What if I don’t manage through it all?” crash front-of-mind all day long like waves on the shore while concentration, memory, and clear thinking get pulled further and further out to sea.
That’s not to say that it isn’t healthy to put problems on the back burner from time to time. Big life events, seasons of change, family crises, or pressing health concerns necessarily take priority over other day-to-day routines. Things like career advancement, long-term planning, relationships, health, and re-energizing activities aren’t unfamiliar with taking a back seat when life heats up. These “back seat” times aren’t without consequences, but they’re minimal and easily mitigated if their time is limited. Healthy relationships and other significant life assets can survive a short-term hit or two when they know it’s for the long-term good.
When things stay on the back burner too long, however, they can start to simmer, spatter, and smoke – needing to draw attention before they boil over and cause a fire. Left unchecked for too long and the inevitable fire eventually starts. Maybe small at first, but eventually not only are the unresolved issues burning, but the smoke and noise they’re creating are clouding out options, solutions, and opportunities, distorting communication, and is poised to destroy the kitchen, the good things in it, and potentially burn down the house. Where a fire extinguisher may have saved the day, the fire department becomes one’s only hope.
Fear, fueled by the heat, morphs into full-blown anxiety, an enemy known for its all-fronts
attack. Thoughts race through the now easily irritated mind while sleep, appetite, energy, and healing are lost. Blood pressure, heart rate, and restlessness increase, all taking an ever-spiraling toll on the mind and the body. Perhaps some guilt has set in over how we’ve been reacting of late – we just haven’t been ourselves. The resulting sense of emptiness and futility leaves holes that depression is quick to fill in. A known kryptonite to the body’s superman immune system, depression brings with it heightened vulnerability to colds, flu symptoms, respiratory infections, digestive conditions, headaches, joint and muscle strains and sprains, skin lesions, and a higher likelihood of accidental injuries. Left unchecked, unplanned time off work and/or away from family and friends lines up next, accompanied by financial outlay for medical treatment and often “medicating” one’s symptoms for short-term or any relief. Add financial worries and relationship strain to the mix and anxiety and depression gain momentum and take another lap.
Sounds like nowhere anyone would want to be, right? But wait – it’s quite possible to go from temporarily pitching a tent here to full-on masonry construction! The most adept at conflict avoidance among us now have multiple “fires” burning, amongst which they can flit, giving temporary attention to one and bringing short-term relief by justifiably avoiding the others. The lies we tell ourselves about dealing with problems in the short run become amplified and feel like the truth. No time to think about my struggling relationship while dealing with a stressed-out kid. No bandwidth to care for my finances while doctoring a physical ailment or injury. No energy to challenge my friend’s (or my own) victim mentality because well, it’s just – easier. Being engaged at work and playing to win with my team is at best a rare luxury and at worst a pollyannaish fantasy – most days, but especially now. Playing “not to lose” has become the mindset not only at work but in most areas of life. Fly below the radar. Keep your head down. Do the minimum to get by. No need to do the heavy lifting of improving my communication or doing some long-term planning because the short term is just “too much.” Anxiety and depression take another lap. Intensified.
THIS is what unchecked DENIAL looks like.
Most importantly, don’t fall victim to the lie that it’s not all connected. Unchecked problems in one area of life – social, physical, spiritual, emotional, financial, personal, professional – will find a way to exploit one’s habit of ignoring pots simmering away on the back burner and eventually spreading to the others. This is the bad news and also the very very good news. Addressing the issues and intentionally reversing the spiral in one area will create energy and generate strength to reverse the spiral in other areas. But don’t be fooled – this has to be more than symptom management. It has to be about intentionally addressing the problems and continuously moving them toward solutions. No turning a blind eye. No wait and see. No stopping when we’re feeling a bit better, but seeing it through to the end. You and those that matter to you are worth it. Take a break, refuel, recharge, and don’t beat yourself up about what you can’t rewrite in the past. Just know you’re writing your future. Stay close to people who love and believe in you and listen to what they have to say. They know the best you and have seen the amazing potential in you that perhaps you haven’t seen yourself lately. Maybe it’s been too hazy, too smoky around you.
Finally, don’t forget that most problems aren’t actual problems – they’re just symptoms of the big problem: Avoiding the problem. Without unchecked denial or misplaced avoidance, relatively minor misunderstandings or mishaps that start small would never have the chance to grow into life-changing, relationship-threatening, productivity-paralyzing, hope-defying, crippling issues. In the end, how you choose to address the situations in your life, relationship, and work – or not address them – is the heart of the issue, not the problem itself. You can’t prevent the problems that will arise as life naturally happens. You can, however, have a plan in place to address them quickly and successfully. You can choose to set yourself up as well as possible to be a victim of – or a victor over the richness that life throws at us. As Peter Bromberg noted, “When we avoid difficult conversations, we trade short-term discomfort for long-term dysfunction. Sometimes, when we decide not to have a difficult conversation, we forget that we ARE, in fact, making an active choice. We are choosing long-term silence, resentment, and dysfunction over the short-term discomfort, guilt, and awkwardness of speaking our truth.”
Look around – you can do this for yourself. Almost everything of high value in life has a process in place to make the most of its good and minimize the bad or potential harm that might come to it over time. For our cars, we have maintenance schedules, tire pressure guidelines, indicator lights, and fuel gauges. We pay attention to these signs and we know what to do based on the information they provide in order to keep on getting where we need to go. The same is true for our homes – regular maintenance for large appliances, changing filters and smoke detector batteries, termite inspections, fire extinguishers, cleaning the gutters, and basic home repairs keep small issues from becoming bigger problems that threaten the good things under the roof down the line. Physically speaking, we have checkup schedules for our eyes, teeth, and overall health while paying attention to indicators like blood pressure, blood sugar, bone density, and hormones, just to name a few, and to keep the good things going strong.
The good news is if you find yourself doing unchecked denial and/or dealing with the consequences of such, you can put similar systems in place to promote and protect the quality of life you desire. Learn to communicate assertively – not aggressively or passive-aggressively, address potential misunderstandings respectfully and early, have a problem-solving plan in place for your family members and your teams to help everyone address issues confidently as they arise, and not avoid them. There’s no question the problems will be there whether or not you have a plan in place to address them, and no doubt some of us have already learned this the hard way. Denial is one option among many. The question is, regardless of what has come before, what will you choose today to address life as it happens and protect and nourish the quality of life you want for you and yours?
At Alloy, we know relationships of all types can get complicated in an increasingly demanding and complex world, and we’re here to help. Often an objective ear, professional perspective, and experience with a myriad of complex workplace situations can be just what you need to sort out what’s at hand and help you determine the next steps to move forward. If you’d like a nonjudgemental ally to help you find some solutions, we’re here for you.