Conflict Response Styles: What’s the Point of Avoiding?

Amy Benson

Avoidance. What a cowardly escape from conflicting interests or opinions! Avoiding looks like an ostrich with its head in the sand, deluding itself into thinking its body is out of danger just because it’s not looking at the threat. Avoiding sounds like a kid with her hands over her ears, singing “la la la” to keep the unwanted truth out of her head. I know these things. I am an avoider.

The 5 basic conflict styles

I recently got a chance to expand my view of avoiders. I attended CompassPoint’s workshop Constructive Conflict Resolution with Alicia Santamaria of adelante coaching + consulting, where I learned that there are 5 basic conflict styles: avoid, accommodate, compete, compromise, and collaborate. Workshop participants were first asked to identify their default conflict style and then reflect on what we learned about conflict from our family and culture that might have helped shape our conflict style.

Well, that was a provocative question! My two parents have been married a total of seven times, so I picked up at an early age that marriage was pretending to get along, and divorce is what happened when you stopped pretending.  I learned that avoiding conflict is something that you do out of love, something that you do to protect your most important relationships. And I learned that diving into conflict leaves a wake of hurt feelings and destroyed relationships.

Of course, this way of looking at the world can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you believe conflict is utterly destructive, you may stuff down your anger and disappointment until it becomes so huge that you explode. I once unleashed 28 years of frustration on my uncommunicative family in one huge blowout at my sister’s college graduation party. They are forgiving people, and now my sister and I can even laugh a little about how I “ruined her graduation,” but that was NOT an example of constructive conflict resolution!  


Choosing your conflict response

In the conflict resolution workshop, we also broke off into small groups by communication style to talk about the pros and cons of our approach. It turns out I’m not the only avoider who wishes to be different! We listed lots of reasons that avoiding is unhealthy and destructive. For example, the issues you’re avoiding don’t go away, and they often resurface at the worst times. Avoiding feels insincere, indirect, and you may actually start to doubt your own authenticity. And we worried that if we didn’t find another way of dealing with conflict, we may face health problems as a result of all those unexpressed feelings.

When we shared our findings with the larger group, it turns out everyone had complaints about their default style. Accommodators said, “We feel weak. We feel like our needs come last.” Competitive people said, “Other people find us too aggressive.” Compromisers said, “Sometimes an issue is too important to me to compromise, but I don’t know what else to do!” And collaborators said, “This process can be overly time consuming.” That’s when I had my second epiphany of the day: The problem wasn’t with any one of our communication styles. The problem was that each of us felt trapped by our style.

If we could pick and choose when to collaborate, when to compete, and when to avoid, we would each be stronger and better able to navigate the various situations of life. In fact, there are times when it’s great to be an avoider! If someone is trying to start a fight at the bus stop, I’m an expert at dodging the bait. If I’m meeting my new step-grandparents for the first time and they say something offensive about immigration in the first five minutes, well maybe a wedding is not the right place to air our differences of opinion. I can always decide later, in a more neutral setting, if it’s important for me to share my differing views.

It turns out I was being overly hard on myself and my fellow avoiders. I don’t need to stop avoiding entirely, but I do want to get more comfortable with the other four styles, so I can pick and choose based on circumstances, instead of feeling trapped. It’s all about choice. The key is to actively choose how I want to respond, instead of continuing to let avoiding rule my life.

I’d love to hear about your default style, how you learned to be that way, and what efforts you’re taking to expand your skills. Please comment below!

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Amy Benson is a Project Coordinator with CompassPoint’s Workshop team. Previously, she facilitated CompassPoint’sPowerful Non-Defensive Communication Practice Group.

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