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These 4 Conflict Habits Could Be Making Your Life Harder

Posted March 2, 2020 • Change,Conflict Mastery,Leadership • by Jennifer Goldman-Wetzler, Ph.D.

Are you continuously struggling to resolve conflict without gaining real ground? Pattern recognition may help. Most people respond to conflict the same way in various situations even though those responses are often fruitless.

It’s illogical and, yet, it’s the number one reason many people find it difficult to resolve contentious situations. Why do we fall into these repeat patterns? Habits are hard to break, and that’s even truer if you aren’t aware of them. Becoming aware of conflict habits means the difference between staying stuck in a repetitive rut and becoming free from it.

Why Repetition Is a Bad Habit 

Habits are comfortable and feel safe. It’s easy to fall back on tried and true ways of handling situations while we hope for positive outcomes. But habitually responding to conflict in the same way every time is both frustrating and futile. A good example is when we habitually avoid conversations that we expect to be difficult. In the short term, avoiding a tough conversation can seem to increase your daily productivity, but over the long-term, doing so can cause someone—who is waiting for your answer—to feel ignored and frustrated, leading to more conflict, not less.

Another reason why leaning on our habits in the face of conflict often doesn’t work is that different types of situations call for different responses. For example, it’s great to try to win every argument at work if you’re a lawyer whose job is to win cases for your clients; it’s not ideal to try to win every argument if you’re on your honeymoon with your new spouse.

It’s also possible that a conflict you’re facing is simply not resolvable. Some disagreements resist even the most well-intentioned and skillful attempts at resolution. It can seem like no matter what you do, you don’t make any progress. In these instances, attempting to gain perspective through observation is the most useful tool.

More often than not, you’ll find that you can learn to free yourself from the loop by doing something different than you’ve done before, by taking pattern-breaking action.

But to free yourself from a conflict loop, you’ll first need to notice that you’re stuck in one.

How can you tell if you’re stuck in a conflict loop? By recognizing the most commonly used conflict habits.

The Four Conflict Habits

When faced with conflict, we tend to respond in four different ways:

1. Shut Down: We may prefer to avoid contentious situations, but when we avoid conflict at any cost, we become uncommunicative, which allows conditions to fester, making things worse, not better. The typical outcome is a prolonged conflict left in “simmer mode.” It remains unaddressed until it eventually breaks out again, sometimes more intensely than before.

2. Blame Others: Some of us learn from a young age that to get what we want, we need to directly and aggressively pursue it. Being competitive works until it doesn’t. When other people feel threatened by our competitive behavior, they are liable to react by counter-attacking us, or by avoiding us. Blaming others often produces a loss rather than the win we intended. Sometimes we lose “face,” while other times, we lose money, relationships, time, energy, and focus.

3. Blame and Shame Yourself: When we take the blame, our well-intentioned goal is to learn and do better next time. But when we feel that not only did we do something wrong, but that we are bad or wrong, our original intention to learn becomes distorted. While we may extract some helpful lessons, shame overshadows our learning. Prolonged conflict is the result while putting ourselves through the wringer (often unnecessarily).

4. Relentlessly Collaborate: We may seek to collaborate with others to resolve conflict amicably. But often, because of unaddressed, deeply held values and emotions, one or more people are not genuinely prepared to collaborate. Seeking to collaborate in these circumstances can be just as counterproductive as engaging in any of the other conflict habits. We waste valuable time and energy devising potential solutions that will never satisfy the others involved. We either reach a “Band-Aid” solution that only unravels later, or things escalate into a more heated dispute, all while time continues to tick by.

We engage in these habitual responses with positive intentions, hoping to achieve an admirable result, such as wanting to avoid unnecessary conflict, win a vital argument, learn and do better next time, or achieve a “win-win” solution.

What’s so bad about trying to do those things? All of them can be helpful under the right circumstances, but none are useful on repeat.

The good news is that you can break the habit by: 

Becoming aware of your conflict habits: Before you respond to conflict, think about what your reflexive response might be. Do you tend to collaborate? Avoid? Blame others? Blame yourself? Getting to know yourself better will help you recognize and eventually break the pattern. Take this personal conflict habits assessment quiz here.

Mixing it up: Before you respond to the next conflict that comes your way, try something different. Don’t do what people expect you to do. Do you facilitate collaborative conversations with your team at work, but then you find decision-making is overly complicated and time-consuming? Be direct. Tell people what you expect, and hold them accountable for making it happen. Stop wasting time in meetings where there’s no clear outcome.

Regularly reviewing changes: How did your experimenting go? What happened when you did something different? Did you achieve the result you were hoping for? If not, how would you change your response next time?

Self-awareness is applicable in all aspects of life. The more you’re aware of the ways that you respond to conflict, the better you’ll become at finding an optimal response in each situation. Recognizing your conflict habits, trying something surprisingly new and different, and reviewing those changes is not only a valuable learning process; it is a ritual that can make your life and work more creative, productive, and enjoyable.

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