I was teaching one of my favourite workshops recently, Transforming Difficult Conversations, and one of the handouts I made up for this workshop jumped out at me. I created it quite a few years ago, and have been adding to it and amending it ever since.
In it, I list several reasons why we are all caught in the matrix of avoiding difficult conversations. In many organizations I come into, people say: “In our team, we avoid conflict like the plague.” Or: “Our organization doesn’t do conflict.”
Well, I have news for you! It’s not just your team, your organization or your family. It’s endemic.
Avoiding conflict is not just something you may have come across. It’s the norm for most people.
Here are the main reasons I list in the handout for why we avoid conflict:
1) Our Biological Predisposition – Animals First
We have a predisposition as humans to scan our environments for threats/risk. A snake these days is most often a hose, but it’s still hard to convince our brains of that. Any sense of threat (real or perceived) sets off a biological cascade of reactions for protection. We feel threatened and we react in more primal ways. Social threat is just as real for our biology as physical threat.
2) Our Collective History as a Species
Our history as a species has positive, peace-oriented aspects. It also has a violent history lurking under our consciousness as a remembered way of interacting. Cooperative species, some research shows, have been winning the evolutionary edge. However, in getting here, we’ve had centuries of violence – with only a recent “long peace” (see Pinker’s: The Better Angels of Our Nature).
3) Individualistic Culture
In more peace-oriented cultures, the community has a role in the resolution of individual conflict, so when two people fight, the understanding is we all suffer. There is a community-wide pressure for the two to either reconcile or to bring the conflict to the community forum. These forums are “circles” and a key part of all peace cultures (as studied by William Ury, The Third Side). In individualistic cultures, conflicts are seen as private, no one else’s business and shameful.
4) Family Culture
Many of us don’t learn how to deal with conflict collaboratively in our families of origin – either because our parents didn’t engage in any conflict (so we didn’t see any collaborative skills modeled) or because they engaged in it badly. This early imprinting goes unconscious and it’s something we all carry around.
5) Corporate Culture
There is a tendency for North American corporate cultures to avoid dealing with conflict. Emotions are deemed unprofessional and avoidance is the norm.
6) Individual Skill
The lack of skill so many of us suffer from is rooted in the above reasons. Most of us are not even aware of the influence of these different cultures so don’t realize how truly hard it is to come to peaceful solutions. As the John Watson quote goes: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.
With all those reasons, no wonder most people want to avoid conflict.
What follows naturally, is this question: What motivates people to come to the table?
That’s been a question my onconflictpodcast co-host, Gordon White, and I have been asking for years. It’s an ongoing inquiry and a question we ask ourselves and our podcast guests.
There are many answers. Here is one I’d like to offer.
Moving someone from anger or fear to openness and a desire to engage, starts with one: you. What I’ve noticed is when I am stuck in some of my most primitive emotions, I need another person to reach in and meet me.
Sometimes the meeting is in itself enough to help me soften and open. Other times, I need stronger medicine and need the other person to help me see my situation a different way.
What about you? What are some of your learnings with regard to what brings people to the table? What motivates people to want to engage in those conversations we’ve decided we should avoid?