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McLEOD: Why avoiding conflict keeps you trapped in it forever

Photo by Corinne Nicholson

Photo by Corinne Nicholson

Most people don't like conflict. It feels risky and time-consuming. They're either afraid of it or they don't want to expend the energy to deal with it.

The problem is, avoiding conflict doesn't work either. It doesn't reduce tension; if anything, it escalates it.

Issues become bigger, resentment grows, people become disengaged and feel powerless to solve their problems.

A reluctance to deal with conflict is hugely detrimental to business. Good ideas remain unspoken, people create silos, and leaders don't get the information they need because everyone is afraid to bring up potentially contentious issues.

The post mortem on any business failure almost always reveals critical information went unaddressed because somebody was afraid to discuss it.

Avoiding conflict also wreaks havoc on relationships. Have you ever been around someone who was frustrated or angry, but doesn't want to talk about it? They ooze resentment.

People often think that confronting conflict is risky. In reality, the bigger risk is not dealing with it.

Here are three big reasons people avoid conflict and tips to overcome them:

1. False assumptions about surface information

My friend and client Judi Bruce from Deloitte says, "It's like the classic orange story." Two people are fighting over an orange. They both want the whole thing. But when asked why they want the whole orange one replies, "I need all the juice to make my cake." The other replies, "I need all the zest from the peel to make my frosting."

What seems to be a conflict might not be a conflict at all. Just because someone says they want something doesn't mean that you have a full understanding of their goals. Dig for a little more information. Neutral questions like, "Tell me a bit more about how you envision this" or "Help me understand where you're coming from" often, reveal an easy win/win.

2. Assuming the other party is unmovable

Just because someone is enthusiastic, or even firm, doesn't mean that they're not open to other suggestions. I have this problem a lot. I get so excited about something. I start talking a mile a minute and people often assume that I'm unwilling to consider anything different.

Confronting a dominant personality doesn't have to be combative. Simply ask: Are you open for feedback on this? If they say yes, which most people will, start off saying, "I tend to think of these things from a different perspective." It keeps the conversation neutral. You're not attacking their point of view; you're just sharing yours. High energy people move quickly and enthusiastically. They might wind up loving your idea and embracing it with the same zeal they do their own.

3. Lack of confidence

The biggest reason people avoid conflict is because they doubt their ability to guide a conversation or put forth a compelling case. They don't see a clear way to bring up an issue and have it resolved peacefully. They assume it's going to be an argument and they'll lose.

But disagreements don't mean death; they're just disagreements. You don't have to be afraid of them. Human beings are human beings. There is always going to be conflict. It doesn't have to be contentious or ugly.

It's ironic, when you accept conflict as an inevitable part of any business or relationship; you wind up with less of it. The more confidence you have in your ability to handle disagreements, the quicker you resolve them.

Handling a conflict isn't the worst thing in the world. But letting one go unresolved can cause you big problems.

Lisa Earle McLeod is president of McLeod & More Inc. a consulting firm that specializes in sales force and leadership development. She is the author of "The Triangle of Truth," a Washington Post Top 5 Business Book for Leaders. Her website is www.TriangleofTruth.com.