Addressing Conflict Avoidance: Finding Connection in Disagreement

August 4, 2023
How much tension in your life comes from using or avoiding conflict in order to get what you want? What would change if you allowed conflict to deepen your connection with others and find great solutions? In this episode, Brett and Joe unpack the nature of conflict avoidance. They take a deep look at its root causes and symptoms and how it can lead to stagnant relationships, substandard solutions, and a lack of internal alignment. Learn to navigate the turbulent waters of discord with loving boundaries and an open heart, finding the connection and collaboration possible through welcoming conflict as it arises.

Episode Intro:  Welcome back to the Art of Accomplishment where we explore how deepening connection with ourselves and others leads to creating the life we want with enjoyment and ease.  I am Brett Kistler and this is Joe Hudson.

Joe: Hey everybody.

Brett: How is your week going?

Joe: It's going. It's full and busy. This week I had this very interesting conversation with somebody. We were taking a walk together, and he started telling me the story of where his marriage was. It is the same story I have heard a lot. The players are different, but it is basically we got married and it was really great. We were happy. Over time there is this built up resentment, walking one egg shells, and not being entirely happy with one another, that whole thing. Sometimes I hear this story in marriages and sometimes between founders or inside of a job. To me, usually there are a couple of key words in this that will point me to the idea that this is all created by conflict avoidance, and that's what this conversation I was having was. I thought this is all about conflict avoidance.

We started talking about it, and it was really useful for him. Then he said he had this CEO friend who was having the same issues. Conflict avoidance is getting in the way of his work and marriage, and we don't have an episode on it. We asked if we could make an episode on conflict avoidance, so that's how this thing is happening. I am all into it.

Brett: Beautiful. It is fun because there is also not a single episode that isn't also about conflict avoidance in some facet or regard.

Joe: Totally.

Brett: People want to search for one with conflict avoidance in the title, so here we go. They can go straight to the center of it. This is great. I just got married, and everything is great. I want to hear more of the story.

Joe: Yeah. Typically the way this story goes is there are things that are happening, and somebody doesn't want to deal with the ramifications of the conversation. That's where the conflict avoidance comes in. It is not wanting to make them angry or something to that effect. My guess is this is not something that you and Alexa are going to face because if there is a problem, you talk about it despite the consequences of it, whether somebody gets upset, and whether somebody might want to leave somebody else. What I have noticed is you two want to have that conversation because it is more important for you to be in the truth in it than it is to make it good right now. That's where the conflict avoidance really destroys a marriage in the long run because you are not showing in your truth as a way to avoid the potential outcome of the other person's behavior or being abandoned or whatever.

Brett: I've definitely had many experiences throughout my life where sometimes there has been a year or two years with somebody like a business partner, cofounder, employee, a romantic partner, or somebody in my life that I want to collaborate with but we are kind of collaborating but we are actually more in competition. This comes up all over life. It can be a slow burn.

Joe: You are right. It does come up all over life, and sometimes the issue is you don't realize it feels wrong and so you don't address it. Sometimes the issue is if it is worth it to bring this up.

Brett: You are in the analysis of it forever.

Joe: Exactly. I think what's important is to start by addressing what conflict avoidance is. What I mean by conflict avoidance is you are not using conflict to get what you want. I think some people when they think about conflict, they are thinking if somebody likes conflict, then they are going to fight to get the things they want. That is creating conflict. That is not inviting or allowing conflict or seeing the benefit of it.

Brett: You mean using conflict as a manipulative tool. If I create conflict, then I am on some kind of home turf where I know I can win. Everyone else is going to run away from their wants, and then I am going to get what I want.

Joe: Correct. Like a boss who comes in and yells, not conflict avoidant but also not using conflict to create great solutions or to create connection.

Brett: Or just seeing the conflict that is there and leaning into it.

Joe: When I say conflict avoidance, what I am not saying is if you are not conflict avoidant, then you are not using conflict to get what you want. You are allowing conflict to get something better than you could actually imagine. What I mean there is typically if there are two people that are close or they work together or love each other and they start having conflict, that is the room for growth for a better solution. That is the natural tension of evolution. To avoid it, you avoid the evolution. If you go into it, then you speed the evolution. It is not creating tension. It is noticing the tension that is there or the conflict that is there or the friction that is there, and then leaning in instead of leaning away from it.

Brett: It allows the conflict or the tension itself to transform. It allows you and the other person to transform in your relationship to each other and to yourselves. If that's not happening, then the conflict will become some stagnant energy that ultimately everything else in your life becomes oriented around, either avoiding, keeping in place, not disturbing, or not pulling up the rug to see all of the cobwebs under it.

Joe: It will get bigger and bigger so that when you finally lean into the conflict it has a much higher chance of blowing shit up, whereas if you are on top of it in every moment though it doesn't need to be that diligent. If you on a weekly basis ask where the tension that I am not addressing is and saying you are going to address it, then it is usually easier to move through most of it.

07:45 Brett: What makes this a thing? What makes people avoid conflict?

Joe: A lot of it has to do with being scared of their own anger and therefore scared of other people's anger. Fear of anger has a tremendous amount to do with it for most folks. They are scared of losing love. If I say what I want or what doesn't work for me, which we saw today in Master Class, that fear of losing love and being abandoned, but the one I think people don't see that is really important to see is it is a fear of being seen and loved. Love is very scary if you really let it all the way in. It will blow you apart. It will break you open. I think if you are conflict avoidant, it means you are not showing up as you, and therefore, you can't be loved. You are actually preventing love from happening. The way I would say it is if I am conflict avoidant, I am not showing up in my truth. If I am not showing up in my truth, nobody can love me for my truth, which means they can't love me. They are loving something of me that I am putting forth in the world, some image, some projection of what I think I should be.

Brett: Then I get to say they are not loving me. They don't see me. They are just seeing this image, and that's all I am letting them see. That's the cycle.

Joe: That's the cycle. There are a lot of other symptoms to it that might be seen as reasons, but I would say those are the core ones. When I see people work on conflict avoidance, if they get really good with their anger, really lean into being abandoned, find the pleasure and freedom of that experience, and really start learning to love themselves and not being scared of being loved, the conflict avoidance goes away.

Brett: If these are the reasons and you mentioned other symptoms, what are some of the other symptoms or consequences, ways you could follow a bread crumb back to your conflict avoidance if you notice this in your life and also reasons to address this?  

Joe: Bad relationships, your relationships become resentful and stagnant. You think things like you don't want to go home. That would be one. You get bad solutions. Let's say in a marriage where there is no conflict. It means one person or the other person has got in the way, or there is separation. None of those are great solutions. With conflict, you can find the thing that works for everybody and that helps everybody grow and thrive. You don't get those kinds of solutions nor would you in a business. If the tech department disagrees with the customer service or sales department, it means there is a lack of alignment in the company and there is a solution that's available that can actually handle both teams' concerns. The job is to find that solution. It is not to pick either/or, so there are better solutions.

There is just less aliveness. What I notice is when people are conflict avoidant, it just starts feeling heavy. There is just something that the aliveness goes away. I was working with a CEO this week, and she was avoiding the tension of leading and the people she had to call out to really lead and the conflicts she had to have. Then she leaned into it, and she said she didn't want to do this job on Monday and on Friday she said this is fucking exciting and great. It was the most palpable quick conversation I have ever seen, and it was amazing. All of a sudden she was absolutely alive in it. With bad leadership, I literally used to have a personality assessment. If people were conflict avoidant, I would not hire them in a CEO role. Because usually conflict avoidance in a CEO or a leader means decisions don't get made, problems are allowed to fester, and it makes everybody who is following that person lose faith in that person because they are letting the cesspool grow. That would be something that I wouldn't hire CEOs for. Hiding from love, which we have already talked about.

The other thing that's interesting is aggressive people become more aggressive and domineering when you are conflict avoidant. Just perfect Golden Algorithm, you are increasing the amount of conflict that comes to you. What happens if there is an aggressive person and you can't meet them, then in their minds you don't care or you can't hold them or they are better than you. If somebody is aggressive and you can meet them, you can say I am right here, holding you, and your anger doesn't scare me. Then they can settle down and relax. Then there is less conflict. This is a cool story about this.

Last night I was having dinner with this guy, and he runs a tire shop. He has been a friend for a while. He likes to say things like he is going to do whatever he wants. He is that kind of guy. I freaking love it. There is no lack of authenticity. He says whatever he thinks. I just love that. We were sitting there and he was talking about how working at this tire shop is not going well for him because he is getting angry often. Then he tells me the story. These customers came in and they were absolutely assholes. He got angry at them, and then they always say here is my phone number and let's keep in touch. I was geeking out. I asked him to let me explain to him psychologically how that works. They feel my anger is safe here. I can have anger, and this person is not going to fold. I want this person in my life. He said this happens four times a week where I am literally holding the container and this person who started off as the asshole in the $150,000 car, yelling at me to open the door at 5:45 and you just closed at 5:30. They then end up asking to hang out at the end of it.

Brett: He is registering the anger as a problem, and if he was paying attention, it is actually bringing him closer to connection and also clarifying boundaries and resulting in better relationships. If he had that recognition land more deeply, the anger would be even less constricted and he would just be there meeting them with love.

Joe: Yes. I would say if he could hold that same energy without the anger, he would be a lot less constricted. For him, it is not beating himself up for the anger and it is also about not taking stuff personally. There is a slightly different thing happening there. If he could love anger, it would show up differently.

Brett: Using the word not to describe just what people see as anger but also the internal felt experience of if you notice that little bit of anger in you when a customer is doing whatever a customer does that makes you angry, the earlier you notice it and the less constricted you are around it, the more fully you can meet the situation without it being about them or blame.

Joe: Or about you.

Brett: No blame, no shame. What are the stories people tell to themselves or others? What kind of worldviews do people hold that will help them avoid conflict or cause them to avoid it?

Joe: Some folks think they should just take care of themselves and ask what it has to do with them anyways. They think they should be able to overcome their anger. That would be one. They think it is their fault and ask what they did wrong and how they can fix themselves. That's another one that allows people to avoid conflict. They think it is pointless because someone is always going to be an asshole so they ask why they should handle it because they can't change their wives. It is true you can't change your wife or husband, but that doesn't mean it is okay to not tell them what's happening with you and how it all feels to you. People think they won't get it and it is not worth it. I heard this one just last week. Someone said before they realized this, they felt everybody who had conflict was an idiot and they were lesser than me. I think he just posted something in Master Class about loving his anger. Those are other examples.

I think sometimes we judge others and we put ourselves above. Sometimes we do it by saying it is our problem. There are lots of ways we avoid conflict.

Brett: A common thread I hear in all of these is the conflict doesn't go away, it just internal. I should take care of myself is an internal conflict. It's my fault is an internal conflict. It is pointless. They won't get it. It's not worth it. There is still a conflict. There is a suppression.

Joe: I am not living the life I want to live, and I can't. That's an internal conflict.

Brett: People fight over this stuff. Therefore, if I am ever to fight, I am bad or wrong or weak or whatever it is that I judge. Instead of having the conflict out in the open where it actually exists, bringing it inside and cycling it inside ourselves.

Joe: I never thought about it. That's so obvious, so beautiful and well seen. Very cool.

18:25 Brett: I want to make sure we don't make this pathologized thing of conflict avoidance by saying this is clearly wrong. What are you doing being conflict avoidant? What is the wisdom behind the pattern and behavior of avoiding conflict?

Joe: I think there are a couple of things. First, if you want short term results, it is okay to avoid the conflict, meaning I am going to feel better for now on some level. I think there are logical times to do that, like with somebody in the supermarket and they push you aside. I think the key there is if you can actually forgive and forget, great. If you can't forgive and forget, then there's something to be done. It doesn't mean there is something to be done with the person at the supermarket, but there is something to be done maybe internally so you are not carrying around that internal conflict as you just said. There are also times when you have somebody who has got a personality disorder and conflict doesn't actually get to resolution, or somebody who is so defensive potentially that conflict doesn't ever get to resolution. I think there is a trap there, so the main thing is if that's the case and you are with someone whose conflict can never get to resolution for whatever reason, what are you doing with that person in your life in any way whether they are a boss or a mate or best friend? If that's really the case, then you have your own questioning to do. What would make me be with somebody where I can't resolve conflict because there is no relationship that won't have some? There is that aspect.

There is also the other aspect where people can say the conflict can never be resolved, so I am not going to deal with it. Partially that might be the way you are handling the conflict, so there is something there is as well.

Brett: You might be the one for which there is always conflict.

Joe: Exactly. There is some wisdom to all of that, and I think more importantly the other way I would say to not pathologize it is this developed for a reason. This developed because you had somebody in your early childhood who was angry all of the time, and there was no way to resolve that conflict. You didn't get the apologies that would have been honorable to receive. What happened is you learned a skill of avoiding conflict. What's interesting is people who are really good at avoiding conflict, they are really good at forgiving and forgetting on some level. The immediate thing can happen, but then it just sits underneath and eventually blows everything up. That's the other piece, to really recognize it is not a bad thing. It probably saved your life at some point or at least made your life a lot more bearable.

Brett: To the flip side of that, when is leaning into conflict or not avoiding a conflict bad for you?

Joe: What I am hearing you say is you go around creating conflict.

Brett: Or you have one mode, the hand is always opened or closed but is still crippled. If there is a conflict, I am leaning into it and then that becomes dogmatic. You find yourself in a life of conflict and also constantly triggered and out of regulation. You step into conflicts you are not ready for, and you end up buckling over because you stepped into too sure footed in the first place and then you weren't able to back it up.

Joe: There is one form of it, which is I am creating conflict in my life. I am not avoiding it. I am creating it. You say I fucking hate what you are doing. Why are you doing that? It is not conflict avoidant. It is also creating conflict where it is completely unnecessary. The other version of that is I am going to step into conflict, but I am not able to do it in a non personal or non defended way. I am not able to announce that and own that. To come in and say that this is bothering me and I am taking it really personally and I don't want to be taking it personally, that's one thing and a great thing, I think. But to be asking why you did this, you are starting a fight because you are defended, shut down and armored up. You can do that, and to be honest with you, I think that's a better way to go than to be completely conflict avoidant. However, it doesn't teach you the main thing, which is the conflict is grist for the evolutionary mill. It is the exact place we need to lean in and to learn to resolve it. It is very much like if you are running a factory, your job is to go and find all of the extra friction, psychological friction or physical friction, and you look for it and get excited because you see it. Because if you can work that issue, then all of a sudden everything runs smoother.

It is the same thing inside of a relationship. If you are in any way leaning into the conflict and it doesn't smooth it out, then there is something to lean into conflict. However, I would far rather have somebody lean into conflict occasionally and get into wrong. Thinking you are not going to have conflict until you are in the perfect position to go in and do it the right way, there is no faith in other people in that. I would say don't do that. It is a fine balance, but you will know it. If you do this as a practice, you get better and better at having conflict and at making each moment of conflict a deep teaching and learning.

Brett: There is sort of a paradox in what I hear you say earlier. If you are leaning into the conflict and it is a fight, that's going to create more conflict. There is something about if you can lean into a conflict but you are holding the energy that this isn't a fight, like you are not defended, it is empower over power essentially from this week's Master Class. If you step into a conflict and you are empowered, looking for the solution, and are advocating for your wants and needs, and you are also in VIEW, are curious and you want the other person to succeed as well, then the tension becomes beautiful tension. To walk into a conflict as though it is a fight is to create conflict.

Joe: Beautiful. Also, walking into a conflict thinking you will never get what you want is also not a great way to walk into the conflict either.

Brett: Or walking into a conflict with your own internal conflict. If you have the belief you will never get what you want, you have that conflict internally and you can't fully show up to the external relationship or that conflict because the story you have is in the way.

Joe: I would still rather have someone do that than completely avoid the conflict. At least, you can learn something in that interaction that you can't learn just keeping it all to yourself. I think that's the other thing. If you are coming in defended and ready for the fight, then you are going to sound like this. What made you do that? You can say you are not avoiding conflict, but that's actually creating conflict. If you think you are never going to get what you want, there are a lot of versions of that. One is: Why are you doing that to me? That is also not going to get you what you want. If you think this is conflict and you are excited to learn something from this even if you are triggered, then you think what is happening. Then you are in VIEW. What made that happen? What made us have a conflict here? How do we both get what we want? It is a whole different attitude. I am not saying what to say. I am just saying what the attitude or emotional experience behind it is.

27:35 Brett: For listeners who are fuzzy about this right now, leaning into conflict, not avoiding conflict, avoiding conflict, how can people notice if their leaning into conflict is actually avoidance of something else?

Joe: If you are trying to get your way or if you would rather win or if you think there is a winner or a loser, all of those are pretty much good signs that you are either creating conflict or avoiding conflict. If it becomes either or, binary, someone wins or loses or I am trying to get my way or  they are going to get my way, it is not really leaning into conflict. If your main concern isn't really wanting to see them and to be seen, maybe you can't be seen but to be in a conversation and knowing it is about seeing them and seeing if they can see me. That's a very different way to approach conflict.

Brett: I'd imagine this also traces back to what your experience is in the conflict and how you are experiencing the conflict right now. Is it being enjoyed? Are you in constriction? Do you feel you have to endure it? Is it something you are welcoming? What happens in any of those kinds of attitudes and stances?  

Joe: What I would say is there saying you will handle the conflict, and you will have more of that story from the tire guy at the beginning. That's what that is going to look like. There is also enjoying the conflict in a personal way, having tension inside yourself, feeling that, going into conflict and learning something. That is going to create a state of a lot of equanimity and curiosity. You are going to be much more in VIEW. If you are constricted against or defending against the conflict, you are either going to avoid it or you are going to do it in such a way that is going to amplify it. If it is an enduring of conflict, then it is almost like this avoidance that comes with it. The cool thing is as you learn to handle conflict externally, then you also start learning how to handle conflict internally. You think you have this internal conflict and you ask what the beauty here is, instead of the typical question, which is how I make this go away. Hey, Joe, I have this internal conflict. How do I make it go away? Instead of, hey, Joe, I have this internal conflict. How do I grow? How do I make this conflict the tension that allows me to evolve? I am so excited by it. As you learn to approach conflict externally that way, it changes internally as well.

30:35 Brett: We have got listeners at all kinds of different levels from all kinds of different angles of this pattern. A lot of them are probably asking a question of the very same nature. How do I stop being conflict avoidant? What would be a good range of next steps, concrete steps, somebody might take to begin an experimentation or a journey?

Joe: Getting good with your own anger, allowing your own anger to move in a safe place where nobody gets hurt, and you are not doing it in a way that causes any damage or hurts anybody. Getting good with your anger is going to be a huge part of it. Doing little experiments, like what is the littlest, itty bittiest conflict I have and how do I address that? What are all the feelings that come into that? How do you feel them? That's a really good one. The other thing you can do is visualize the consequences and emotionally feel through the consequences. One of the ways to really notice there is conflict avoidance happening is what I call walking on eggshells where you are careful of the other person's mood and you are trying to manage the other person's mood and what happens if you don't. Then, visualize and feel everything you have to feel there. Just like anything, you are avoiding conflict so you don't have to feel certain emotions. Go feel the emotions and then you won't avoid the conflict.

Brett: Which is a lot like being in the other person. If you find yourself in the other person, in their mind, in their emotions, taking on their emotions, being responsible for them, feeling them such that you are not feeling your own, then that's also a pointer to be with yourself.

Joe: It is a great question to ask yourself. What makes you care more about their emotional state than yours? The other version of this is what makes it your job to take care of their emotional state. What would make it their job to take care of your emotional state? That's a great question because that's what conflict avoidance is doing is you are managing somebody else's emotions. Then feel the pain of not being loved. You are not showing up, so no one can love you. Feel the pain of that. Oftentimes it is that pain when you become so acutely aware of it, you can't avoid conflict anymore. If you really sit down and realize you have set it up so that my wife or husband can never love me because they don't know who I am, what I feel, what's really going on for me, or the problems I have, and feel your pain in that and feel their pain. Imagine they want to love you and they can't because you are not there. Let that hurt. If that hurts long enough, you are going to stop it. You are going to say here it is. This is me. Those are all really great ways.

Brett: I am not sure if you mentioned this one, but also with regards to your wants, if you let yourself feel your wants long enough, that will also burn until you ask. Asking for what you want can be a great way.

Joe: Most of the time people who are really conflict avoidant are also not asking for certain things they want. For instance, they want to live in the country and my wife doesn't want to drive a car. I can't ask to live in the country because my wife doesn't want to drive a car. That's a weird example. Almost all of the time, us not being able to ask for what we want means we are avoiding conflict.

Brett: That feels like a pretty good place to leave this one. Is there anything else to add?

Joe: I have got nothing. I am all tapped out today. That's what I had.

Brett: Thank you everybody for listening.

Joe: Hey, we are doing social media now. If you have gone on this journey long enough, there is the Twitter we have always had. I think FUJoe is my Twitter handle that's handling you now.

Brett: FU_JoeHudson.

Joe: Thank you. We are on LinkedIn. If you are interested, you can check us out there as well.

Brett: There is also a share button. I don't know if anybody has ever heard this on a podcast or YouTube video, but you can subscribe to things, know when they are happening, and you can even share them with your friends, just saying. I am just going to put that out there.

Joe: We are going to put that out there, and then we are going to own our wants. We want you to subscribe and share.

Brett: I am just going to drop hints. You can own your wants.

Joe: Love you Brett. Good to be with you as always.

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