The Surprising Reason Why You May (Inadvertently) Be the Source of Conflict, According to a Psychotherapist

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Conflict can be hard for many of us to deal with. The tension, raised voices, and hurt feelings that can come from a conflict are stressful even if you’re a pro at fighting fairly—and most people are not. Some folks avoid conflicts altogether because they fear the repercussions that come with disagreements. However, people fail to realize that in trying to avoid conflict, they can inadvertently start conflict in most of their relationships.

People who are conflict avoidant—meaning they do everything they can to avoid getting others upset or angry—often struggle with a few tendencies. They often have poor self-regulation, meaning that they struggle to keep their nervous system in check when stressed—so things like interpersonal conflict, no matter how small, can trigger their "fight, flight, freeze, or fawning" instincts. This contributes to people-pleasing habits since in their mind, "keeping the peace" and making everyone happy (even at your own expense) is better than any kind of confrontation.

Poor communication skills can also come into play. They may struggle with being clear and direct when stating needs, which can cause confusion. And when an argument erupts, they might shut down (thanks to poor self-regulation), which can further impact communication. Because of this, they may have a hard time being assertive, or knowing how to tend to their needs—which can contribute to conflicts.

Conflict avoidance-induced conflict can manifest in a few different ways. Some examples I often encounter as a therapist:

  • Saying yes to things you don’t want to do, then canceling last-minute. By not erecting proper boundaries, you fail to show up for others (and yourself!), which can create tension and hurt feelings.
  • Stonewalling, aka giving someone the "silent treatment." People use the silent treatment as a way to manage emotional flooding (feeling an overwhelming amount of emotions all at once). But by refusing to communicate, you leave people unaware of what’s going on for you. This is actually a form of emotional neglect, and can harm relationships in the long run.
  • Making assumptions about people’s desires or needs, and guiding your decisions based on those assumptions instead of communicating and asking direct questions.
  • Being passive with your communication and causing confusion, then getting upset when you’re needs are not met

So what can you do to ensure you’re not secretly a conflict starter? Here’s where I recommend you start:

1. Pay attention to how you communicate

You must use your words. Stop expecting people to know what’s wrong with you through guessing or testing them (especially in romantic relationships). As Brené Brown once said: “Clear is kind.” On the flip side, causing confusion is both unhelpful and unfair. Say what needs to be said, but in a kind manner.

2. Regulate your people-pleasing habits

People-pleasing is a coping mechanism that we revert to when we are overcome by stress and the fear of conflict. But in pleasing others, you’re less likely to get your needs met; it just teaches self-neglect. Start to regulate this habit by resisting the urge to immediately respond to requests, and give yourself time to ensure your “yes” is valid and not forced.

3. Write out your thoughts before you share them

The reality is that communication is a skill that you must develop—and it can be hard work. Before communicating with someone in person, try writing your thoughts out or engage in audio journaling where you record yourself talking out loud and listen to things you’ve said to pick up any discrepancies in your thinking or lack of clarity in what you’re trying to communicate.

Learning to resolve conflict is a necessary skill for growing and sustaining your relationships. When you realize your conflict avoidance turned you into a conflict starter, remember there is power in owning your actions and holding yourself accountable.

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