Much of healthy conflict management involves refraining from saying things we’ll regret, calming ourselves, and listening to others. However, conflict can also worsen if we don’t speak up enough and address our concerns about important conflicts that we’re experiencing.
Most of us hope discord will go away if we just ignore it long enough – even though we know it doesn’t usually work that way. If we wait too long to attend to conflict, it will only get messier and harder to tackle. Maybe recurring blow-ups will die down, but procrastinating about addressing the root conflict creates a whole history of unresolved tensions in the relationship. Every time there is a new incident, it brings up all the resentment from the previous negative interactions, burdening them with the weight of historic frustration and responses to a small, new transgression can seem out of proportion.
The longer we wait, the more divisive the situation can become, including the unwanted possibility that we’ll be so frustrated and upset that we’ll blurt out things that will escalate the conflict.
Dealing with conflict directly will help create positive results as well as avoid negative ones. If conflict is handled properly, all the players can learn from it. Relationships can deepen through the process, as both people learn what is important to themselves and the other person. In some cases, others don’t realize that their behavior is causing tension. They’re just going about their business, while you’re over in the corner seething. Or perhaps they know something is bothering you, but won’t know what it is until you tell them.
Few people welcome conflict. External tensions create internal conflict as we try to decide whether it’s worth it to say something about the situation. We have things we know we need to say, but our stomach clenches at the very thought of bringing it up. When the disagreement crops up, our survival instincts kick in. We tense up and begin to respond as if it is a life or death situation. Of course, it seldom is. Are we really in mortal danger if our spouse refuses to load the dishwasher the way we do it? Probably not.
Sometimes we fear we’ll damage the relationship if we do speak up, but rarely consider that the relationship likely will be weakened if we don’t.
Pausing is okay; there’s no need to rush in. When we find ourselves in conflict, it’s a good idea to stand back and assess the situation. Is it an ongoing concern and really important to us? If so, what’s the worst that can happen if we address this? What’s the worst that can happen if we don’t? Very often, ignoring it would create the worst scenario. Take into account the circumstances of the conflict – is our livelihood at risk? Our family’s happiness? Our health? Take the time to place the conflict into the context of your life and, from that viewpoint, make a decision on whether or not to bring up the issue.
None of this is to say that, even after discussing how their past behavior affected you, the other person will stop annoying us in the future – that is unlikely. But once we’ve learned the other’s perspective and talked through past tensions, those old events can more readily stay in the past, creating a positive cycle of decreasing tension. If a situation is tense and we want it to change, we have to be willing to speak up and address the problem.