How to Stop Avoiding Conflict

When there’s a tough issue at hand, we run away, avoid, screen calls, pretend to change addresses - basically do anything besides talk.  This week the Savvy Psychologist brings you 13 tips on how to stop avoiding conflict and tackle those tough conversations.  

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD
7-minute read
Episode #13

We are ninjas at avoiding potential conflict.  We email a coworker when we should just walk down the hall.  We break off a relationship with a text.  We feel relieved when voicemail picks up and we don’t have to talk to an actual person.  We change the subject, distract, tell everyone except the person we’re complaining about, and generally do everything short of pointing out a shiny object and making a break for it.

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A touchy subject doesn’t have to equal conflict.  The idea for this week’s podcast comes from Andrea G., a listener and a nurse, who asked on the Savvy Psychologist Facebook page how to address tough issues with patients like a bad diagnosis or a DNR order (Do Not Resuscitate).  So here are 13 tips for approaching a tough conversation and 4 scripts for some sensitive situations:

Tip #1: Start with the same goal.  The fundamental rule is to work towards the same goal.  We’ve talked about unified detachment on the Savvy Psychologist podcast before, and it’s never more important than in a tough conversation.  Unified detachment means reframing the conflict so rather than you versus your opponent, it’s the two of you against the problem.  

Before you approach the person you need to talk with, think of a goal you can both get behind so the conversation is win-win.  For example, when talking to a bully’s mom, say, “We both want to help Jimmy and Jackson get back on track,” not “You need to call off your pit bull of a kid, lady.”   

Then, if the conversation goes off course, this goal is your home base.  Keep coming back to it.  If Jimmy’s mom gets defensive, remind her of the goal you both want: what’s best for the kids.

Tip #2: Take the Columbo approach. Being genuinely curious takes the opposition out of it.  “What do you think?” or “How do you see it?” are the magic words and the ideal ending of your initial statement.  For example: “It’s my understanding that the three of us roommates should keep our groceries separate.  What do you think?”

The “what if” or Columbo approach is also good.  “Mom, I have a question for you.  What if something happened to Dad?  What would you want us to do to take care of you?”  However, stop short of “I have a stupid question.” Or “This is probably wrong, but...” 

Tip #3: Beware of being in it to win it.  Tough conversations only work if you both win.  We treat others badly to get them to treat us better, which makes no sense for anyone involved.  So to avoid lingering resentments and dirty looks, you must give up your goal of crushing the competition.  Any loudmouth can “win” an argument.  To be a true winner, you need to make everyone win.  If you hear yourself saying slippery things like “Technically, you never said exactly that” or plotting to secretly tape the person so you can prove you’re right, both of you have already lost.

Tip #4: Set the tone.  If you make it stone-cold serious and awkward, it will be.  If you open with anger or defensiveness, it will end up as a fight.  But if you ask casually and with genuine openness, you’ll have a real conversation.

Tip #5: Open well. “We need to talk,” never led anywhere productive.  It usually means, “We need to talk about you and what’s wrong with you.”  So open with something better.  Suggestions include:

  • “I need your help with something. Do you have a minute?”
  • “Can I bounce an idea off you?”
  • “Hey, I have some news.”
  • “I have a question for you.”
  • “Hey can I tell you something I think will be helpful to us both?”

Tip #6: Give your role the responsibility.  Blame your job or position.  “As your daughter, I get to ask you about your wishes regarding your estate.” Or “As a nurse, my job is to make sure we’re all on the same page and prepared before we need it.”  I often say with a smile, “So, as your therapist, my job is to ask the hard questions.”


All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD

Dr. Ellen Hendriksen was the host of the Savvy Psychologist podcast from 2014 to 2019. She is a clinical psychologist at Boston University's Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders (CARD). She earned her Ph.D. at UCLA and completed her training at Harvard Medical School. Her scientifically-based, zero-judgment approach is regularly featured in Psychology Today, Scientific American, The Huffington Post, and many other media outlets. Her debut book, HOW TO BE YOURSELF: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety, was published in March 2018.