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

Tip #7: Beware the “but.”  The word “but” negates whatever just came before it.  That’s why “no offense, but,” always precedes an offensive statement.  Watch out for “buts” in your own conversation.  Consider replacing them with “and.”  There’s a big difference between “Yes, we only live once, but we need to save for retirement.”  And “Yes, we only live once, AND we need to save for retirement.”  The former is invalidating, the latter is supportive with a bonus improvement.

Tip #8: Agree with their disagreements.  This is a time-tested technique with little kids—“It’s bedtime. I know you wish you could stay up. Yeah, it is more fun to stay up, isn’t it? You wish you could stay up all night and never go to bed.”  With adults, of course, it’s not as paternalistic, but it’s validation all the same.  For example: “You’re right, getting stuff on Amazon is super convenient.  I love not having to go to the store, too.  And I’ve found that the one-click button is really driving up our credit card bill.”Tip #9: Defense!  Getting defensive almost always kills a conversation.  The canary in the coalmine is your emotional state.  When you feel attacked, breathe slowly, then validate your conversation partner by—counterintuitively—agreeing with their attack.  Then go back to your home base—the goal where you both win.  For example, “I’m so sorry if I’m coming off as labeling your child a bully—I can see how that would be frustrating and I’m not here to do that.  I am here to figure out, with you, how we can team up to help the kids get along or take a breather from each other.”  Or, in another example: “I would feel terrible if you left this conversation feeling attacked or pressured.  What I’d like to do is figure out ways we can feel closer to each other and make our relationship work better for both of us.”

Tip #10: Apologize (within reason).  Smart apologies cost you nothing.  And they work wonders to make you more effective. “I’m sorry I was unclear before; what I mean is...”  “I’m sorry, I know this topic is tough to talk about, and I know we both want what’s best for Grandma.”  

However, there are two caveats here.  One, particularly for women—don’t apologize for having needs or for existing.  Don’t say: “I’m sorry to bring this up—it’s so stupid” or  “I’m so sorry to bother you with this.” 

Two, don’t offer a fake apology.  In a fake apology, “I’m sorry,” is followed by the word “you.”  “I’m sorry you misunderstood.”  “I’m sorry you feel that way.”  A real apology follows “I’m sorry” with the word “I.” “I’m sorry I lost my temper when we talked about this before.”  “I’m sorry I hurt your feelings.”

Tip #11: Just the facts.  Facts are neither incendiary nor insulting.  To a tween, for example: “I notice the clean laundry is in a pile on your floor.  And it’s Friday, which is allowance day.”  Then let her make the connection.  Hopefully, you won’t need to say another word.  My favorite example of this technique comes from a friend recently deployed in Afghanistan.  He probably saved the life—and the ego—of a clueless reporter embedded with his unit by stating the fact: “That’s a really bright shirt.”

Tip #12: Go with your feelings.  No one can argue with how you’re feeling.   Better yet, go with a soft feeling—sadness, worry, shame, guilt, rejection, vulnerability—whatever’s under the hard feeling of anger.  For a partner: “I'm sure you’re not trying to do this—not having sex very often is making me feel rejected.”  Or, for a teen: “Can I get your help with something?  I’m feeling worried about the new crowd you’ve been hanging around with recently.”

Tip #13: Pick a good moment.  Don’t try to talk when someone is distracted, exhausted, in a rush, stressed, or drunk.  Good settings, in my opinion, include a long car ride, after watching or reading something related, or on a walk. 

Bottom line: it’s a recipe.  Start with unified detachment.  Add a dash of facts, feelings, and a willingness to be naturally curious.  Garnish it with a Columbo ending, and you’ll have whipped up a masterful dialogue. 

Be aware, however, that this recipe is an acquired taste.  Most of us have a lifetime of avoiding conflict behind us, and it can be a difficult habit to change.  Start out with one or two of the approaches, then build from there.  Soon, you won’t have to avoid conflict because you’ll be a ninja at having genuinely productive conversations.;


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.