Four ways to handle a fight

Conflict. Most people hate it. Because we hate it, we usually do what we can to avoid it (an example of experiential avoidance). But sometimes avoiding conflict actually makes it worse.
Conflict creates anger
There are essentially four ways we can handle a fight or disagreement with someone – four broad types of strategy for handling interpersonal conflict.

Indirect conflict management

Handling conflict indirectly can manifest in a variety of ways. The key is to never be clear about what the conflict is about. Give your opponent the silent treatment. Sulk. Slam doors. Kick the cat (no, don’t – it wasn’t the cat’s fault!). If your opponent asks what is wrong, say, “You know what you did!”

This is a terrible way to handle conflict. But if we are honest with ourselves, we will usually realise we do this a lot. Why? Because we deceive ourselves into thinking that by not actually saying why we are upset we aren’t creating conflict. And we think conflict is always bad and to be avoided. So we hope that by being passive and sulky our opponent will miraculously figure out what is wrong and fix it without there being any need for arguing and unpleasant stuff like that.

Unfortunately, what often happens instead is that our opponent gets upset and offended by our mysterious, inexplicable moodiness and responds by sulking, slamming doors, kicking the cat …

Direct conflict management

Stick man throwing stone
Being direct means being up-front about the problem. This could be done aggressively – with shouting or even violence involved – or assertively – which involves calm, two-way communication. Being direct but aggressive is no better than handling conflict indirectly. Being assertive, however, allows conflict to be resolved (although not always with the outcome you wanted).

In a future post I will introduce some of the basic skills of assertiveness. The first step to resolving a conflict effectively with a direct approach, though, is simply to honestly describe the source of conflict and how it is impacting on you – without exaggerating. (Instead of “You’re always so insensitive!”, which is vague, indirect and probably exaggerated, “I feel unappreciated because you didn’t take time to talk to me when you got home.” – which is concrete, clear and honest.)

Changing your expectations

A third option for handling conflict is to evaluate and adjust your expectations and attitude to the source of conflict. Changing expectations involves making an active choice to not be offended by a behaviour. If a work colleague has an abrasive, sarcastic sense of humour that repeatedly offends you, you might try approaching him directly about it to find he becomes agitated and defensive and is completely unable to appreciate the impact his humour can have. If this colleague is someone who you will have to keep interacting with, or who has positive qualities you enjoy, you may be able to change your expectations and recognise that his sarcasm its not intended to offend or be taken as criticism. This is different to being passive and indirect, because you are choosing to not be offended instead of pretending to not be offended.

Ending the relationship

Sometimes both direct handling of conflict and changing expectations may fail to resolve conflict. There may be so much toxic conflict that the whole relationship is just damaging. In such cases, it may be best to end that relationship. Unfortunately, though, it is far too common for people to choose this strategy without every having been direct or reflected on the role of their own expectations. In this case it is just an unhelpful avoidance of conflict.

About Paul McQueen

Dr Paul McQueen is a Clinical Psychologist, holding a Doctorate in Clinical Psychology from the University of Melbourne. He has experience working in both adult and child mental health services in Queensland and Victoria. Dr McQueen is comitted to providing high quality, evidence-based interventions for a range of mental health conditions. He specialises in the treatment of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Borderline Personality Disorder and Depression.

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