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ERI: Conflict Engagement

Conflict engagement is the practice of addressing disagreements rather than avoiding them. Many people, often for very good reasons, prefer to avoid conflict or disagreements rather than engaging with the other person to find a solution. This is actually harmful to the long-term health of relationships.

A lack of conflict engagement is typically seen in the behaviors of avoidance and withdrawal. People who avoid conflict will go out of their way not to bring up contentious subjects. They often internalize their disagreement and hold their feelings deep within. They may be afraid of offending others, or of saying something that will end the relationship.

Withdrawal, on the other hand, is seen in people who find ways to escape uncomfortable conversations. They’re always able to find someplace else they need to be, or something else they need to be doing. Withdrawal pulls them away from their relationships.

Why Conflict Engagement Matters

Being able to engage in conflict and disagreements in a healthy manner is important for maintaining long-term, healthy relationships. Individuals who constantly avoid uncomfortable discussions can sow the seeds of discontent in their friends, coworkers and significant partners.

Constantly avoiding a topic, or disappearing when the topic comes up, can bring your commitment to a relationship into question. If you valued the relationship, the other might think, then you’d be willing to be uncomfortable for a little while to help the relationship grow.

Moreover, being able to engage in healthy conflict allows you to address issues with others rather than internalizing them. You free yourself from the burden of sitting on your emotions. Rather than carrying anxiety about something that you think needs to change, engaging with others allows you to actually resolve the problem.

Engaging in Healthy Conflict

  1. Remind yourself that “conflict” is guaranteed in life. “Combat” is optional.
  2. Remember that things don’t disappear just because we don’t look at them. If there’s a problem, ignoring it won’t make it go away.
  3. Tell yourself that engaging in healthy conflict is investing in your relationship. You’re showing the other person that you value the relationship enough to do something you don’t want to do.
  4. Develop emotional self-awareness and self-management skills that allow you to recognize your own emotions without getting overwhelmed by them.
  5. Remember to give the other person the benefit of the doubt. That person’s probably just as uncomfortable having the conversation.
  6. Don’t mind-read. When having difficult conversations, make sure you ask questions in a way that
Gary J. Oliver, ThM, PhD
Executive Director at Center for Healthy Relationships | + posts

Dr. Oliver is the Executive Director of The Center for Healthy Relationships, and professor of Psychology and Practical Theology at John Brown University.  He has authored over 20 books and more than 350 professional and popular articles.  Dr. Oliver has over 40 years’ experience as a Clinical Psychologist, Marriage  & Family Therapist and Spiritual Director.  He leads seminars & workshops both nationally and internationally on a variety of counseling-related issues, healthy relationships as well as Emotional & Relational Intelligence (ERI).

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