Conflict is a part of our everyday life. It can affect all relationships whether it’s a couple, a parent and child, siblings, friends or work colleagues. We need to learn how to deal with conflict in a healthy productive way; if we don’t, it can have lasting damaging effects on our relationships.
Ever asked yourself the question of how you feel about or manage conflict? We all have different reactions to this word. Some people, although they wouldn’t go out of their way to find conflict, will deal with it in an assertive way when it arises; others will say that they avoid it as they don’t like it under any circumstances; others will deny it’s there, and many will either consciously or unconsciously create conflictual situations. Conflict arises out of differences; these can include different interpretations of a situation, and/or a difference in beliefs or value systems.
We can be more vulnerable to conflict at different times in our lives, such as in a crisis, if we are ill, or at a time when there has been a big change in a family, such as a bereavement.
Experiences and personality traits have their place
In many respects, how we deal with conflict has a lot to do with our personal traits, but it also reflects on how we have dealt with conflicts in the past, how we saw our parents deal with conflict as we grew up, and generally any experiences we have had in our lives that involved dealing with a conflictual situation.

If we have experienced a healthy resolution to conflicts, it will stand to us; you may find that you have a strong in-built resilience that helps you deal with conflict in a very healthy manner. If, on the other hand, you have had the experience of unhealthy conflicts that have remained unresolved, been denied or ignored to the extent that when and if another difficulty arises the angry feelings that emerge may not be wholly related to the current issue; these conflicts can be particularly damaging, are related to high stress, and can be emotionally exhausting to deal with.
So, thinking about personality traits, ask yourself if you are more of a passive kind of person, have a more aggressive style about you, or if you deal with things in a very assertive way. There is a real difference between acting assertively and aggressively, and occasionally, I find that people who think they are being assertive can actually behave in a very aggressive manner; let’s look at the differences.
A passive person will often avoid conflict, hoping that the issue will resolve itself. However, if ignored or denied, the difficulty will often get worse, or the person will find that they feel somewhat dismissed in the outcome which, over time, may make them feel somewhat resentful. The downside of the passive approach to conflict is that you can often be seen as a by-stander; you can become the appeaser, colluding at some level with a potentially destructive situation which becomes more difficult to resolve. The passive person may, at some level, be abdicating their responsibility to themselves and to others; however, the payoff is that they are avoiding conflict.
An aggressive person will often deal with conflict using a more dominating style. Their ambition is to win every argument; it doesn’t matter what the other person thinks - the most important thing is that the aggressor wins. People tend not to want to get into an argument with an aggressor for those very reasons, as the aggressor never seems to give up, often speaking in an abusive manner and using threatening body language. If the aggressor feels at any level that you may be holding your ground, their behaviour will inevitably get worse. The aggressor will not be respectful of other people’s needs or wishes. They will often think that they have won because the other backs away. However, the downside of this behaviour is that people usually tend to avoid the aggressor, and their relationships will suffer eventually.
An assertive person, of course, will deal with conflict in a way that is healthy. The assertive person respects their own beliefs and values as well as respecting the other’s. They will use healthy communication and will allow the other person to talk about how they feel, their wants, and their needs. An assertive person will be able to articulate, clarify and express to the other their take or feelings on the issue. This kind of communication will lead to an understanding for both and the possibility of a negotiation or compromise that will end in a healthy resolution of the problem.
Remember that conflict can be healthy; it can be a way of clearing the air and gaining a better understanding of each other and, if treated in a responsible manner, can build trust and help a relationship to grow and develop. If the conflict is dealt with in an unhealthy way, people will get hurt, grow resentful, and often the relationship will end up suffering; conflict will become destructive, leading to a dysfunctional relationship which may eventually lead to an emotional cutting-off.
Tips for dealing with conflict in a healthy way:
  • Name the issue
  • Pick a time and place to discuss it
  • Have good boundaries and know your limits
  • Be aware of each other’s feelings and sensitivities
  • Listen without interrupting
  • Be articulate and clarify the issue
  • Stick with the facts
  • Deal with one issue at a time
  • Know when to disengage
  • Be assertive
  • Be responsible
  • Be prepared to work it through
  • Look for a resolution that is agreeable to both parties
Don’t forget: if you feel you are having a really hard time dealing with a conflict and need to look for extra support, do contact a professional; counselling and/or mediation can be of great benefit to people at times like this, to help them reach some form of resolution.
Relationship Counsellor