Crucial Conflict

Life is full of encountering different types of people & different situations. While some may feel comfortable with intellectual conflicts, they struggle to effectively resolve everyday conflicts. Their discomfort in resolving conflict extends across a wide spectrum and may include people who don’t act or think like they do. Few of us have ever learned how to resolve interpersonal conflicts in ways that don’t harm our relationships with others. Depending on who you are, the dynamics of racism and sexism mean that in addition to common conflicts, you may also experience devaluation, disrespect, and daily aggression. It’s okay to feel angry when people behave badly towards you (even if their behavior is unintentional) because anger, annoyance, and frustration are normal responses to persistent sexism and racism. The problem occurs when people respond to conflicts in one of two extreme ways:

1) Fighting every battle – The problem with fighting every battle is that you will quickly alienate yourself from everyone in your environment. 2) Avoiding conflict altogether – The problem with avoiding conflict is that when you push anger down, it grows, deepens, and expands.

This can put you at risk of publicly exploding when triggered by a minor incident, developing stress-related illness, and/or sucking up so much of your energy that you have none left. That said, expressing anger is tricky because we live in a world where there are few socially acceptable forms of communicating anger (this is especially true for underrepresented minorities). Any expression of anger tends to be interpreted through the frames of race and gender. Even the smallest expression of anger from African Americans can result in their being labeled as “threatening” or “unprofessional.” And for women, communicating frustration quickly got them labeled as “emotional” and/or “a bitch.”

Healthy Conflict
Conflict is inevitable, so it’s critical to learn when and how to express our feelings in ways that are effective and appropriate. If you’re an underrepresented minority, you’re likely to have more conflict & to have your responses interpreted through different lenses, so you have to be extra skilled at conflict resolution. The good news is that learning how to engage in healthy conflict will allow you to express your feelings, retain your integrity, and minimize negative consequences in those relationships. When conflicts arise, it’s important to ask yourself –

  1. In this particular situation, should I push back or should I pull back?
  2. What will I gain and what will I lose?
  3. If I decide to push back, what’s the most effective way to do so?

There are no right or wrong answers here. Sometimes pushing back makes sense; other times it’s better to pull back and then go hit the punching bag at the gym. Either way, anger is energy so it has to come out of your body. Pulling back simply means releasing the angry energy in an indirect way because the costs of expressing it outweigh the benefits. If & when you decide to push back, try doing the following –

  1. State your observation of the problematic behavior
  2. Describe how it makes you feel
  3. Make your needs explicit
  4. Clearly request what you want

In conclusion, challenge yourself to:

  • Gently ask yourself how to manage conflict (feel free to acknowledge that anger is a healthy response to persistent racial and gender inequality).
  • Imagine several different ways you could respond to conflicts that arise (by pushing back and/or pulling back).
  • Assess what you would gain and what you would lose by making different choices.
  • We often hear the generic term “pick your battles.” I recommend that you rethink the idea of waiting until conflicts reaches the stage of “battle.” Instead, recognize that conflict is a normal outcome of any two people interacting with one other.
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