Why is Conflict so Difficult?

What is Conflict?

The dictionary definition of conflict is a serious disagreement or argument.  Why do we find conflicts so difficult? When most people think of having a conflict with someone else, it produces feelings of anxiety and dread because most people are conflict averse, and we would certainly rather avoid engaging in a conflict with someone else.  Some of our feelings about conflict come from how conflicts were handled in our families.  For example, in some families, displays of anger meant that someone was right and some else was wrong, someone got blamed, or someone was “bad” or “unlovable.”  These are powerful, often subconscious messages we receive about conflict, and they can have a lifelong impact on us.

Psychologist William Macaux believes that one of the reasons human beings struggle so much with conflict is that we are hard wired to be relational creatures.  He has worked with couples, individuals, and corporations helping them understand and manage their conflicts.  He states that “we want to be loved, cared about, and cared for, so any conflict that puts our relationships at risk, can feel threatening.”    When we think about having to confront someone about a behavior we felt was hurtful or disrespectful, we have to cope with our own reactions as well as what we anticipate theirs might be.  During conflicts, fight or flight response is sometimes engaged which can add to feelings of stress and anxiety.  Our heart rates go up, we might feel nerves in our stomach, and we might feel tense.  Our bodies ready themselves for a fight.  Additionally, when we engage in conflict, we have to confront any fears we have about being liked by the other person, or even what they might think of us.  Anticipating a conflict with another person tends to bring about a complex set of emotions, cognitions, and behaviors that are sometimes difficult to understand, depending on your own experiences with conflict.

Conflict is Sometimes Necessary

Despite the negative responses many individuals have to engaging in conflict, it can be a very important part of our relationships.  When done well, we can learn and grow from conflicts.  For example, in my own counseling work with distressed couples, they come into counseling in a heightened state of conflict.  When a couple learn to understand what is behind their conflicts, it allows them to grow and make important changes in their relationship.  This is also true in a work environment.  When conflict is handled well, it can be used to strengthen ideas, balance points of view, and include many perspectives in solving problems encountered at work.

Doing Conflict Well

Remember that having a conflict does not necessarily equate to having an argument.  It can mean that you have differing points of view about something and both points of view need to be explored.  In a conflict situation, how you say something is important  (e.g. keeping an even tone of voice vs. yelling) than even what you say.  Managing conflicts and engaging in productive conflicts involves several things. 

  1. Listening to the other person without forming your response in your head as they speak.
  2. Acknowledging the other person’s point of view, even if you do not agree with it.
  3. Managing your own feelings (e.g. practice deep breathing).
  4. Managing your own assumptions about what the other person is thinking or feeling.
  5. Understanding that conflict is difficult but it does not have to be detrimental.
  6. Engaging in respective dialogue (e.g. no character attacking, name calling, eye rolling, sarcasm, etc.).
  7. Trying not to personalize the conflict.
  8. Asking open-ended questions.
  9. Not using the word “you” to refer to the other person and instead speaking for yourself using “I-language.”
  10. Remembering that conflict is sometimes more about the process (e.g. how someone is feeling) than the content (the exact material being discussed.


Creating and environment of respect can go a long way to making inevitable conflicts that arise much easier.  When you do have a conflict with another person, try checking in with them throughout the conflict, asking them if you are hearing what they are saying correctly.  Also, try to acknowledge and appreciate that the conflict may be difficult for both of you. 

About Dr. Katherine Helm

Katherine is a Chicagoland native, professor, and psychologist who enthusiastically wants to help people have strong mental health and healthy, fulfilling relationships. Katherine is a licensed psychologist with over 24 years of experience working with adolescents, adults, couples and groups in multiple clinical settings including college counseling, psychiatric hospitals, community mental health, and private practice. She has authored multiple books on working with couples, sex education for high school and college students, and mental health issues in the African American community. Currently, she is the Director of a Clinical Mental Health Graduate Programs for Lewis University. You can learn more about her areas of expertise at: drkhelmconsulting.com

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