Avoidance might be the most common conflict strategy no one writes about. When we are uncomfortable with others, even those we know well, we tend to avoid them. Contact is averted. We look right past them in meetings. Conversations are cut short, postponed, or cancelled. Engagement is neglected.
Avoidance allows us to ignore what we feel or think and pretend that whatever is at issue will go away. By avoiding, we pretend the issue isn’t significant and we don’t feel as threatened by our role in the conflict or discomfort.
Avoiding or withdrawing from uncomfortable issues requires no courage and little thought. While there are legitimate reasons to postpone discussing an issue until emotions settle and facts become clear, most people avoid others without much thought or strategy. We just know it is easier, less upsetting, and less messy to ignore the person involved than it is to engage them. (Note: Many of us learn this strategy at a young age as a coping mechanism in a domineering relationship and then carry it forward as a conflict strategy in life.)
For leaders, avoiding others when we feel uncomfortable with them over an issue or recent episode is an act of cowardice. It pushes the issue and relationship into the future and creates an awkward present. All matters of working collaboratively suffer. The discomfort often festers and creates peripheral issues, making everything in the relationship more complex and more difficult to discuss.
When you feel yourself avoiding others because of something they said or did, work hard not to allow avoidance to set the course toward disengagement. Push through the feelings of discomfort and engage the issue while it is still relatively minor and insignificant.
The question we all need to ask as leaders is: Who are we avoiding right now? The time is right to engage, even if the choice is not to discuss the underlying issue. That’s what leaders do.