What happens when we sit on a conflict too long without acting
In my work a lot of the conflict I end up mediating or managing is conflict that has been sitting for A LONG time. I often get called in when things have gotten so bad that it will likely be much harder to reach agreement than if people had attempted to act earlier. ‘Sitting’ on conflict essentially means avoiding it by doing nothing, saying nothing, pretending everything is fine, talking about to everyone except the person it’s about, etc. People do this for a variety of reasons but usually fear is the driving force. People are afraid of what the result of confrontation will be. Sometimes for good reason but sometimes (and most often) because of anxiety and perceived negativity towards conflict in general. In this post i’ll focus on what happens when we avoid bringing up a conflict for too long and in my next post i’ll provide some tips for those who are nervous about confrontation in the hopes of giving you all some tools that make it feel more doable and hopefully results in less of the below!
What happens when we sit on a conflict too long without acting:
-It grows: We start to catastrophise all aspects of the problem (what will happen, how horrible the situation or person(s) are, how negatively it is going to affect us, etc). Our expectations balloon and often become unrealistic; our thinking becomes more black and white. We overthink, panic, feel it’s ‘too late’ to resolve it.
-It spreads: We start to notice all the person(s) flaws and things we dislike about them, apart from just the original problem we had. We start to become more critical and less compassionate. Gossip and rumours begin. More people outside the situation start to know about the conflict than those who are or should be involved.
-It festers: within in us and changes our energy. We become more angry, more resentful, more fearful and less hopeful. These feelings might change the way we behave towards the person(s). We might avoid them, shun them, put a lot of energy into pretending everything ‘is fine’. etc. It affects our happiness, stress levels, day to day functioning, etc. The conflict begins to take up way more space in our life physically, spiritually, emotionally, psychologically, physiologically, etc.
-It dissolves: our relationship with the person(s) and the possibility for dialogue. People notice the change in behaviour towards them and trust gets questioned/begins to breakdown. People find out they’ve been the subject of gossip or find out from other sources that everyone knows about this but them causing them to respond more defensively or collapse from the shame of finding out they were never confronted.
-It pushes away: from potential resolution. Often sitting on a thought or feeling before acting is a great idea (I often advocate for it). Why? Because it gives us time to process and figure out our needs, wants, boundaries, etc. But sometimes when we sit on something without processing and without figuring out next steps, it just exaggerates the problem. It makes it feel unmanageable, unfixable and unforgivable. Resolution starts to feel impossible or not worth the stress (stress that has built up from sitting on the conflict for so long). It also inhibits our ability to transform as a community. It promotes not taking responsibility for our behaviour (or the behaviour of our friends, peers, colleagues, etc) and our own feelings.
We cannot assume that others are going to know what we expect from them or to always intuit correctly what we’re feeling. I personally believe that it is our responsibility to find a way to get this message to the person(s) even if it isn’t from the person impacted directly (can you find a trustworthy messenger or mediator?). If people are not given an opportunity to be accountable, then we cannot act surprised when they aren’t. Sometimes saying and doing nothing is the right choice but usually if you are noticing the above happening for you, it is a strong indicator that avoiding the problem is not the correct path to take.