Of the topics that most chafe my college students when I teach my seminar Leading Lives That Matter, family relationships tops the list. Unfortunately, the usual way my students deal with these difficulties is through dreams of estrangement. As one of my students recently said: “I can’t wait until I’m financially independent enough that I can leave my family and their baggage behind.”
This perspective is symptomatic of a growing trend of conflict avoidance that manifests itself across the spectrum of interpersonal relationships, from ghosting romantic partners and friends to “quiet quitting” (and “quiet firing”) in the workplace. In cases of abuse and other extreme circumstances, such disconnection can be the only safe option. But too often, this behavior is an excuse for avoiding the mucky work of maintaining relationships, both personal and professional.
Many managers and employees want to escape the unchecked animus they experience online, preferring the workplace feel like a safe cocoon.
Contrary to the sense of empowerment we might momentarily experience from blocking a social media profile or our relief at dodging a potentially fraught work meeting, avoiding conflict can compromise our resilience, mental health and productivity in the long term. This year we should all work to reverse the trend and lean in to conflict — and conflict resolution — instead.
During research for his 2020 book, “Fault Lines: Fractured Families and How to Mend Them,” Cornell University psychologist and gerontologist Karl Pillemer conducted a national survey that found that 27% of Americans 18 and older had severed all contact with at least one family member. And increasingly, ghosting is the way these breaks happen. As the magazine Real Simple put it in offering advice for handling such fissures, ghosting is “the thoroughly modern way to exit someone’s life.”
There are many reasons for the rise in conflict avoidance, starting with the way that modern communications — and a distrust of others — makes it easier to tune out someone you don’t want to engage with. The atomized, online-oriented social experience of youth, exacerbated by the pandemic, has also reduced the in-person interactions that require engagement and, with that, how to resolve differences.
The very real fear of being attacked on social media, and even offline, for broaching a topic in ways others deem offensive also doesn’t encourage exchange. At the same time, it’s possible to go days, weeks even, sequestered in digital echo chambers where our thoughts and world views reverberate in the safety of stereo. It’s all too easy to lose the muscles required to resolve conflicts.
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Other societal changes have contributed too. Two British researchers, whose studies focus on the dramatic uptick in perfectionism among younger generations, have found that “rising competitiveness, individualism, economic inequality, and pressure to excel at school and college,” as well as an increase in “parental expectations and parental criticism,” all create a crushing pressure to succeed academically, professionally, even in one’s personal life.
Perfectionism affects and, in turn, limits the ways we feel safe communicating, which makes perfect sense. If we remain silent, we conveniently sidestep expressions that might be deemed inferior or wrong. Having parents intervene in everything from grades to playing time on sports teams in pursuit of this perfection probably also holds children back from learning how to advocate for themselves rather than being passive observers.
The pandemic, not surprisingly, is another culprit, exacerbating students’ experience of relational tension. A 2022 online survey among 1,153 Chinese college students found that the pandemic may have contributed to participants’ “oversensitive and intensified” feelings of anger when faced with even small degrees of “threatening information.”
Even our self-help culture can play a role. Jessica Nudelman shared on the website Collective World that her encounter with the “self love” movement motivated her to cut people out of her life who didn’t “feel good” to be around or who she thought didn’t “reciprocate” the effort she made to maintain the relationship.
Workplace consultant Amy Gallo told me that we’ve become too “conflict averse” and that too many organizations don’t have “enough conflict.” Gallo, author of the “HBR Guide to Dealing With Conflict,” said that many managers and employees want to escape the unchecked animus they experience online, preferring the workplace feel like a safe cocoon.
But in the process they throw out the baby with the bathwater. While “interpersonal conflict” isn’t beneficial (think: attacking a co-worker’s values or character), “task and process conflict” (think: collaborative brainstorming and debating the merit of ideas) is, according to Gallo. It’s essential for productivity, creativity and stronger working relationships.
There’s no question: It’s far easier to create civil relationships with co-workers when we shelve our strong political world views and perceived slights. But our resilience and mental health — not to mention the endurance of our closest relationships — would greatly benefit from turning toward, not away from, respectful relational conflict.
Dr. Eugene Beresin, a psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School, observed relationships “become stronger, more enduring, and closer through the resolution of a conflict,” in part because resolving conflict “requires building interpersonal skills that are essential for loving and effective relationships,” such as listening and tolerating differences.
Communication and empathy chops are improved, communications researcher and therapist Jennifer A. Sampa explained, because “research suggests that the process of conflict and arguing facilitates talk and awareness of another’s perspective.”
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If that isn’t self-serving enough, there’s this: Research published in the The Journals of Gerontology Series B found that study participants who intentionally resolved daily conflicts reported that their stress diminished and even disappeared afterward. They experienced fewer negative emotions that day and the next compared with others, and their positive emotions remained stable for longer.
Ultimately, the writer who severed communication with those who “didn’t feel good to be around” reconnected with these people. With time and introspection, she discovered that her impulsive act was selfish and had backfired. Among the insights she gleaned were the need to practice the same compassion and patience with others as with herself, and that other people show love in different ways, “and that’s okay.”
Sometimes messy relationships are the perfect way to learn about other people in our lives — and ourselves.