In my previous post, I shared with you the idea of “conflict debt,” where we avoid the uncomfortable conversations that are desperately needed for the health of our organizations, our teams, and ourselves. When we avoid these prickly situations, we rack up conflict debt and start paying debilitating interest. But if conflict aversion is so costly, why does it persist? Conflict aversion persists because it is so deeply ingrained in us from childhood. Here are a few of the things we heard over and over that taught us to avoid conflict.
“If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.”
That’s a chestnut, ain’t it? Parents and grandparents perpetuating Victorian-era manners taught us to withhold saying things that aren’t nice. They taught us that keeping things civil on the surface was more important than getting issues resolved. This admonition to us as children probably explains our discomfort with both giving and receiving feedback. It’s also at the heart of our more insidious passive-aggressive behavior because stifling a negative comment doesn’t mean erasing a negative thought; it just means that negativity has to find an outlet through a safer channel. Please, please, PLEASE do not tell children to withhold uncomfortable feedback. Instead, help them understand that if they need to say something that will be hard for someone to hear, they need to say it nicely.
“Mind your own business.”
Here’s another phrase you heard over and over as a child. In my case, I can still hear a teacher on the playground saying, “mind your own beeswax.” So, we learned that we should watch in silence as conversations and relationships around us spiraled downward. We put up with dysfunctional dynamics all around us because, even though these dynamics impacted our experiences at school and work, they weren’t technically “our business.” Children minding their own business enabled bullies to continue torturing their victims. Adults minding their own business allowed sexual predators to go unchecked. The unwillingness of the witnesses to do anything but mind their own business has done untold damage in our society. Please do not tell children to, “mind your own business.” Tell them to keep their eyes and ears open for situations where they can (and should) be of assistance.
“NOW look what you’ve done!”
Did you ever do something as a child that made another child cry or throw a temper tantrum? Caregivers are loath to have a child crying or yelling (often because it’s an inconvenience or embarrassment to them, rather than because of its discomfort to the child). When you intentionally or inadvertently made someone cry, you might have heard, “NOW look what you’ve done!” This made it clear to you from a very young age that triggering an emotional reaction was: a) bad; and b) your fault. Now you’re tiptoeing around any issue that might stir feelings. The criers and yellers have your team held hostage. Please do not punish children for evoking an emotional reaction in others. Take the opportunity to teach empathy and start a conversation about how to express emotions constructively.
“Don’t get into trouble.”
Our unhealthy relationship with power starts in childhood too. Teachers, coaches, clergy behave badly and we’re told to, “Keep your head down and don’t get into trouble.” We pat the kid on the head when he complains that the soccer coach is being mean. We tell him to try even harder and, “be good.” We assume the girl complaining about the disorganized teacher is exaggerating and tell her to take better notes. And so, we learn not to question people in positions of power. We learn that might is right. It’s no surprise that bad bosses go unquestioned because everyone fears getting fired. Please don’t expect children to put up with dereliction of duty from adults. Teach them how to raise their concerns constructively. And support them if speaking truth to power has negative consequences—you are building their courage and their resilience.
As I started working on my book about conflict debt, I realized that our conflict aversion runs deep. Many of us have an “itty bitty shitty committee” sitting on our shoulders, telling us to shut up, or look away, or back down. We can’t afford to raise another generation that is conflict averse. We need to teach them that conflict is a part of healthy relationships—and a critical defense against unhealthy ones. We need to build their skills so they can have conflict productively. We need to model the words that will help them have conflict nicely, and in support of stronger relationships and better performance.
What are you telling the next generation about conflict?