Several years ago, I had an experience that forced me to confront an aspect of myself I had denied for many years.
It began when a friend forwarded me a link to a prominent literary blog launched by a guy who clearly was not a fan of my writing. “The adulation accorded Steve Almond constitutes one of the blogosphere’s enduring mysteries,” he began. “From the very first days of this site, I’ve shaken my head in a sort of dazed wonder at the wake of overheated prose stylings the guys [sic] leaves behind.”
As chance would have it, a few months later I was invited to take part in an event that included this blogger. The moment I arrived at the venue, I walked straight up to him and introduced myself.
The blogger refused to shake my hand. Instead, he sat down and began typing furiously on his laptop. (As I later discovered, he was writing a blog post about me while I was standing right in front of him.)
I could have confronted him. But I told myself that would only reinforce the idea that he and his blog mattered.
Looking back, I can see the more damning truth: I was trying to avoid conflict. In fact, throughout the event, I had several more opportunities to confront the guy. I never did.
Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of this story is that I, like most of you, tend to think of myself as a candid person, someone willing to speak my mind when necessary. But the more I thought about my life, the more I came to realize that I am essentially ruled by conflict avoidance.
It’s the reason, years ago, that I left my job as an investigative reporter. As much as I loved the larger mission – to root out systemic corruption – I hated the part of the job that required me to confront the subjects of my investigations. It’s the reason I stopped playing squash with my friend Allen after we got into a heated email exchange. It’s even the reason I stopped shopping at a grocery store near my house – to avoid a produce manager who once scolded me for sampling the grapes.
On paper, these evasive maneuvers seem absurd. But I suspect they may sound familiar to some of you. And I believe that our tendency to shy away from confrontation has wreaked havoc on our individual and collective psychic health.
The central reason for this, according to virtually every researcher who has looked into it, is that avoiding conflict is not the same thing as resolving conflict. Often, it is the direct opposite.
To be sure, there are some scenarios where avoiding conflict makes perfect sense, particularly when we can sense that someone is spoiling for a fight.
But the central reasons we avoid conflict have more to do with our doubts and inhibitions. We fear we will be rejected or humiliated if we stand up for ourselves. We fear we will hurt other people’s feelings. We worry about unleashing our aggression. We may lack confidence in our beliefs and values. Rather than face these feelings, we tell ourselves (as I did with the blogger) that we are taking the high road.
The problem with this strategy is that it leads people to enact a psychological pattern known as “gunnysacking,” in which they suppress their emotions, all the while quietly amassing grievances. Sooner or later, the sack breaks and all these grievances come gushing out in a rage.
The irony is when we draw the wrong conclusion from this pattern: that we should work even more strenuously to avoid conflict, which we associate with uncontrollable anger, hurt feelings, and sometimes worse.
But researchers tell us we should be more forthright about our feelings, even if this brings us into conflict with family or colleagues. Why? Because these interactions are much more likely to be constructive.
My marriage is a living exemplar of these patterns. My wife and I are parents to three small children, and both of us work – or try to work – at home. Even on the best days, we are beset by tensions.
It’s inconvenient to communicate these emotions as they arise. But when we can manage to do so, even in the form of arguments, we tend to feel that we’re “on the same team.” It’s when we stop arguing and retreat into silent resentments that the big fights occur.
Sherry Turkle, a renowned sociologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has written about how technology affects social relationships, in particular how people increasingly seek to resolve conflict online.
Her research indicates that this desire, while understandable, tends to breed misunderstanding and thus escalate conflict. Why? Because, as we all know, it’s easier to type words into cyberspace than it is to speak them aloud to another human being.
But it’s also much more fraught, because you can’t read tone or body language in an email or a text. You don’t have to face the inconvenient but crucial truth that your adversary is, you know, a human being.
And this makes people much more likely to say things on the internet that they would never say in person. Anyone who has ever read the comments below an online editorial can confirm this.
Turkle’s work suggests that part of the reason our country continues to become more polarized, in both our cultural and political lives, is precisely that we spend so much time in front of screens and so little time interacting with our fellow citizens in person. Our very conception of conflict has become distorted. We think of fistfights on reality TV and flame wars on social media, of roaring demagogues and road rage.
But conflict doesn’t have to be those things. Yes, it usually begins with a sense of disappointment and frustration. But conflict can be respectful, a difficult and necessary discourse.
In the week after I researched this piece, I conducted a little experiment. I called up Allen, my old squash partner, and asked him out to lunch. He was shocked to hear from me after three years of silence, to be sure. But he agreed to meet me.
I won’t try to suggest that our lunch was some kind of monumental peace summit. But it was a breakthrough. Without getting into the particulars of our row, we managed to articulate why it had made each of us so angry. I was forced to realize that I can be condescending without meaning to. He was able to concede that he had overreacted to my condescension.
And having said our piece, we felt a strange and distinct sensation: The animus drained away, leaving behind relief and a little shame, too. We sat there staring at our food, somewhat bemused as to why we had avoided this conversation for so long.
That’s when it dawned on me: What we had just had wasn’t a confrontation. It was a conversation – tentative, awkward, a little testy at times, sure, but ultimately productive.
It wound up affirming the lesson suggested by all the available research, which is that we resolve conflict when we accept conflict as a normal and healthy part of the human arrangement – the price you pay, in essence, for being more honest with other people, and yourself.
Steve Almond is a regular contributor and the author of books including Against Football: One Fan’s Reluctant Manifesto.