Why Most People are Uncomfortable with Conflict

“Why are they always fighting?”, Brandon asks Danielle.

“I used to think they were fighting”, Danielle replies, “but they’re not. They’re just disagreeing.”

“Well, it looks like fighting to me.”, says Brandon. “What makes you so sure they’re not fighting?”

It’s a good question and you may have experienced a similar situation.

Why does one person see a fight while the other sees honest disagreement?

And, why does it matter?

The answer has everything to do with how a person interprets “conflict”.

And, it explains a lot, including why you might not give someone “bad news” about something at work, even if they need to hear it or why you might not complain if you get bad service at a restaurant.

Here’s the reasoning…

It’s a commonly accepted notion that most people dislike and are uncomfortable with conflict.

To test this, just ask someone this question, “In your experience, do you think that most people are uncomfortable with conflict and don’t like it?”

The broad consensus will be “yes”.

Yet, if you ask them why they answered “yes”, most people will say they don’t know why or they might say they are unclear about the cause of people’s discomfort with conflict and why they dislike it.

So, why are people uncomfortable with conflict?

We can better understand what’s going on if we start with our natural biases.

These are also called “innate biases” and we are born with them.

And, a common “innate bias” that most of us have is that, in most situations, we would rather agree than disagree – even if we actually disagree.

It feels more comfortable to us.

Of course, there are some exceptions.

Sometimes, in some circumstances, we will disagree with another person, directly, and even in public, as long as it’s about something that is very important to us and that we feel very strongly about.

But this isn’t common.

Most of the time, we prefer to “acquiesce” when we disagree.

The definition or meaning of the word acquiesce is “agreement under duress”. The definition/meaning of the word duress is “the pressure of stress”.

So “acquiesce” actually means “agreement under the pressure of stress“. Discomfort is a symptom of this stress.

So when someone agrees rather than disagree – even if they actually disagree – they are “acquiescing”, agreeing under the pressure of stress.

And, because most people are naturally and strongly acquiescently biased, it means that whenever they find themselves in any situation where they see and/or hear people disagreeing with each other, they start feeling uncomfortable, they dislike it, and they interpret it as conflict.

So disagreeing and/or disagreement causes them stress.

And, often, disagreement is also interpreted as “fighting”.

This happens because the behavior of the people who are disagreeing with each other is being interpreted as conflict by the person observing the behavior, even if those who are disagreeing don’t feel any conflict at all.

That’s because there are some people who are very comfortable disagreeing directly with other people (including publicly). Which means that they are naturally not very acquiescently biased. These folks are in the minority.

So, regardless of whether you prefer to “acquiesce” most of the time (the majority of people) or if you are more comfortable directly “not acquiescing” with people (the minority), it’s helpful to understand that:

  • If you are in the majority and you see people strongly disagreeing with each other, don’t assume it’s a fight.

They may simply be disagreeing with each other and nothing more, without intending to cause conflict or fight. They’re simply comfortable with disagreeing when they want to.

If you are among this majority, it also means that you will avoid conflict and disagreement if you can.

  • If you are in the minority and you strongly disagree when you disagree, don’t be surprised if the majority of people interpret your intent as wanting to cause conflict and even to fight with or manipulate them.

Your simple “disagreeing” behavior can also be interpreted as “bullying” by people who are uncomfortable with conflict.

If you are among this minority, it also means that that you won’t avoid disagreement if you disagree, because you simply don’t see it or interpret it as conflict. To you, it is simply disagreement.

In the workplace, this understanding can help a lot if we use the knowledge to help get clarity about what’s really going on when people choose to publicly “not acquiesce” or when people choose to “acquiesce”.