Dealing with Someone Who is Avoiding a Conflict

by Kelly Patrick Gerling, Ph.D., © 2000
Published in The Spinal Column, Nelson-Marlborough Health Services, Nelson New Zealand, June, 2000

One of the VBL News readers wrote in with a question. The questioner expressed frustration with a situation where he or she wishes to discuss issues with a co-worker who won't readily talk about them.

Here is the question in slightly edited form: "How do you deal someone who avoids dealing with issues and problems when I try to sort them out?" The questioner went on to describe a person who displays folded arms, sinks into their chair, offers no eye contact or rolls their eyes, refuses to stop what they are doing to talk, and keeps secrets.

I think this question deals with something a great many people experience who want to solve problems. The answer has to be complex rather than simple, and requires a process rather than just content. That's because such a situation is too complex for a simple solution. When dealing with someone who is avoiding issues and problems, it is important to have an effective process to follow. That said, I'll have a go at an answer.

I think of the situation described in the question as a negotiation. The VBL Negotiation and Mediation process has six steps. (There is a more detailed chart for this process that you can look at under VBL Outer Capabilities from any of the VBL Menus)

1. Preparation

The first step is preparation. That means it is important to expand your thinking by activating key VBL skills. Doing so will help you prevent making the situation worse. Beyond that, preparation will help you find an approach, a question, a method, that solves the problem of how to bring out the best in the other person, especially when they are avoiding you and the issues of concern to you. I think about these skills like they are on a pilot's check list. Before take off, it is important to go through them all as a matter of preparation.

First among these key inner skills to activate for preparation is integrity. The presence of victim behaviour is a key indicator of a loss of integrity. So if there is blaming, avoiding, whining, negative labelling or sarcasm even in your thinking, your integrity, like a fabric, is at least temporarily torn. To restore your integrity, you integrate conflicting parts of yourself, especially hurt and unhealed parts, and figure out the outcomes you want in the situation or relationship. As a part of recovering integrity, if it is necessary, heal any anger or other feelings connected to values violations related to this person or situation.

Then you activate your empathy whereby you step into the "shoes" of the other person to gain a simulated inside experience of their situation and unique way of seeing the world.

Then you activate your objectivity and vision. This consists of looking at the situation, both past and desired, from the perspective of a neutral, outside observer and a mental time traveller. While doing that, you activate your logical, analytical thinking to examine the situation through many different lenses, especially cause-effect, systems thinking, so you can see the cycles of interaction, that, through time, have brought the situation to the current impasse.

Then you activate your ability to see the good in others. This happens when you look for the good in the person (in spite of "bad" behaviour) and gain a spiritual feeling about the person and the situation.

Finally, it is important to merge all of your expanded thinking into an expanded, unified perception of the situation. That will enable you to prevent doing harm and enable you to project your desired, positive values into the situation. Once you've gone through this preparation, you can approach the person and situation freshly, free of prejudice or pain. Then you can apply your heightened sense of leadership intelligence to create the responses to the behaviour of avoidance described in the initial question.

For example, with a person who is avoiding conflict, it may be the case that he or she may be thinking to themselves, "What's the point of dealing with it? I never get heard anyway! Nothing is going to change".

I've seen situations where a person who felt this way and initially refused to deal with a conflict, responded very well when their objections to having a conversation were understood.

In one case, the person stopped avoiding when the other person said, "I think you aren't talking up to this point because you haven't been listened to. If that's true, I'm sorry that has happened. I want you to know that if you do talk with me about the issues I've raised, I will listen to you. I'll also do what I can so we both are satisfied with the outcome of the discussion".

The person then agreed to talk about their issues. However it is important to recognise that each person and situation are unique, and finding what will work is like solving a puzzle.

In addition to this mental, emotional and spiritual preparation, it is important to figure out your Best Alternative To a Negotiated Agreement (BATNA). That means, you decide, ahead of time, what you will do if the person refuses to negotiate or communicate with you.

Your BATNA may be to move to another department, to quit your job and work for another organisation, or to appeal to an authority for mediation or arbitration. Your BATNA may be to do nothing, although making due with the person who will not negotiate is usually self-destructive.

If the other person avoids you and your request to discuss issues and problems, then appealing to someone who has authority over both of you often is a useful step to take. Perhaps the boss, a VBL facilitator or someone else can influence the person to deal with you and the issues you want to resolve.

Once there is agreement between you and the other person to negotiate or "deal with" the issues or problems, it is time to design a framework for the discussion. That's the next stage - framing.

2. Framing

During international negotiations about treaties, the venue, the number of participants, the seating, the agenda and so forth, are all essential aspects of the negotiation. The same is true for even a one-on-one discussion. It is important to think through what kind of setting, seating, location, agenda and so forth, will bring about the best result. Sort through your options, clarify what you want in that regard, then make a proposal to the other person and proceed.

Included in Framing is creating and maintaining a cooperative, trusting atmosphere for the discussion. If that ever breaks down during the negotiation, it is important to come back to this stage and restore cooperation, trust and respect as well as agreement to negotiate honestly and in good faith. If all efforts fail to make progress, you may need to pursue your BATNA. Assuming you have been successful at creating a framework for having a discussion and are about to proceed, then you go to the third stage - discover problems, objectives and values.

3. Discover Problems, Objectives and Values

At this third stage of the negotiation, each person listens to the other person's problems, objectives and values. Problems are the behaviours or situation that brings about painful values violations of some kind. Objectives are the desired changes or state of affairs that would remedy the problems. Values are the positive feelings that would result from the objectives being fully and consistently implemented.

The VBL skill for this part of this stage is Leadership Counseling. This process involves listening for and hearing the person's problems and the ways the problems affected them. Then you listen to their objectives or goals. then you discover the values they would fulfill if those objectives were achieved.

The flip side of this process of listening is Requesting. By that I mean this: to describe your problems, desired objectives and values to the person who is listening, saying what you have experienced and then asking for what you want. Leadership Counseling and Requesting are two sides of the same conversational coin.

If the person makes demands, gently turn them into options and keep listening. For example, the person may say something like, "You must do X, or you'll have no cooperation from me". You can reply, "Okay, I'll consider X an option". Then continue, "Now, please tell me what X will do for you or your group and what it would mean to you (values) if you got it".

This line of questioning and listening will, hopefully, help each person to discover problems, objectives and values.

When each person has been heard and problems, objectives and values are clear, then you go on to the next stage, option generation.

4. Option Generation

When each person's problems, outcomes and values are clarified, potential solutions often become obvious.

If the problems, outcomes and values are work-related tasks, decisions or changes, then you can list options that may satisfy one or both participants in the negotiation. If the problems, outcomes and values are related to victim behaviour (like avoiding conflicts, blaming or sarcasm), then the options will consist of commitments to engage in new, more acceptable behaviours.

It is important to activate your best creativity at this stage to come up with potential solutions that create a triple-win - a win for you, for the other person and for the whole group or organisation.

Once you have developed a reasonable set of options, you are ready for the next stage - decisions.

5. Decisions

To design an agreeable solution or set of solutions, it is important to make decisions from among the available options.

Sometimes it helps to list them on a piece of paper or white board. Look them over. Often a solution will emerge. If it doesn't, keep thinking about it. If that doesn't work, go back to Options and generate more of them.

Begin deciding from among the options to design a solution. A number of elements are important for a successful decision to be made about how to resolve the conflict. Some of these elements are: a summary of the commitments each person is making, a schedule for keeping the commitments, checkpoints for reviewing the commitments and consequences for breaking the commitments. Once these have been made, you have an agreement. Then it is time for the final stage of the negotiation - action and follow up

6. Action and Follow Up

Now that you have an agreement, put it in your calendar. Create success by diligent and thorough action and follow up. A negotiation, like any relationship, don't necessarily end, it evolves. Rebuild the long term relationship. Build trust by keeping your commitments. Show integrity and self-respect by expecting the other person to do the same. (Yet demonstrate empathy by not expecting the other person to be completely perfect, all of the time.)


The Reality of Complexity

If all of this seems like a lot to think about and do, just to resolve a conflict, that's because people and relationships are complex. Yet, in such a situation, what choice do we have? Think about the alternative - a conflict can continue indefinitely with pain to the people involved, lost productivity and organisational decline. Implementing an effective process for resolving a conflict puts an end to all of that.

By expecting a healthy working relationship, and by bringing it about through negotiating or mediating, something really good happens. Instead of suffering through more values violations that accompany unresolved conflicts, you can focus on doing your work.

Happy negotiating!

VBL Negotiating and Mediating Steps

1. Preparation -Think about your goals for the negotiation or mediation from many different points of view, including your own. Also decide upon and develop your BATNA (Best Alternative To a Negotiated Agreement).
2. Framing - Establish trust and a cooperative climate, agree on ground rules, agenda and evidence for success in the negotiation.
3. Discover Problems, Outcomes and Values- Enlarge the solution space of the interaction. Use Leadership Counseling and Requesting. Ask questions to identify problems, outcomes and values. Turn any demands that come up into options.
4. Option Generation - Use creative or right brain thinking skills and entertain many options, not just a limited selection.
5. Decisions - Use mutually agreed upon criteria to measure each option and the success of the negotiation. Summarize agreements, establish an action plan with time frame and accountability.
6. Action and Follow Up - The final step of our negotiation process is very important in creating a long-term relationship. Put actions on your calendars! All parties bridge to the future to make sure the agreements are followed. This helps to build the relationship so mutually desired values are fulfilled into the future.

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