Reality Check: The Fear of Being Hurtful

Conflict is a human reality. Whenever two or more people need to interact, there’s an opportunity for conflict.

Actually, I’ll take that back. Conflict doesn’t always require two people; there are times when I don’t even agree with myself!

So I could hardly pass up a book entitled, “The Coward’s Guide to Conflict: Empowering Solutions for Those Who Would Rather Run Than Fight.”

In this book, author Tim Ursiny asserts that healthy conflict has benefits. It can lead to more confidence, more respect, more self-respect, better career prospects, and less anger and depression.

With all those benefits, why would we ever try to avoid conflict?

If you think about your own experience with conflict, you’ll likely remember that unfortunately, conflict doesn’t always produce benefits. And, the process often doesn’t feel very good, either.

So, while assertive discussions between respectful adults can indeed be beneficial, some of us will choose almost any behaviour we can to avoid conflict.

Ursiny lists a number of fears that contribute to why people prefer to avoid conflict rather than address it. One that I found particularly striking is “fear of hurting someone else.”

Theresa’s son Paul has experienced little success in his life. While he has been employed by different companies in a variety of jobs, his perception is that nothing works for him. His bosses take advantage of him, or they don’t train him properly, or they expect too much from him. He just can’t catch a break.

It’s hard for Theresa to see Paul struggle. Over the years, she has done what she can to protect Paul from reality. She’s refrained from questioning him even when she’s doubted the wisdom of his choices of work. She’s supported him financially, without comment, whenever his employment has fallen through.

From Theresa’s perspective, Paul has always needed her encouragement. She’s afraid that Paul would fall apart if she offered anything less than unquestioning support.

Now, Paul has decided to start a business. Despite having no experience, he has convinced himself that he can run a better business than any of the people he’s worked for. Already, he’s ordered T-shirts and mugs bearing his new company name. Unfortunately, he hasn’t put as much effort into the nitty-gritty of finding customers and producing a product.

And while Paul is optimistic about financing his venture through the bank, Theresa knows that’s unlikely, given his weak employment record. So it’s almost certain that Paul will need to tap the good old Bank of Mom at some point.

Theresa is torn. Knowing Paul’s background and lack of experience, she is concerned that his chances of success are slim to none. Yet she can’t bring herself to say, “It doesn’t look to me like you’ve thought this through.”

Is Theresa being kind when she risks harming her financial situation just so she can avoid having a conversation that might result in conflict?

Ursiny learned that if you want to prevent hurting someone, it’s not necessarily helpful to avoid conflict. He says “…it was disrespectful of me to think that I had to protect the other person…. I obviously thought very little of the other person if I believed that I was so powerful that they would crumble at my words.”

Is Theresa’s desire to protect Paul from a discussion of the possible consequences of his choices helping him? Or harming him? Is it respectful? Or patronizing? What do you think?

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