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Difficult Conversations: Why they aren’t always “bad”

When we think of the word “conflict” often times our thoughts jump straight to: “How can I avoid this?” or “It’s fine-It's not a big deal anyway”.

These thoughts can translate into us not speaking up for ourselves- ignoring our beliefs, values or feelings. It can even go as far as sidestepping a difficult conversation altogether. If we consistently avoid addressing disconnect, resentments can begin to develop and in turn influence our behaviors and thoughts towards ourselves and others.

So, what about saying “yes” to these conversations instead of “no”?

I’m not here to say that conflict is comfortable… Let’s be real- it IS uncomfortable at times.

There are risks to every action and sometimes those consequences can be very uncomfortable.

Just because it isn’t comfortable, doesn’t mean that it is innately “bad”.

What if, instead of thinking about the tough conversations as something to avoid- you looked at them as an opportunity to grow and learn?

I’d like to take time to highlight the benefits of conflict, as well as some ways to manage the discomfort that may likely come along with facing conflict through difficult conversations.

Challenge the idea that “Conflict should be avoided at all costs”:

Here are 3 Perspectives:

1. Life will present with challenges at times:

It’s an unavoidable part of life regardless how many safe-guards you put in place. So, the question is: "How do we handle these conflicts when they arise?"

If we don't lean into the discomfort and explore ways to repair the inevitable ruptures in our experiences we are left with feelings of anger, confusion, or loneliness.

2.Conflict creates room for self-reflection and self-discovery:

Our core values dictate our decisions, behaviors, thoughts and feelings. Often, conflict is a result of an experience that challenges our values. When we can take a step back and slow down instead of reacting immediately we can ask ourselves:

  • "What about this experience is most challenging to me?"

  • "How is this different or similar to what I am used to experiencing?"

  • "Which of my core values is being challenged in this moment?"

Conflict allows for us to evaluate and find ways to stand behind our ideas, dreams, goals etc.

If we never challenge or question the status quo that exists around us- how can we explain or understand our values?

3. Identifying conflict fosters a space for growth.

Conflict is also a space to learn about yourself, others and the world around you. You have an opportunity to grow as a person by being more aware of how your actions are perceived or how you perceive the actions of others toward you.

Our challenges help us define who we are as a person. The more you lean into difficult conversations, the more you will learn about yourself and what matters most to you!

If you avoid the difficult conversations you do not create the space to learn ways to realign with your values, beliefs and feelings.

Not every difficult conversation yields preferred resolutions- but it always provides growth.

How to make facing conflict more manageable:

Take time to reflect on all aspects of the situation:

Take time after a conflict has occurred to figure out what you want to say, how you’re going to express yourself and ultimately- what you hope to get out of it.

Journal, talk to a trusted friend, family member, or your therapist to help slow down and identify exactly what is coming up for you related to the situation at hand and ways to express that.

Identify the purpose of addressing conflict:

What do you hope to accomplish by transforming this awareness of conflict into a conversation or learning experience?

What is the outcome that you would like to see as a result of this process? Some examples include (but are not limited to):

-Do I need to be heard and understood?
-Do I need to apologize or receive an apology?
-Do I need clarification?
-Are there boundaries that need to be created?

Knowing what you want will help keep your mind focused on where it needs to be.

Become aware of how your nervous system is responding in the moment.

We identified earlier how conflict can be automatically perceived as a “threat”. With that perception of threat or harm- our nervous system may naturally and automatically respond with a fight, flight, or freeze response.

Being able to identify the subtle shifts when we are in a ‘dorsal vagal’ (freeze) or ‘sympathetic’ (fight or flight) state is helpful when navigating through a difficult conversation or experience.

If we are aware that we are leaving our window of tolerance, we can identify ways to bring ourselves back into a 'ventral vagal' state. (To learn more about polyvagal theory click here!)

Allow yourself to recognize that if you are feeling nervous, uneasy, or disconnected about this conversation. That's okay- and to be expected.

By allowing yourself to become aware of your feelings, you can work toward returning to a state of regulation- rather than avoiding them.

Create a plan to pause if you become overwhelmed.

The goal here is to stay within your window of tolerance. This doesn't mean that we have to be "calm", when working through conflict-but we do have to be in a state where we are not overwhelmed or completely dissociated.

We can't make much progress if we are not able to manage being present. Find ways to communicate the need for a pause or a break if you need to work on grounding yourself.


Annabella Lipson is a Mental Health Counselor at Peaceful Living.

She enjoys working with adults who are dealing with stress, anxiety, trauma and other behavioral challenges. Annabella uses a variety of therapies, including:

She is available to take new clients!


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