The issue of conflict – or ways of handling conflict — has been on my mind. I wrote an article that appeared on The Huffington Post on the topic. I keep thinking about how I personally manage conflict and where that style is on the masculine-feminine continuum. Some people who read my recent article felt I was critical of the feminine way of handling conflict. I am.
If you draw a straight line to represent the continuum of conflict styles, on the far left is aggression; then at the one-quarter mark is direct conflict; at the three-quarter mark is indirect conflict; and on the far right is conflict avoidance. There are “hybrids” all along the line—like direct conflict that is somewhat aggressive or conflict that is a cross between direct and indirect (direct but gentle). On the left side are masculine styles of conflict (practiced by both men and women but more frequently by men); on the right are feminine styles (also practiced by both but mostly by women).
It is easy to see the downsides of aggressive conflict. Screaming, yelling and punching just do not work. In my article, I take aim at indirect conflict. Maybe it is because I see it in myself. Conflict has been particularly ineffective for me when it is with another woman. I have trouble speaking up when I am irritated or frustrated even with good girlfriends. And when I do speak up . . . it often doesn’t go well. Here are some examples:
- I felt frustrated with a friend, over and over, for being on her cell phone so much when we were together. I said nothing but felt hurt.
- A woman who was once a close friend expressed anger at me often. When I tried to tell her my side and how it felt for her to be so critical, she just defended. She refused to read a letter I had written. We haven’t spoken in five years.
- I felt frustrated that another friend was frequently late to our lunch or dinner dates. I tried to tell her that. She simply defended her action; I could feel tension in the air.
All of these are about conflict with another woman. All demonstrate ways of doing conflict on the feminine side of the continuum. Ugh! The problem is that, even when I have tried speaking up about what is bothering me (direct conflict), in these instances, I have not reached the kind of resolution that feels complete.
A male friend read a draft of my article. He told me to take out the part about taking conflict personally. I told him I couldn’t – because the typical woman (I am like this) simply does take conflict personally. This seems to be a true gender difference. For women, emotions are involved. It’s all about our brain structure, hormones and how little girls are raised. I wrote about this in an early blog. Telling a woman, “It’s not personal” does nothing to change her feelings.
I just find little redeeming value in the feminine (indirect) approach to conflict. And yet I have had little luck doing direct conflict with women. The conflict that provoked my article (I tell the story there) did reach healthy resolution; but it took real commitment – and several weeks. I think the lesson is that, when women have a dispute, both parties need to practice that “direct but gentle” hybrid form of conflict – and try to manage those inevitable emotions.
Have you seen women do conflict well?