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12th Aug 2015

Understanding your conflict style: Do you fight, take flight or freeze?


Understanding what conflict is, your individual conflict style and the style of conflict your partner uses can be key to managing and ultimately settling issues in a way that ensures the same argument is not returned to time and again.

It can be helpful to ask ourselves questions to gain a better understanding of what conflict is in a relationship. How does it arise? What is your response when you feel under threat? Do you fight, take flight or freeze?

Conflict is a characteristic of the human condition and a characteristic of human relationships. It stems from differences: it’s friction or disagreement between people because of real or perceived differences. Each person comes to a relationship with their individual background and set of life experiences that are unique to them. This will affect how a person will react when confronted, how they will defend themselves, and how they express their anger.

Conflict can arise in any situation where facts, desires or fears pull people in diverging directions.

Don’t punish yourself by thinking it’s a sign of failure if you and your partner come up against a conflict. Remember that conflict is normal and necessary. But understand that resolving it in a healthy way is crucial, or you will stray into harmful territory.

There are a myriad of different ways in which people approach conflict. Many people use different types of conflict with different people and in different situations, but most people tend to have a tendency towards one type in particular.

Fight response

Are you a fighter? High-conflict personalities, or those who ‘attack’ in a conflict, tend to see situations as all-or-nothing. They can be very emotional about their opinions and feelings and can express this through intense anger, fear, shouting or disrespect. They tend to need to assign blame. If you identify with these traits, the first step is to be self-aware and acknowledge your tendency to react like this.

It’s useful if you step back and think about the impact of your behaviour on your partner. What happens when you shout? Perhaps you partner withdraws? Or maybe they fight back?  Does the conflict get sorted?

What would help? Perhaps you have worked out a way of sorting things out in the past. Acknowledge the progress and learning, or think about what help and support you can access to change, if that’s what you want. Talk with your partner and agree what you both want.

Flight response

Are you an avoider, who feels uncomfortable the moment a conflict is afoot and takes flight? Do you avoid questions and topics that are undesirable to you? Do you leave or walk out?

It is important for avoiders to understand that conflict is necessary and, handled in positive way, can improve a relationship. Avoiding an issue will mean it simmers beneath the surface and can manifest itself in damaging ways. It can lead to resentment, lack of forgiveness and lack of resolution. Pose yourself the question: what is the absolute worst thing that will happen if I voice this issue/ actively work through this conflict? This can give you the confidence you need to move from avoidance to active resolution.

What is the effect of your flight response on your partner? Discuss this and understand the impact of your behaviour on them. What would help you individually and you as a couple to manage conflict better?

Freeze response

Freezing involves withdrawing and being silent or sulking (more on sulking here). As with the flight response, it can build up and simmer beneath the surface. It is characterised by a lack of communication and lack of resolution.

Talk to your partner about how you handle conflict and understand how they feel when you freeze or withdraw. The more understanding and insight you gain into your own and your partner’s fighting style, the more you will be able to break free from shackles of repetitive patterns and find a way which works for you both.

Dr Maeve Hurley, a former GP, is the Founder of Ag Éisteacht, a charity which supports frontline workers in the health and education industries in their communications and interactions with clients and patients.