Conflict isn’t always wrong: the problem won’t go away by ignoring it

By Sharon Sayler

An eye for an eye will only make the whole world blind.
Mahatma Gandhi
1869 – 1948

Too often, people take a passive position in response to anger or being treated poorly by others. They will delay, diminish or change the context of a situation to avoid having to deal with the problem in an attempt to spare someone’s feelings. This tactic, lying low in the hope that things will magically improve, is always a bad idea.

It all comes down to the law of cause and effect. In this case, if you allow yourself to be treated badly and do not bring it to the offender’s attention in a polite, yet firm way, the effect produced by their bad behavior is your implicit acceptance of that behavior. By accepting bad behavior, you’re essentially creating a self-fulfilling reward system for bad behavior or mistreatment to continue. We teach people what we will and won’t accept by setting clear boundaries.

Being a Pushover or Allowing Bad Treatment = Loose Boundaries

Appropriate boundaries come from having a good sense of who you are and your self-worth. Boundaries make it possible for us to separate our own thoughts and feelings from those of others and to take responsibility for what we think, feel and do.

Healthy boundaries are flexible. They allow us to get close to others when it is suitable and to maintain our distance when we might be harmed emotionally or physically.

Boundary problems are the result of distorted views about personal responsibility. If we don’t have a good sense of who we are, setting boundaries can produce feelings of guilt, selfishness, and shame.  Sometimes people with loose or blurred boundaries feel:

  • Holding someone responsible for their own feelings, choices, and behaviors is mean
  • Another person will not make the right choice
  • They need to control, protect or shelter the other person
  • That other people deserve more than they do

To avoid having loose boundaries, allow other people the right to own and be responsible for their own actions, behaviors, attitudes and emotions. Having appropriate boundaries in place will not make your life conflict free, although it will make conflict easier to resolve.

When Someone Is Pushing Your Boundaries

Each time you set or you wish you had set a boundary, be mindfully aware of your thoughts and feelings behind the need for that boundary. Once you are aware of what is driving the need, you can begin to assert your wishes in an effective way.

Start by giving the offender the benefit of doubt; perhaps they were rushed, stressed, or not paying attention. Then ask for clarification: “Perhaps I heard that wrong?” or “What is it that you want to get resolved?” or one of my favorites, “Tell me more.” By speaking up, you set the example for how you expect to be treated.

If you don’t like someone’s treatment of you, step up and say so.  Set limits, stop accepting negative behaviors, and start acting the way you want to be treated, at all times. If you don’t treat yourself well, others won’t either.

If I were to summarize in one sentence the single most important principle I have learned in the field of interpersonal relations, it would be this: Seek first to understand, then to be understood. This principle is the key to effective interpersonal communication.
Stephen Covey
1932 –

Sharon Sayler is an expert in effective communication and conflict resolution. She is author of the book What Your Body Says (And How to Master the Message). You can find more about her at her website

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