In last week’s blog, I mentioned one paradox (competition and cooperation) discussed by Bernard Mayer in his book, The Conflict Paradox (ABA and Jossey-Bass, 2015).  A second one is avoidance and engagement.

Like the first paradox, on superficial glance, avoidance and engagement appear to be polar opposites. But, upon deeper reflection, and like the first paradox, they actually work in tandem; we engage to avoid and avoid to engage.

A perfect example is mediation. Parties come to mediation (i.e., engage) to resolve disputes (i.e., avoid litigation or prolonged involvement with the other party).  And even during the mediation, the parties avoid to engage and engage to avoid. I have always found it oxymoronic that parties come to mediation to resolve a matter with each other but often insist on doing so without talking to the other party directly. At least here in California, the parties do not even want to  start with a joint session (i.e., engagement) but rather,  engage the other party in settlement discussions and resolution strictly by using separate sessions and the mediator as the go between or conduit ( i.e. avoidance).  I have conducted a  few mediations in which the whole matter was mediated, the  terms of the settlement agreement worked out, the agreement signed and everyone left without the parties ever actually seeing each other!

Now that I have read this chapter in the book, I understand why.  As the author explains,

  …avoidance and engagement are essential to each other. When we avoid one conflict, we may be setting up another. When we choose to engage in one conflict, we may be setting up another. When we choose to engage in one conflict, we are likely avoiding another….

[T]o engage effectively, we also have to avoid.  (Id. at 96.)

Consequently, this tension or “dance” (Id. at 99) is part and parcel of all of our communications. We agree (or engage) to do one thing in order to avoid a larger, perhaps more problematic issue.  As the author explains,

Avoidance behavior consists of actions intended to prevent or insulate disputants from having to deal with a conflict. Similarly, engagement behavior entails actions intended to increase or intensify interaction about a conflict. … (Id. at 100).

Avoidance behavior can take the form of passive behavior (such as not discussing the topic at all, or ignoring the issue when brought up by others or avoiding that person completely so as to avoid the issue. (Id.))  Or, it can be intentional and unconscious or unintentional and unconscious. (Id.)  In truth, all avoidance behavior is both a conscious and unconscious attempt to avoid a conflict. The very attempt to avoid discussing a topic is an acknowledgement that the conflict exists. (Id. at 101.)

Why do we avoid? Because we may believe that we cannot successfully navigate the dispute. (Id.) So, we use a mediator to help us engage!

Similarly, engagement behavior can be either passive or aggressive.   We can be aggressive by confronting the issue head on, asking for more information and trying very hard to understand what the other person is saying to us. (Id. at 104.) That is, the less we do by active listening, the more we are actually engaged. (Id.)

Or, we can be passive by simply waiting for the issue to ripen, or waiting for the opportune moment to discuss it. (Id.) As is often said among mediators, it is all about timing, a discussion about settlement at the wrong time will not lead to a settlement. Or, as my colleague Don Philbin noted, “The right number at the wrong time is the wrong number.” ( )

Intertwined in this paradox are our emotions.  The level of our emotions will push us to either avoid, engage or do both. (Id. at 108-11.) Have you ever been too angry to discuss an issue and stormed out instead?  Or, so angry that you wanted to have it “out” with the other party then and there? Or, wanted to do both at the same time?  Have it “out” and then storm out?  As the author notes, such spontaneous and inconsistent behavior is normal and to be expected. (Id. at 109.) After all, it is our emotions at work, and we all know that when our emotions kick in, we are far from rational.

So… now I understand why people come to me to resolve a conflict (engage) but want to do so without dealing with the other party (avoidance). Avoidance and Engagement.  Engagement and Avoidance. It is what life is all about!


… Just something to think about.





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