This article introduces some ideas about ways in which you can avoid conflict, or deal with it when it takes place. It will talk about what kinds of things might generate conflict, as well as the kinds of conflicts that exist. This article was partially adapted from Leeds Beckett University resources.
Conflict can arise in many situations both at work and outside of it, however it is important to remember that there are different ways to avoid it entirely or to mitigate the damage to yourself and other people when it occurs. Conflict can be a challenging situation to deal with as it may provoke high levels of anxiety or even anger, which can make the situation even worse. Research undertaken found that a number of things could generate conflict for autistic students including:
- A lack of awareness and understanding about autism
- Being perceived as rude when struggling with social or sensory demands
- Feeling disappointed or let down by people
- Individuals not respecting or understanding the need for autistic people to have their own space
- Misunderstanding or misinterpreting something that has been said, particularly if it is sarcastic or ironic
- Differing expectations for hygiene in a professional environment
- Team members or other staff not contributing equally to group work
- When a workplace has not provided sufficient adjustments or provisions for autistic staff
(adapted from Vincent, 2021)
How may this affect me?
Conflict can be a distressing prospect, particularly for autistic people where there is a higher chance of feeling emotionally overwhelmed and struggling with the sensory issues that often accompany these feelings. Many signs of conflict may be difficult to notice, especially in the early stages as they may require decoding body language or understanding passive-aggressive comments that may not make it explicit that there is a problem. This might be something like:
- A note left on a messy work surface that says “thank you for keeping your work area clean!”, which actually means ‘this needs to be cleaned and I am annoyed that it hasn’t been already’.
- A coworker who is usually talkative and friendly with you suddenly giving short or one-word responses
Firstly, it is important to remember that even though you may feel angry or upset by the idea of conflict, it is a normal part of the world. Although conflict may make you feel anxious, frustrated or even distrustful, it is important to remember that whilst these are normal instinctive reactions, they can sometimes be disproportionate to the current situation. Whilst ignoring it is unlikely to make it go away, dealing with it can bring relief for both you and the other person. Often conflict will start out small, and by dealing with it as early as possible, you avoid the chance for it to potentially become larger. Some autistic people face particular barriers that make it hard to handle emotionally charged situations. Being stressed out by conflict is completely normal for an autistic person. You may find assertiveness especially hard.
People deal with conflict in a variety of ways you may find these 5 typical ways in which people can respond.
Conflict Resolution Strategy 1: Avoiding
Avoiding is when people just ignore or withdraw from the conflict. They choose this method when the discomfort of confrontation exceeds the potential reward of resolution of the conflict. While this might seem easy to accommodate for the facilitator, people aren’t really contributing anything of value to the conversation and may be withholding worthwhile ideas. When conflict is avoided, nothing is resolved.
Conflict Resolution Strategy 2: Competing
Competing is used by people who go into a conflict planning to win. They’re assertive and not cooperative. This method is characterized by the assumption that one side wins and everyone else loses. It doesn’t allow room for diverse perspectives into a well informed total picture it’s rarely a good strategy for group problem solving.
Conflict Resolution Strategy 3: Accommodating
Accommodating is a strategy where one party gives in to the wishes or demands of another. They’re being cooperative but not assertive. This may appear to be a gracious way to give in when one figures out s/he has been wrong about an argument. It’s less helpful when one party accommodates another merely to preserve harmony or to avoid disruption. Like avoidance, it can result in unresolved issues. Too much accommodation can result in groups where the most assertive parties commandeer the process and take control of most conversations.
Conflict Resolution Strategy 4: Collaborating
Collaborating is the method used when people are both assertive and cooperative. A group may learn to allow each participant to make a contribution with the possibility of co-creating a shared solution that everyone can support.
Conflict Resolution Strategy 5: Compromising
Another strategy is compromising, where participants are partially assertive and cooperative. The concept is that everyone gives up a little bit of what they want, and no one gets everything they want. The perception of the best outcome when working by compromise is that which “splits the difference.” Compromise is perceived as being fair, even if no one is particularly happy with the final outcome.
What can I do next?
Learn about conflict resolution strategies and decide what suits you best
In cases like the one above, where you feel a heightened sense of emotion, there are a number of things you can do:
- Understand yourself, Firstly, know what helps you calm yourself. If you do not feel calm, it will make it more difficult to address the issue in an efficient manner. Conflicts should be handled without shouting or making remarks about a person that are unrelated to the conflict itself.
- Consider your environment, If possible, leave the situation in order to give yourself and the other person a break from the stressful environment. This will give you time to think about what you want to say, or to ask someone else for assistance or guidance on the problem.
- Don’t ignore it, find a way to get your points across calmly – you could use the I-statement technique (below)
- Ask if you aren’t sure if something is wrong. Picking up social cues can be hard for autistic people, which doesn’t mean that there’s anything wrong with you: it just means that you need to know how to ask what’s up. If you’re picking up that something seems off, ask: “I’ve noticed that ______. It’s sometimes hard for me to read social cues– is there something I need to know?”
- Clarify what the source of conflict is, often a small misunderstanding can lead to conflict, by asking what the real issue is you can often resolve.
- Listen actively, let the other person speak and show you are fully listening
- Focus on the future, in conflict we tend to remember every thing that has upset us and concentrate on the past. The best way to move forward is to think about the future
- Gain some outside perspective. If you feel comfortable addressing the person directly (such as the person who left the note or the coworker whose responses have changed) once you have considered the situation, then explain that you are aware that there is some kind of issue, but that you would like clarification on what the specifics are.
- Understand what strategy the other person is using from the list above and work towards using strategy 4 or 5
- Write them a note if you are having a hard time with spoken words. Some autistic people have a hard time generating words in a stressful moment, and that doesn’t mean anything is wrong with you. Find a time when you are calm enough, and write what you would say.
- Buy time if you feel pressured or confused. As an autistic person, you may find that stressful conversations are moving too fast, so you may be struggling to process what is going on. Here are some scripts you can use to delay so that you can catch up:
- “Can we slow down? I need time to think.”
- “I’m confused. Could you repeat it, more slowly?”
- “I don’t want to decide right away. I need to think.”
- Identify what a common goal could be to resolve the conflict
- Sometimes, it might be you who made the rude remark or crossed a boundary. It is normal to make mistakes, and you are not an awful person. Respond with kindness by fixing your mistake.
It is important to remember that sometimes conflict can arise regardless of how much you may try and avoid it, even if you have noticed the warning signs. Sometimes people who act angrily are actually upset or frustrated – it might be that they are having problems outside of the conflict between the two of you. In cases like this, it is important to remember that neurotypical individuals can often seem to act differently, and that one emotion may actually represent another. In cases like this, hopefully the individual will apologise for their behaviour – they may explain more about a situation, or it may be something they wish to keep private.
In cases like this where the individual apologises and appropriately alters their behaviour, it is best to accept their apology and move on with the situation. If you notice that this is frequent, repeating behaviour however, it may be worth mentioning to another member of staff as this may be an issue with which you require support and documentation.
Questions to think about
- How important is it to resolve this conflict situation?
- What will happen if you do nothing? Will it get worse, improve or stay the same?
- Who can help you with dealing with this conflict?
- When have you successfully overcome something difficult before?
- How important will this be in a year’s time to you?
- Why should you do something about it?
Additional information and links
The reason why it is called an “I” Statement is that the speaker speaks from their perspective, from their viewpoint about themselves and not about another person. They own their thoughts and feelings and in no way do they blame others for how they might feel or think. When a person feels that they are being blamed—whether rightly or wrongly—it’s common that they respond with defensiveness. “I” statements are a simple way of speaking that will help you avoid this trap by reducing feelings of blame. A good “I” statement takes responsibility for one’s own feelings, while tactfully describing a problem.
Here is how the I-statement technique works: https://www.therapistaid.com/worksheets/i-statements.pdf
This is used to disarm a hostile person. It gives a calm response that helps with aggressive, passive aggressive or manipulative people. By using words such as below can help calm down a situation;
- “You might be right.”
- “Yes, that’s true.”
- “That’s possible.”
- “Yes, I can tell.”
- “Yes, I see that you think _______.”
A really useful link with images on how to handle conflict if you are autistic. https://www.wikihow.com/Handle-Conflict-if-You%27re-Autistic