Subverted Conflict

Conflict resolution professionals point constantly to the danger of allowing disagreements about important things (or at least things we perceive as important) to slip below the surface. So, while avoidance is a fitting way to deal with some conflict, it almost never has a good effect in important relationships or within essential environments like home, church, or the workplace. Subverted conflict eats away at our very souls and causes us to channel our behavior in unhealthy ways.

The American Psychiatric Association notes that one of the reactions people exhibit is passive aggressive behavior.

“In psychology, passive-aggressive behavior is characterized by a habitual pattern of passive resistance to expected work requirements, opposition, stubbornness, and negativistic attitudes in response to requirements for normal performance levels expected of others. Most frequently it occurs in the workplace where resistance is exhibited by such indirect behaviors as procrastination, forgetfulness, and purposeful inefficiency, especially in reaction to demands by authority figures, but it can also occur in interpersonal contexts.” (1)


Even if you’re normal, you can slip into passive-aggressive mode. Many times it begins with a righteous intention. You plan to withdraw from an opponent and perhaps even concede. But then, your ever-creative mind sees ways to strike back against your foe and still leave you with the ability to deny culpability. But it rarely makes you feel better or improves your circumstance.

If you’re caught in this tank of subverted conflict, what should you do?

1. Recognize your passive-aggressive behavior and label it. Make yourself not just aware, but sensitive to your actions and their impact on others.

2. Substitute more productive behavior.

a. Be wholly passive; make certain that the outcomes of your passivity don’t cause problems for others; or
b. Intentionally set your passive-aggressive behavior aside; it may not be possible to simply “get over” the conflict, but acting positively in the face of adversity will do wonders for your personal well-being; or
c. Prepare and pursue a conversation with your opponent, either one-on-one or with the help of another — preferably a neutral individual like a mediator — to address the underlying problems.

3. Navigate to a different environment; leave the situation if it will never change and you can never bring change to the way that you will address the conflict.

If neither of the first 2 things work, wait just a little while and try again. Your behavior is simply your behavior. You can choose what you will do or say. Only after a little persistence should you walk away.

(1) American Psychiatric Association (2000). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders-IV. Washington, D.C.: American Psychiatic Association. pp. 733–734. ISBN 0890420629.

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