From walking out a sandwich shop with a distressingly odd combination of toppings to quietly accepting a bad haircut or habitually saying sorry when others bumped into me, I am not one to confront others about less significant issues, even when these initially small cases often accumulate into a bad day.
Yet I am far from alone. Following a questioning of 60 CEOs about issues such as their three worst features, The Financial Times columnist Lucy Kellaway concluded from the ways they answered that even our bosses and leaders tend to avoid conflict, calling this action one of the “seven deadly sins CEOs won’t admit” alongside others such as a failure to listen or micromanagement. We do so in part, according to the Center for Conflict Dynamics at Eckerd College, because discord is emotionally upsetting or because we fear disturbing our relationships with other people. Thus, we begin fostering a society that depends more on euphemisms than actual words, remaining in an artificial harmony until a bigger problem results.
This year, a whole system of leaders in the city Flint, Michigan—governor Rick Snyder, emergency managers like Ed Kurtz—and even institutions that were “supposed to be the check on the city’s decision,” as professor of environmental science at Virginia Tech Marc Edwards calls them—the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Michigan department of environmental quality (DEQ)—epitomized the severity of this avoidance of confrontation.
For a projected time period from April 2014 to 2016 when Flint was rerouting its water supply from Detroit to Lake Huron, the city’s officials decided to utilize Flint River as a primary source for municipal water. Yet just months into this change, residents started noticing in their water high levels of chloride, an element so corrosive that General Motors announced in October of 2014 that their Flint plant had stopped using the water due to damage to the engine parts.
The situation only worsened as the city detected E. Coli in the water and citizen Lee-Anne Walters had the EPA test the water to find a shockingly high lead level of 13,200 parts per billion, compared to the federally accepted level of 15. Children and adults alike were suffering through burning skin, hair loss, hand tremors and anemia, yet still, even when EPA and DEQ knew about the elevated lead levels, no one made any public acknowledgement of the lead poisoning. They chose, rather, to pressure state officials in private until outside researchers became involved in August of 2015.
Many of us, myself included, avoid conflict when the costs feel low, but the perspectives on the definition of “low” vary: Flint resident John Pemberton claims that the government viewed them as a minor priority due to their limited voice and paychecks. So I wonder: what would I have done if I were in the government official’s position? I hope that while personal dissatisfaction is at times not reason enough for me to create conflict, I would have stepped up and faced the music when a whole city’s health was at risk. Yet simultaneously, the daily endeavor to be “pleasant” might have been a habit difficult to break.
Stanford University School of Medicine’s clinical psychologist Dr. Ellen Hendriksen offers to stop avoiding conflict by utilizing a change in diction. “We need to talk” leads to a less productive conversation than “Hey, I have some news,” which may open up the discussion. Furthermore, offering facts instead of emotionally charged language lets others make the connections between ideas, and knowing when to not feel defensive are also equally important.
Few people will ever look forward to confronting others, but we have to remember that they are instrumental to solving problems and bettering the day—whether that be a more delicious sandwich or saving 99,000 Flint citizens.