Quick: would you rather

  1. Be stuck overnight in an airport with no place to sleep
  2. Raise an issue with a friend when it might lead to a fight or argument
  3. Argue with a roommate

If you’re like 330 adults I surveyed this summer on MTurk, Amazon’s research tool, all three are equally unpleasant.

Surprised? I admit I was.

Sure, some forms of conflict – spirited debate, or sports rivalries – can be enjoyable.  And most of us can all think of people who seem immune to conflict, who like to “get into it” with others. But for most of us, conflict is incredibly stressful. Scratching under the surface in conversations with people – even senior executives – I’ve found that most find conflict to be extremely aversive. A Stanford Business School survey of 200 North American CEOs found that he managing conflict was the most commonly cited problem for which they wanted help.

Why is this?  Why is conflict so unpleasant to most of us? After all, conflict is inevitable. Our interests and preferences and concerns aren’t always going to align with others’ – even our closest friends.

Perhaps it’s because there is usually more at stake than we realize. Under the “surface” conversation or argument or negotiation, which focuses on the material goals we want to fulfill, there are social and emotional goals, too. Psychologists and social neuroscientists have discovered a host of ways in which our brains are wired to worry about how others view us. In my next post, I’ll explain why the desire to build social capital and manage negative emotion are often the most important determinants of how a conflict plays out, and why so many of us are far more avoidant of conflict that we might believe.

1 Larcker, D.F., Miles, S., Tayan, B., & Gutman, M.E. (2013). Executive coaching survey (The Miles Group and Stanford University).