When to Know if Conflict Is Toxic


By Doug Noll

Unless you are living in an isolated cave, social conflict is inevitable. Our needs, interests, and desires collide with each other, getting in the way of our happiness. Conflict is not inherently bad, however. We need conflict to teach us, entertain us, and help us grow. We can probably do without Jerry Springer’s craziness, but a certain amount of conflict is healthy. On the other hand, we have also experience unhealthy conflict. When the conflict becomes chronic and repetitive, it is toxic.

Worse, emerging research shows that toxic conflict kills just as surely as cancer, heart disease, or diabetes. Recent studies reveal that frequent arguments with partners, relatives, friends or neighbors are associated with a doubling to tripling in the risk of death from any cause. We are social beings and toxic conflict apparently creates stressors that shorten our lives.

Knowing the difference between healthy, good conflict and unhealthy, toxic conflict is important information.

Here are some signs that indicate toxic conflict:

  • The same arguments keep cycling through your relationship and are never resolved.
  • Differences of opinion dissolve in heated arguments rapidly.
  • As soon as the slightest whiff of conflict arises, someone clams up, leaves the room, or shuts down emotionally.
  • You numb out on television, beer, wine, cocktails, or sports.
  • You don’t say “I love you,” to anyone enough and very few say “I love you,” to you.
  • Meal times are for ingesting food as fast as possible and scooting.
  • Your head is buried in your smart phone, texting or social media surfing.

Some of these signs indicate a festering conflict caused, at the root, by hurt feelings, despair, failed expectations, and betrayal. Others indicate fear, anxiety, or escape from the discomfort of confrontation that intimacy might bring.

Learning how to be in healthy conflict is a skill, like riding a bicycle or reading a book. Here are some of the skills you can learn that will turn toxic conflict into healthy conflict and into true relationships:

Learn about yourself. Try going on a vision quest of some kind. Find out what is important to you. Ignore anyone who tells you that this kind of inner work is selfish or self-indulgent. You have to come first before you can live in healthy conflict.

Learn how to listen. There are many different listening skills. We generally are taught to pay attention to the meaning of spoken words, e.g., language. That skill is important, but at the bottom of many other types of listening. Reflective listening, for example, has four levels. Each level has a purpose and use. Knowing how to listen reflectively is a powerful skill.

Learn how to connect with others. We face the unprecedented ability to connect instantaneously with anyone in the world connected to the Internet. However, we are losing our ability to connect with the person across the table from us. Facebook is great, but at the end of the day, is very lonely. We need real connections, not electronic ones, to stay out of toxic conflicts.

Learn how to create safety. Toxic conflicts arise because people don’t feel safe. Arguments and fights are often more defensive than offensive. If a fight is launched offensively, it’s usually pre-emptive and defensively motivated. We are afraid of vulnerability, exploitation, being hurt, being betrayed, and all of the other ugly things that relationships can cause. The secret is not to ask for safety, but to create safety around you. You don’t have to be a dish mop to do this. In fact, creating a safe space is empowering. If others feel safe around you, the likelihood of toxic conflict goes to zero. You create safety by example. The three things to cultivate are being non-critical, non-judgmental, and non-reactive.

Turning toxic conflict into healthy conflict does not happen overnight. It takes time and effort. However, the payoff is huge. Conflict becomes a place of connection rather than fear and avoidance. You experience life as a whole human being.

Doug Noll

Douglas E. Noll, JD, MA is an award-winning lawyer, author, speaker, and trainer. After a successful two-decade career as a trial lawyer, he devoted himself to understanding the root causes of human conflict. Today, he shares his knowledge with those interested in transforming their lives and relationships from drama and chaos to peace and love. For more strategies visit www.dougnoll.com.