12 Jun 2019

Being Conflict Averse in Academia

I am highly averse to conflict.

Aversion to conflict seems to run counter to the traditional academic ideal – people engaging in lively debates over coffee, at conferences, in meetings, after talks, on Twitter, in their papers. Debates that can turn into deep arguments that last an entire career. This conflict and competition is thought to fuel academic knowledge, pushing forward research in new and exciting directions.

I do not enjoy conflict. Not in the “loud shouting matches make me uncomfortable” kind of way, but in a “chest-tightening anticipation of what light disagreements could turn into” kind of way. It’s not specific to academia – my aversion to conflict affects my interactions with everyone, from friends and family to complete strangers. One of my more frank relatives once told me, “you’re too diplomatic, you are so careful about what you say and you try to be that buffer for other people too. Isn’t it exhausting? Don’t you just want to say what’s on your mind? You’re smart and have great ideas and people would love to hear them without your filter on.

Y’all don’t really need to know about the roots of my conflict aversion. Suffice it to say that I spend a not insignificant amount of energy managing and avoiding conflict across various relationships, and I’m very aware that I’m probably doing a lot of this unnecessarily. It’s a work in progress.

How does conflict aversion play out in my academic life?

Honestly, most of the time it’s not a big deal. Our day-to-day jobs in academia tend to be pretty independent and solitary. The group interactions that I have on a daily basis are all collaborative. I am extremely capable and confident in these settings, and that they make up the bulk of our work means that I’m not concerned about conflict aversion making me “bad” at my job.

What it does mean is that I’m unlikely to ever be that person who comes up with their pet theory and continuously works at it and stands by it and sees its relevance everywhere. I think that there is value in having people pushing for their cause against another person/group pushing for a competing cause. But I know that that’s not something I can do. And I also know that there are plenty of other people out there in a similar boat, which is why I’m writing this blog post.

What does conflict aversion look like in academic disagreements?

When I am challenged on something that I’ve said, I first feel panicked that I have upset someone with my words (this is my high conflict aversion shining through). I then rush to see their point of view. Later on I’m able to reflect on and interrogate my actual thoughts on whatever their point was. It’s a whole process that will probably leave me feeling somewhat uncomfortable for a while (length of time depends on depth of challenge). And at the end of that, I will have incorporated some new ideas into my perspective on the subject. I will also (this is the conflict aversion again) be more sensitive when bringing up this or a similar topic in future.

While there are aspects of academia that I’ll probably always find emotionally challenging, being highly averse to conflict has taught me a set of skills that are useful for collaboration and critical thinking. I don’t think that there is any one way to do academia right, nor do I think that any of you think that. Science is improved by having a diverse set of approaches from people with a diverse set of experiences. We all contain multitudes and we bring those multitudes with us to our research. If you, like me, experience high conflict aversion, please don’t question your place in academia because of it. You belong here just as much as any of us. (And if you ever want a sympathetic ear to talk to about your experiences, I'm always happy to listen! Just drop me and email or DM)


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