We’re halfway through February and I suppose that most of the New Year’s resolutions have worn off by now (although I’m still on my 45-day streak of getting my Inbox to zero each morning). It’s time to settle into the year and to decide what changes will really make a difference in your life. May I make the case that one of the absolute best investments you could make would be to pay off a conflict debt with someone that matters to you?

Conflict Debt

If you’ve read my work before, you probably know about conflict debt, the idea that avoiding conflict is causing issues to pile up, attract penalties, and accumulate interest as if you were running up a hefty credit card bill. I talk frequently about the cost of conflict debt on organizational productivity, innovation, and risk management. I also fret about the cost of conflict debt on teams, trust, and engagement.

The one topic I don’t spend enough time on is how personal conflict debt is adding to your stress levels, compromising your health, and making it hard to look yourself in the mirror. And what’s more important than that?

What’s on Your Conflict Debt Account?

Take a moment to think about the debts you are carrying. To whom are you in conflict debt? What grievances are weighing on you? These are important questions to ask yourself. Cast a broad net; conflict debt comes in many shapes, sizes, and forms.

  • Your partner has been spending beyond the budget and you’ve been making excuses to yourself and not voicing your concern
  • Your boss is oblivious to the fact that you’re trying to home school two kids and is expecting the impossible from you
  • Your siblings have been doing more of the eldercare in your family and you haven’t broached the subject to see if it’s causing animosity
  • Two of your friends have been complaining about each other to you and you’ve been trying to stay out of the middle
  • Your neighbor is feeding wildlife in their backyard and you’re getting more and more incensed about what’s going to be left of your garden come spring

There are infinite possibilities for how (and with whom) you might be in conflict debt. In your house, with your family, in your community, with your friends. If you avoid conflict with people that matter, the bill will mount.

The problem is that debt isn’t free. Your options aren’t to confront an uncomfortable, potentially messy conflict OR say nothing and live happily ever after. Nope! It’s not one bad option and one good option. It’s more like confront an uncomfortable, potentially messy conflict and get to the other side of it OR live with it slowly growing and festering inside of you until it comes erupting out in a more uncomfortable, inevitably messier conflict later. You will pay more the longer you let the debt compound.

Make a Payment

The alternative is to make a payment on that debt. How you do that will depend on the nature of the issue and your relationship to the person. Here are a few starter lines:

  • I’ve been worrying about…
  • I need to share with you a conversation that didn’t sit well with me…
  • I really hope that we can find a better way to…
  • I don’t know how to talk about this with you, but I feel like we need to talk about….
  • I’ve been remiss in not mentioning…
  • Can we find a quiet moment to talk about…
  • I really value our relationship and don’t want to let…
  • Could I buy you lunch and ask for your help with something…

If you can visualize yourself getting out this first sentence, you’re already on your way.

What if You’ve Destroyed Your Credit Rating?

Sometimes you leave a conflict debt unpaid for so long that you destroy your credit rating—you have no integrity in raising an issue because of how long you’ve been silent about it.

(The most minor and ridiculous version of this is when you don’t remember someone’s name and instead of asking the moment you realize you don’t know it, you carry on until the point where it is ridiculous and borderline offensive that you don’t know—at which point you can no longer ask.)

If you’ve destroyed your credit rating with the person you’re in conflict debt with, you’re going to have to admit it upfront. Your opening line switches to:

  • I’m so embarrassed that I have left this so long without saying anything…
  • I’ve been beating myself up about this and it’s time to be open with you…
  • I have been fighting with you in my head and not giving you a chance to respond…
  • I said some things that hurt you and I want to make amends…
  • I haven’t been candid with you about what’s been going on…

Caveat: Is it Time to Declare Bankruptcy?

While it’s usually a good idea to start paying off your conflict debts, there are situations where it’s just not worth it; situations where the underlying conflict was too severe, the issue has gone on too long, or the relationship just isn’t worth what it would cost to fix it. There are times when it’s ok to declare bankruptcy and walk away. Just be sure you can live with your decision.

Start Today

Are you in conflict debt? What is one item on your account that is costing you the most? What can you do today to at least make a payment so you can start to get out of the hole? Be brave. Don’t worry about getting it perfect, just worry about getting it started.

Further Reading

Don’t pass conflict aversion to the next generation

Can Conflict be Nice?

Everybody Hurts