You know you should say something about an issue - but how? You don't want to make it worse, and in any case, conflict is so uncomfortable. You are not alone. Conflict avoidance is a widespread phenomenon, both in the workplace and our personal lives.
Research by the Gottman Institute shows that relationships are unlikely to last in the long term for couples who are overly conflicted BUT ALSO for couples that avoid raising difficult issues at all. Couples in both these conditions broke up or divorced within ten years.
Similarly, according to a 2010 study of 600 employees (reported in Joseph Grenny's book Crucial Conversations), conflict avoidance costs organisations dearly. Employees in the study estimated that on average they had wasted USD $1,500 and an 8 hour work day when avoiding having a difficult conversation about an important topic.
Even further, from your personal experience, you're probably aware of the consequences of avoiding conflict; ranging from churning stomach, headache, trying to steer clear of specific people, and worse... Rachel Platten got it right in Fight Song when she compared "all those things I didn't say" with "wrecking balls inside my brain". Far from "keeping the peace" your silence may be a significant part of the problem.
So how do we speak up? Here are some thoughts to set you on the path which help me. I can't take credit for any of them, they're all straight from 'soft skills' training (which I ran into in youth work and later in psychology). I'm keen to hear further thoughts/gems from you in the comments if you're happy to share!
Firstly, indulge in a REFRAME to motivate yourself: whilst the issue may be about the other person, think about what is at stake for you - how will you feel once it is resolved? And how will you have grown once you've spoken up?
Secondly, notice your EMOTIONS (particularly blame and anger), and then give them a reality check. Often we avoid conflict because we have inferred a narrative about the other person's motivations. Could the situation be seen differently? Does it have an effect on your feelings to stop and recognise that the other person is... just a person? (Part of this amazing kaleidoscope called humanity? Just like you?)
Thirdly, keep it SIMPLE: the old formula for assertiveness works wonders. "When you... I felt... I'd prefer..." Using this formula, or one like it, your message is more likely to get through. This has the benefit of showing the consequences for you - letting them into your world.
Fourthly, LISTEN: to be a genuine conversation, there must be give and take. Acknowledging the other's perspective does not mean you agree they are 'right'. The trust and rapport you build - through listening and reflecting what you hear - will become the vehicle that carries your relationship (personal or professional) to the next level.
Finally, FORGIVE yourself if it doesn't go as planned the first time around: realise how much further you got than if you had said nothing, and give yourself a break. It's OK to be new at something and to need to try a few times to iron out any wrinkles in your technique!
So, if you've read this far, I'm hoping you've found something of value for you in helping with that thing you may need to speak up about. Knowing that the above is just my own collection of thoughts, I am super keen to hear your tips and tricks for 'avoiding' conflict avoidance in the comments below!