Lately, I've been studying friendship, and I've been asking people what they do when they're upset with a friend. Most people have said that they suck it up, in order to preserve the relationship.
But what if I told you that if you're suppressing conflict, you're actually weakening your relationships? Research suggests that engaging in non-blaming open conflict can bring people closer and that people who engage in healthy conflict have greater well-being, are more popular, and have less depression, anxiety, and loneliness. And when people avoid conflict, they often choose to distance themselves instead, which may damage relationships.
Many of our fears around engaging in open conflict stem from our misconceptions about what conflict has to look like. We have a picture in our heads of arguments escalating, shouting, and flipped over tables—like a game of Monopoly gone awry. Some of us may have even worked up the courage to confront others, only to have our relationships destroyed, leading us to conclude that silencing ourselves is the best approach; but our issue is likely not that we brought up points of conflict, but how we did it.
To work through conflict to better our relationships, we need to know how to do it effectively.
1. Get Your Mind and Energy Right
First, if you're pulsing with rage, it's not the time to enter into conflict, as research finds that angry conflict is associated with relationship damage. You're going into this conversation calmly, seeing it as an opportunity to better your relationship. Your approach isn't adversarial—to put the other person in their place—but collaborative, to figure out ways to make the relationship better. Whatever is hurting you about the relationship is hurting the relationship because you are a participant in it. Having this mindset will help you feel validated (rather than selfish) in expressing your concerns.
Here are some questions to ask yourself before moving forward with the conflict:
- Am I seeing this conflict as an opportunity to make our relationship better?
- Can I approach this conflict calmly?
- Am I ready to share my concerns, but also to listen and empathize?
2. Choose Your Opening Sentence Wisely
The first sentence you share should be one that draws the other person in rather than alienates them. It should affirm your relationship and set the tone for the conversation as collaborative via acknowledging the importance of working through the conflict to reach a mutual goal you each share (such as having a wonderful relationship).
Here are some common unproductive opening sentences, and what to replace them with:
"I need to talk to you about something you did that I found unacceptable."" Us working well together means a lot to me, which is why I want to make sure that I'm talking openly about what's on my mind so that we can work through it. And I'd like to take some time to hear your perspective as well." "I'm really pissed over something you did and we need to talk about it.""I love and value our friendship so much, but there's been some stuff that's weighing on me that I was hoping we could talk about so that none of it gets in the way of our friendship."
3. Share Your World
Now that you're talking through what irks you in the relationship, your job is not to tell them about themselves—how what they did was horrible and wrong and how much they suck—but rather to share how their actions affected you. Replace any "you did..." with "I felt...."
So, let's say that your friend missed your wedding...
"That was so awful of you to miss my wedding. You're truly a lousy friend:"I felt so hurt that you didn't show up to my wedding. It was so important to me to have everyone I love be a part of this milestone for me, and I felt let down when I didn't see your face."
4. Ask About the Other Person's World
After you share your world, and what upset you, welcome the other person to share their side of the story. You might say something like, "I wanted to give you a chance to also share what might have been going on for you in that moment."
People sometimes see perspective taking as weakening their stance, but it's often healing to hear someone else's perspective and realize that they might have had other things going on that have contributed to the problem and their actions weren't personal. For example, maybe your friend who missed your wedding might share that they've been depressed and have had trouble getting out of bed.
5. Own Your Contribution to the Problem, While Not Backing Down About What Upset You
Engaging in healthy conflict is about being willing to own your part in a problem. If you're expressing a concern to a friend, they might respond with how you, too, have contributed to the issue. If it's a fair concern, then own it and apologize. For example, if you are upset with a friend for snapping at you, they might say that they felt that you were ignoring their point, so they got angry. And you might consider whether you did, and apologize for it.
Owning your contribution to the issue is not the same as backing down and minimizing your concern, or concluding that what upset you was actually your fault (something that the conflict-avoidant will be tempted to do, and that the narcissistic will capitalize on). Owning your fault says "it's true that I contributed to this issue, and my concerns are also still valid."
6. Ask for the Behavior You Want to See in the Future
Sometimes, it's enough to just express your concerns, but other times, you may want to ensure that the problem doesn't occur again in the future. To do so, ask for the behavior you want in the future.
- "Next time you start to feel irritated, let me know and we can take a break from each other."
- "In the future, I'd love it if you could ask me more about what's going on in my life."
Engaging in healthy conflict capitalizes on the psychological theory of reciprocity, which argues that people treat you the way you treat them. Anger begets anger; kindness begets kindness. If you want to receive a loving, non-defensive response, where your interaction partner owns the harm they caused, then you have to be willing to do so as well.
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