Most people loathe or are even afraid of conflict. And for good reason: most people don’t handle it well– and that goes for both others and ourselves! We have had plenty of bad past experiences with conflict, and very few (if any) good experiences, and so we associate conflict with negativity and drama. We may be afraid that the other person will yell at us or we may lose the relationship. We may be afraid of the uncomfortable feelings that conflict gives rise to within us. We may not like who we become during conflict; reactive, angry, defensive or obsequious. And so we may avoid conflict, resulting in not getting our needs met. However, it’s said that by avoiding conflict, we avoid intimacy. Not only that, but avoiding conflict in our lives often escalates it. How many times have you let things slide and let things slide until one day you blow up at your family member or friend? Conflict in life is inevitable, so we might as well learn how to do it right! While some uncomfortable feelings may come up no matter how you handle conflict, it is absolutely possible to have conflict without drama. Below are some guidelines for how.
Rules: The Don’ts
Don’t talk trash.
Once you’ve identified that you have a conflict with someone, avoid complaining to other people who know the person. There are plenty of valid reasons why this may be your first impulse; you may want someone to agree with you so that you feel supported, or you may just need to vent in order to process your feelings. Nevertheless, if you share a group of friends, complaining about the person to others who know them will often cause drama if people feel pressured to take sides, it may damage that person’s relationship with others which will require additional cleaning up, and in all likelihood it will get back to the person and cause counter-resentment that will also need to be resolved in addition to your original complaint. It also reflects poorly on your character. Whoever you complain to may wonder, “I wonder what they say about me behind my back?”
Furthermore, in on-again-off-again romantic relationships, complaining to people who know your partner causes something I call Best Friend Hate Syndrome in that you will have told your close friends all the details of why your partner is an idiot jerk, only to get back with them and now have a friend group who hates your partner and pressures you to dump them. If you need to talk about your conflict to feel supported or process your feelings, talk to someone who doesn’t know the person you’re having conflict with.
Don’t put your thumb on the scale.
Back in the mid twentieth-century when people got their meat from the butcher, the butcher would wrap the meat in paper and weigh it in front of the customer. But unscrupulous butchers would press down on the scale with their thumb where the customer couldn’t see, making one pound of meat read as two on the scale. The customer would leave having paid for two pounds, and get home to unwrap a package that was much less substantial than he thought.
Many times, in a conflict, we cheat and put our thumb on the scale by informing the person that so-and-so agrees with our assessment of them, to add extra weight and legitimacy to our point of view. Although this seems like something only adolescents would do (“Well I think you’re a bitch, and Cindy and Stacy agree with me, just so you know”), adults do it all the time too! Maybe your spouse made a major financial mistake, and you feel tempted to say “Mother always said you were a loser.” Maybe your instinct is to dredge up complaints others have had about them in the past and tack them onto your own complaint. Some people even use God and God’s supposed opinions as their personal weighted thumb!
It’s as if we believe that if someone agrees with our perception, it’s confirmation that it must be true. First, it’s not; how many thousands of flat-earthers are there now? And secondly, it’s unfair to call on a bunch of invisible people who can’t even speak for themselves to help you gang up on the person. Stick to your– and only your– perspective; keep it present, and keep it real, as right now, YOU are the person having an issue with this other person. Don’t put your thumb on the scale to make your viewpoint seem heavier than it actually is.
Don’t address the conflict in the height of unpleasant emotions such as anger, panic, or sadness. Doing conflict in a healthy way while in the grips of powerful emotion is challenging even for advanced conflict navigators, so it’s especially tricky territory for neophytes. It’s okay to identify a conflict and then take some time to process your own emotions more fully before responding. What seems like a mountain when you’re feeling emotionally activated may turn out to be a molehill after a good night’s sleep and some thought. Take a day, a week, or a month and address the conflict when you’re ready.
Just say no to passive aggressiveness
“It’s ok, I know not to rely on you for anything.” Ouch. We have all been on the receiving end of passive aggressiveness, and know how it feels, and how ineffective it is in creating the desired result. Why introduce it into an already tense situation?
Don’t tell the person who they are
Rely on “I feel” statements during conflict. Telling a person who they are is a form of attack. Statements like “I feel sad when you don’t prioritize spending time with me” center your experience of the other person’s behavior rather than centering the person themselves as the problem. Statements like “You’re selfish, you only think about yourself” are not only unhelpful, they’re also untrue. Don’t boil the other person down to generalizations.
Rules: The Do’s
Identify conflict as soon as possible
Conflict with the people we love doesn’t usually explode into view all at once, enveloping us like a raging wildfire; it’s more often like ivy slowly climbing the side of a building. It’s important to cultivate the self-awareness to know what our signals are for experiencing conflict with someone. Conflict may show up for us as becoming easily irritated with someone or as resentments toward them; it may show up as avoiding them or withholding things from them. The sooner you can identify what it is you’re feeling and label it as “conflict,” the sooner you can address and resolve it.
Accentuate the Why of the confrontation
Ideally, the goal of confronting a person you’re having conflict with is resolving a problem so that the relationship can move forward more smoothly and with more understanding, empathy, and love. Being the other person on the receiving end of confrontation, and being told that something isn’t working in your relationship can create fear, anxiety, and anger, so make sure you put that intention first when engaging someone around a conflict.
Instead of a cold open like “You know, you really pissed me off last night when you teased me in front of my date,” that is likely to immediately put the other person on defense, try, “Hey, I need to talk to you about something that’s been bothering me, because I care about our friendship and want it to continue and grow for many years. Last night, I felt hurt when…”
If someone cares about you, they won’t want to do things that hurt you, but sometimes we’re unaware that our behaviors are causing others pain. Putting the care before the pain by accentuating the “why” you’re bringing this up can help the other person focus on healing and maintaining the relationship too, rather than having them focus on their own defensiveness or hurt feelings.
Be curious about their point of view
Since we’re all the protagonists of our own little stories, we sometimes don’t stop to acknowledge how other people may be experiencing us and how we move through the world, or how they may have experienced the same event or situation we wish to complain about. Part of being a lifetime learner in the pursuit of personal growth means being open to changing your mind. Be open to being wrong; you may find that you *also* have an apology to give!
Communicate your needs
A conflict may not be worked out on the first try. You or the other person may become too heated or anxious to continue, and need to take a break. That’s ok! Affirm your commitment to working it out, and set a time in the future to revisit it. If that future time comes and you’re still not ready, communicate that too. “I need more time, I’ll check in with you next week.” Don’t go silent; we humans are anxious creatures and silence gives us lots of space to fill in with our own anxieties.
For a myriad of reasons, the conflict might not be something that’s fixable at that time. If all else fails, keep the door open. You may need to take space from that person, but if you are open to having that person back in your life at some point, tell them so.
Choose your hills wisely
Long ago, Maria was having conflict with her friend Tasha, who was taking over her apartment when she moved out. Tasha felt it was Maria’s responsibility to pay the $200 for the carpet cleaning when she left, and Maria disagreed. After going around and around for awhile, Maria relented and just paid for the cleaning. I had agreed with Maria’s point of view, and asked her why she paid. “Well, I have my perspective, and Tasha has hers, and we both think we’re right. But in the end, I’ve been friends with Tasha for 15 years, and I’m not about to lose that friendship over $200.”
How many people have thrown away their family members over a careless comment made 20 years ago? Would you rather be right, or be happy? Let’s be clear: I’m not saying you should tolerate abuse. If someone has a pattern of violating your boundaries or other toxic behavior, it may be best they’re not in your life. It’s also absolutely okay to have deal-breakers in your relationships, things you don’t tolerate. At the same time, it’s important to get clear about what’s worth losing a relationship over, and what isn’t. You’re not always going to see eye-to-eye with others, but be clear about which hills you’re willing to die on and which you’re not.
Receiving confrontation with grace
It can be hard to hear that we’ve upset someone we care about. It may also negatively impact our self-image; if we think of ourselves as being a kind and considerate person, it can be difficult to hear that we’ve done something thoughtless. But confrontation is hard, and almost nobody likes doing it. It’s so hard, in fact, that many people would rather distance themselves and end a relationship rather than go through the discomfort of confronting someone. So if someone confronts you, that means they value you enough to be present with that discomfort. They don’t want to throw you away. Thank them!
“Thank you for telling me that.”
“That was very brave.”
“I feel honored that you trust me enough to confront me with that.”
When confronted, it can be tempting to want to have our intentions known while ignoring the impact. If you hit a pedestrian with your car, whether you intended to or not, your first impulse would be to jump out and assist them. Before you try to explain yourself, which may come across as minimizing the person’s complaint, acknowledge the hurt you’ve caused and your commitment to repairing the relationship. Keep in mind that the person who is confronting you has an issue with something you’ve done, and isn’t commenting on your character or you as a person being wrong or bad.
Like any other skill, getting good at conflict takes time, dedication and patience to develop. If you struggle with conflict, working with a therapist can provide one avenue for exploring conflict in a safe and healthy way.