In the Blog
Stuck in the Middle with You: Tools to Support Your Friends When They Are in Conflict
Illustration: Erin McPhee
Have you ever had 2 mutual friends in your life, fighting, arguing or not talking?
What did you do? Did you take sides? Did you continue to talk to both of them? Did you ignore the whole situation all together and just not get involved? How did you feel about it? And did you ever get your say?
This month’s entry was inspired by this very thing: friends in my life disagreeing, feeling hurt and reacting to a situation. And I haven’t the faintest clue how to approach the situation.
But through this blog, I’m going to try and create a tool kit on how we can support ourselves and each other when people we love are on the outs and we don’t always have the words or tools to support them.
10 Tools to Support When Conflict Arises in Friendships
What happened? Sometimes it is so obvious what the problem is. Sometimes it’s harder to decipher for many reasons: it’s personal, it’s about something taboo that we don’t want to talk about openly, or it’s amongst people in a sexual/romantic relationship so its next level personal. Sometimes it’s about something that happened, and sometimes it’s about how a person feels or thinks about what happened. It’s funny, because sometimes I find with conflict among friends the stories can be foggy or unclear because there may be multiple sides to them. Check out those sides; let all your friends tell their side of the story and reserve judgments for later.
Judgments! We judge: we judge whether it’s safe to cross the street by looking both ways just as we judge our friends’ choices and actions based on what we would do. Those judgments can be based on how we were raised, our class, gender, race, ability and status. And they can also be based on how we will be treated once we make a decision and take action on it. Judgments can make or break an argument among friends, because it’s not just about what happened, it’s about what we think of what happened. Be careful when sharing your judgments, even statements such as “That’s so good” or “You deserve better” are judgments.
Kindness When we are angry with our friends, we might lash out, silence them or ignore them altogether. It’s very hard to always be kind when we are angry or hurt but it certainly doesn’t make things easier if we do get mean. Remember you are entitled to your emotions and feelings; it doesn’t mean we need to mistreat one another. Sometimes simply saying, “I need time before I talk it out with you” or “I’m very hurt right now” can mean opening up communication in a good way, rather than letting speculation and assumptions build and blow up.
Listening Active listening is: A. Not thinking about what you are going to say next while the other person is still talking B. Repeating back what the person said, “I’m hearing you say you are hurt and confused by our friend’s behavior.” C. Validating what the person is saying, “It makes sense you would feel that way” and D. Summarizing what the person said before moving on to what you think, ‘So you think our friend hurt you because…” Listen to the people you love with as much focus as possible.
How to not mix issues It is a challenge to keep to the situation at hand. Often, one situation can bring up something else that happened in the past and you may want to bring that up as well. Perhaps it could be useful if you are talking about a pattern in your relationship but its more likely that bringing up the past (especially when all was forgiven) can just confuse the issue and dredge up old feelings that exacerbate the original problem. Stick to the present and deal with the current issue, not stuff the person has done in the past.
How to not throw people under the bus I have a tendency to side with all parties, that is, I can often see where anyone is coming from because it makes sense that people can feel complex feelings when a conflict has happened. I don’t choose sides but I can often see why Friend A is upset at Friend B and why Friend B did what they did to Friend A. It can be confusing when we live in such a black and white world where people don’t often see the grey. But it’s important that we empathize with all parties. And we can do this without saying that one person is definitely right, while the other definitely wrong. All while not choosing the side of the person we are talking to.
What happens when you are on a side you didn’t choose It’s your mom, your best friend, or your partner who is in conflict with another friend, family member or community member. You are not part of the conflict, but because you have a close relationship with the person involved, you may hear about the conflict and may even hear the other side too. Figure out your own boundaries around hearing what happened from all sides.
How to give yourself and friends space when conflict is going down This one is easy and yet can often be the most difficult thing. Some of us need to talk a situation out immediately and attempt to resolve the conflict before anything else. Others retreat and require time to think, process and then respond. Still others may retreat and avoid returning to the conflict at all. It’s okay to not have a solution to a problem right away. Ever been in an interview and responded to a question quickly so you looked like you knew the answer? Ever take that moment to pause and think after the interview only to wish you had said or added that one thought? It’s okay for people to take a minute and think before trying to solve the problem. In fact, I’d say it’s important to stop and reflect on what happened, get grounded (like get your feelings and thoughts in line and feel good and stable before approaching the solution) and come back when you are in a good place to have a productive, kind conversation.
How to support How do you support the folks around you when conflict has happened? Ask them: What can I do to support you around this?
Confidentiality When our friends or family members are in conflict with one another, it’s best not to disclose information the other person has said to you. It’s hard to decipher what is confidential and what’s up for grabs but as we all know, being ‘gossipy’ or breaking confidentiality can make an already tough situation worse.
BONUS TOOL: Love It is quite the challenge to not choose sides, not get pissed off, not use your loyalty for your friend or partner against the other person who they are in conflict with. At the same time, conflict is hard on everyone. Conflict is rarely one-sided, with one person being the bad guy and the other completely blameless. Lead with love, use that empathy muscle and challenge yourself to make things easier for everyone rather than harder. Refer to #9.
When we are placed in the middle of folks who are having a fight, argument, or conflict, it can suck. When one of us is in it ourselves, it can be rife with even more complexity and heartache. Remember to take a breath and treat people with the same love and compassion you would want to be treated with.