We like to imagine our friendships are invincible. That they’ll somehow always be warm and entertaining, without ever being touched by conflict.
But unlike the sitcom characters who use clever banter to fully resolve issues with their friends by the end of the 30-minute episode, our relationships don’t always clear life’s hurdles with as much ease.
Reality is this: We have different opinions, observations, and internal thought processes than even our closest friends. This means, if we are friends with the same person long enough, we will eventually encounter some kind of conflict, big or small.
The moment the tension between friends surfaces can incite a kind of internal panic as we race to figure out how to react. Do we ignore it with hopes it will go away? Do we try to talk it out? Do we give it some time?
For some of us, who tend to avoid conflict, our default may be to distance ourselves from friends during conflict. This may seem like a solution early on, as it will reduce the stress we feel when we are in the presence of someone we feel tension around.
But, in pushing our friend away, we often sacrifice closeness and even risk losing the friendship itself over time. Not to mention that harboring stress and worry can negatively affect our well-being.
The good news is it can be easier to face these challenging stages of friendship when we learn alternative ways to deal with conflict. Below are a few pointers for minimizing the amount of damage conflict does to a friendship.
1. Talk out the situation as soon as is sensible.
It can be good to give each other some time and space, especially if emotions are high. Our friends may not be ready to hear what we have to say in the moment and we may not be ready to hear what they have to say either. But don’t let space stretch out too long.
Within a day of the tension arising, it can be helpful to send a text or make a call and communicate some simple regrets and desires: “I feel bad about what happened and want to make things right.” “I value our friendship.” “Let’s talk about this soon.”
2. Keep it light.
We sometimes think that the whole future of our friendship hinges on one heavy “let’s have a serious discussion” conversation. But just as it takes time to build a friendship, it can take time to fully work through issues. It may make sense to briefly discuss the issue, take some time to think about it more, and come back to it later. It’s okay to pace ourselves and work at it over time.
3. Empathize with all feelings.
Even if we can’t agree with our friends’ observations or conclusions, we can at least acknowledge their feelings. We can watch our friends’ body language as they talk. Notice their tone of voice and facial expression. Try to respond to any sign of hurt, discomfort, or anger. (“I understand you are feeling upset and I am sorry it hurts.”)
4. Make a point to listen well.
Try to hear everything your friend has to say without stopping them or speaking over them. If something they say triggers emotion in you, try to put those feelings on pause long enough to fully explore what they’re trying to communicate. Ask questions to clarify what they’re saying. Try to find out what they hope to get out of the conversation or what they need to feel better.
5. Speak clearly and keep it brief.
After we’ve made a point to listen without interrupting, it will be our time to share. When we do this, it’s helpful to keep our thoughts to just a sentence or two at a time.
It’s also wise to emphasize how we feel rather than making accusations about what they did or didn’t do. Avoid phrases like “you always do this” or “you never do this” which usually exaggerate the problem and work against resolution.
6. Try to accept different points of view.
We may not be able to agree with our friends’ perceptions about everything in life, but often we can get to a place where we can at least accept that their opinions won’t always be the same as ours. We can still make an effort to value their opinions and respect their right to disagree.
While we might not be able to agree with everything they say, there might be something in their statement that we understand and hold to be true. For example, if they claim that declining their recent social invite was disrespectful, we may be able to say, “I know sometimes people do stand their friends up in disrespectful ways, so I can see why it felt like that.”
Finally, after we employ these sensible responses to conflict, we want to focus on letting the conflict go over time. Once the situation is resolved — or at least as resolved as it can be — try to wash it from your mind and continue to do the things you love together. More positive interactions will lessen the blow of your previous tension and help you continue to understand each other better over time.