Three Steps for Embracing Conflict in Difficult Situations
There are a lot of things we think and don’t say to other people, which is probably a good thing. But some of those things deserve to be said, even though they are really hard to say. Like when a good friend is drinking too much too often. Or when aging parents are no longer safe to drive. Or when someone neglects their family because they are working way too much.
Good Reasons To Avoid Confrontation
I think most people avoid confronting these situations for good reasons. The best way to confront someone is to include these good reasons.
Confrontations generally engender conflict, and many of us are conflict avoidant. Feelings of discomfort arise in us—emotional and physical—and we are afraid that our confrontation will hurt the other person. Let us acknowledge this and include it. The fact is, we are even more uncomfortable remaining silent, and we are guessing that the short term discomfort of conflict will be way less than the long term discomfort of the situation continuing.
We also tend to feel like someone else’s life is not our business. In some ways this is a complex philosophical point of view that involves definitions of the self, society, values, morality, and how we define “the good life.” The complexity of this question also adds weight to the inertia of simply keeping our mouth shut. So let us only speak to what is our business—our concern, our fear, our discomfort, and our care for the other person—allowing ourselves to be wrong about our assumptions.
Plus, we do not want to put our foot in our mouth. We do not want to assume that we know what is best for someone else, or that we even have any idea of what is going on with them. How could we know what kinds of trouble they are getting in to? Again, we include this perspective, remaining as humble as possible. We do not know their point of view, so we are going to avoid judging them for what has happened, sticking to the facts that we both agree about and our own personal feelings about the situation.
The Case for Bringing Up Difficult Topics
I believe that we can do these confrontations, asking the hard questions and speaking the elephants in the room, in a caring way that does not presume we know what is best for someone else, or that we have any understanding of what is going on. And I believe that doing so is as much for ourselves and our own growth and awareness, as it is for the other person.
Of course sometimes we should not confront issues. We have to determine it on a variety of factors—how close we are with the other person, how many other lives are at stake (such as in the driving issue), how much suffering they seem to be undergoing, and our own tolerance, amongst many others. At the very base of it, I think that issues are worth confronting so long as we do the confrontation with humility and are willing to fully own our experience.
Three Steps to Healthier Confrontations
When I imagine going through one of these confrontations, the following elements jump to mind. I hope they are helpful for your confrontations.
Start with an observation. I think we are best suited to start with a specific and inarguable observation and gaining agreement that it did indeed occur. It is important to speak it with as little judgement or shaming as possible. Again, we are assuming that we have no idea what is best. Let us take the example of a friend who has a drinking problem: “Hey man, I noticed that you drank an entire bottle of tequila each night for the last four nights, and didn’t end up making it to work a couple mornings in a row. How are you feeling?”
Share our vulnerability. Next, we share our own emotional concern. It is important that we put our own skin in the game. This helps us own our experience more fully, taking away as many of the unconscious projections as possible. It opens us up to being vulnerable, which gives us the chance to grow and gain insight from the occasion, as well as invites the other to more vulnerability. And if gives us the chance to share why we care to go through the difficult process of confronting someone, which is generally pretty sweet. “I’m scared that this is a pattern, and that you are going to seriously hurt yourself. I really care about you and I want to help in whatever way I can.
Listen to their point of view. Next, you can open it up to them and just try to listen, without any judgement. “Is there something going on? Am I on the mark at all?”
Repeat. The more you can keep owning your experience, sharing your vulnerability, and not judge them, the better. “I’m nervous bringing this up, because I don’t think it’s any of my business. And I don’t really know what’s going on. But I want to be able to talk about it because I could hardly live with myself if something really bad happened to you and I could have done something about it.”
At this point, you can start to see where your own learning can come in. Why couldn’t you live with yourself? What is the feeling of responsibility and guilt? Is it justifiable?
Letting Internal Inquiry And External Advocation Coexist
The trick here is to deepen into your own inquiry of the unconscious motives at play, allowing yourself to change, welcoming whatever comes up even if it feels shameful, and still maintaining the concern for your friend. You can maintain your personal inquiry, your openness to their point of view, and your advocating for something different, so long is you keep it to the facts (remember that you both agreed that the tequila was drunk?) and keep it to your personal point of view (you feel worried and you want them to change so you don’t have to feel the fear of losing them).
And you can always go back and get more agreement about “the facts” and the way you both feel about them, checking to see if you share values about the situation being unhealthy.
“I realize I have a dog in the fight, and I’m trying to understand why I feel such responsibility. But that doesn’t change my worry and care for you—do you agree that drinking so much is a problem? Are you worried at all?”
Good luck, and let us know if you found anything that works in tandem, or better!