Sometimes things come up in our relationships that we have to confront. This can be really heavy and scary, especially since most of us don’t enjoy conflict. Oftentimes, we either avoid it, perhaps indefinitely (like ghosting someone over text message) or, since we’re frightened of it, we try to get it over with as quickly as possible (like putting a wall up immediately, saying something hurtful, and then cutting off contact altogether).
Is it possible to find a middle ground and handle conflict with grace? If so, how?
A good rule of thumb that I use in my own personal life is to think about a difficult situation as if it’s a hot cup of tea. Our emotions that come up during conflict, like anger or betrayal, often feel “hot” in our bodies. Just like a cup of tea can be painful to the touch when it’s not ready to drink yet, working towards resolution is often not possible until we have cooled off. When I need to talk to someone about something that has hurt or frustrated me, but I still feel “activated” or worked up when I think about it, I try to give it more time until I am calm.
What do we do in that cooling off stage?
Sometimes someone else initiates a difficult conversation. In this case, you can let them know that you’ve received their message, it’s important to you, and that you’re taking time to process before continuing the conversation. In this day and age, we are bombarded by electronic communication constantly, not always in the most effective ways, and often there’s an expectation that we have to respond right away. However, this doesn’t necessarily give us a chance to be thoughtful. What would happen if you gave yourself the chance to check in with yourself, and to acknowledge and honor what you’re feeling? If you’ve just received an explosive text message from a friend, or a work email that throws you for a loop, you can let them know that the issue is important to you and ask if you can think about it and talk about it later.
When we’ve given ourselves permission to process on our own, first, we also have permission to feel the full brunt of our own feelings. When we give our emotions space to be fully felt and processed, we are able to move on in a healthy way rather than repressing or becoming passive-aggressive. Whether it’s a friendship, a work relationship, or a romantic relationship, we should check in with ourselves to understand our own feelings.
Journaling can be wise in this stage, or, if it’s appropriate, talking it through with someone you trust can be really helpful. Some people are external processors, and this is especially important. (One caveat on involving someone else: choose a confidante who’s not necessarily involved in the situation, like a friend or a therapist, to help you process. An example of what you may want to avoid would be talking to your mother in detail about an issue with your partner; this might create problems in their relationship in the future.)
For others, taking some mental space from the person or the issue and not thinking about it for a little while might be more helpful. When we take a break from something distressing or complicated, we can often return to it with a fresh perspective.
Generally, the goal in resolving conflict is to be able to communicate effectively, to be respectful in the way that we communicate, and to be clear about what we want to say. When the thoughts and feelings are still “hot” to the touch, and we respond in the moment, resolution becomes more difficult. When we give ourselves the space to honor our own perspective and then to approach conversations with intention, we are more able to handle whatever life and our relationships throw at us with grace.