What I Learned When Conflict Got Ugly

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Have you ever been in a conversation that got way off track and didn’t know how to fix it?

Several months back, I found myself reacting to a friend’s feedback. My head was swimming in fear and hurt. As much as I tried to stay focused, my hurt was getting in the way and I knew it. Emotional hindsight is 20/20.

Conflict can escalate quickly when you misinterpret what’s being said.

In difficult situations, I always look for the lesson. There is SO much to gain from dissecting what went wrong. In this blog I’ll share what went wrong and what it took to repair the friendship. It was a major win for both of us!

How It Started

It all started with my getting some feedback that (at the time) I didn’t agree with. Even though I was reasonably calm, I could feel myself getting defensive. My thoughts immediately turned into a ball of fear. I was afraid of her words and what they might say about me.

Instead of seeing her as an ally, my fear created a wall of separation. That’s what negative thoughts do, they destroy any chance of being reasonable. We get stuck in our head assuming the worst instead of listening. Yuk…

Mishap #1 Demonizing the Other Person

Once I found myself reacting, I noticed my “self-talk” which are those private thoughts I would never speak out loud. Secretly, I was telling myself, “She’s wrong, she’s out of line, she’s being mean, she she she...”

See the problem?

My thoughts zoomed in on what she was doing rather than on my own behavior. Negative thinking intensifies anger. My anger was coming out by silently blaming her, which didn’t help.

When someone points out our weaknesses, it’s natural to feel hurt and even embarrassed. But it’s what we do next that really matters.

Staying calm when you hear difficult feedback takes a focused effort. Nobody does it perfectly. Catching these emotions before they get too intense can be tricky - especially when you aren’t expecting it or you’re already stressed. That’s where I got off track. Feeling hurt is fine, taking it out on the other person is not.

What I should have done: I could have used my negative self-talk and escalating fear as signals to either calm down or remove myself. Click here to get my free email course on Catching Anger Before It Hurts.

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So what did I do next? 

Mishap #2 Staying in the Conversation Too Long

Because my thoughts were focused on what she did wrong (instead of looking at myself) I started getting defensive. My ability to listen - not just wait for her to finish talking - was definitely compromised. Even though there was no yelling or mean comments, the conversation wasn’t productive.

I planned my escape to get off the phone but that wasn’t happening. At some point I realized my fear was making it worse. I needed some space.

What I should have done: I could have taken a time-out sooner when the conversation wasn’t getting anywhere.

We finally got off the phone and reconnected a week later. Thankfully, we were able to repair things. Because we came back from this, our friendship is even more precious to me.

The Turning Point: Checking out Assumptions

So how did we avoid a massive blow out? What saved us turned out to be something pretty simple.

Checking out assumptions about what each other said totally shifted the conversation. We started looking at our own behavior. It’s powerful when you take ownership of what you heard versus making the other person wrong. It sounds like this:

What I heard you say was that you think I’m not being a good friend. Is that what you meant?

Repeat back what you think you heard. Arguing over who said what creates a power struggle. It becomes a “tit for tat” which isn’t productive. It only increases frustration. Checking out what they meant without blame is how you get closer to the solution.

Getting the Conversation Back on Track

After checking out assumptions, our misunderstandings started to clear up. We refrained from talking about the other person. The key was being able to talk about what happened without getting back into the fight.

This takes a willingness to keep focused on your subjective experience rather than being right or accusatory. Who said what doesn’t matter anymore. Instead, admitting our mistakes while gently checking out the other person’s intentions can avoid that negative cycle of attack and defend.

This also slows the conversation down and helped us to understand each other. Most people have good intentions and don’t mean to be hurtful.

My friend is very direct, and I love that about her, but it also scared me. I thought she was criticizing me but in reality, she was giving me some valuable feedback. I had to be willing to find the grain of truth in what she was saying. Once I acknowledged that, (it was a bonus that she did too), we immediately felt connected again.

Because we took the time to hear each other out, we reached an important turning point. We could get back to the loving friendship and heal.

Putting the Tools Together

Resolution can’t happen without hearing each other. Effective listening happens when we stop defending ourselves. Some days will be easier to do this than others depending on what’s happening in your life. That’s why you can have a successful conversation one day and a horrible one a week later. It’s all dependent on self-care and how ready you are to participate in a potentially difficult conversation.

So keep these things in mind during a conflict:

  • Be mindful when fear gets the best of you.

  • Watch negative assumptions about what you think the other person meant.

  • Demonizing the other person in your mind means that you need a break.

  • Be willing to look at your part and find the lesson.

  • Take a break before reactions get too intense.

  • Learn when you can listen and when to walk away.

  • Validate what makes sense, clarify what doesn’t.  

  • Find the grain of truth in at least one part of the feedback.

  • Identify negative beliefs that prevent you from hearing each other.

Final Thoughts

Conflict can turn into an emotional mess even when you think you’re keeping it together. Often a conversation doesn’t resolve itself quickly because feelings can get in the way. Giving yourself time to feel your feelings is a neglected step that most people don’t see as important.

Recognizing the need for a time-out makes all the difference in the outcome too. That means completely removing yourself not just walking away for a few minutes. To read more on how to take an effective time-out click here.

Be willing to learn the lesson from what didn’t go well, so you learn what does!

Along with the free email course, I’ve created a private resource library including 20 Ways to Detach When You Need A Break and 15 Steps to Setting Healthy Boundaries plus lots more free downloads! Click the image below to get access now!

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