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Confronting Conflicts: Why Tough Talks are Tortuous

(Photo courtesy of http://www.ncwd-youth.info/blog)

We’ve all heard them before: “just start with yourself,” or “look inside and start from there,” or “just be clear, and listen to each other.” These one-liners that those in whom we confide spew at us in order to direct the conversation along to either their steamy gossip, or some mundane topic of the day; the truth is: addressing conflict, especially with someone you care for, is very difficult. 

It doesn’t matter how many times you’ve done it. 

There’s always the rush of emotions, for most of us – fear, apprehension, worry, anxiety – and the cycle repeats. “How do we have tough talks? What will they think of me? What will they say?  How do we address conflicts in a healthy, productive manner? I’m not confrontational. What do I do?” If these thoughts plague your person, don’t worry. It’s actually a good sign because it means you care. It means you are concerned for another person’s well-being, and not just your own, and that’s always a good place to start. 

So what are the steps? There is no set procedure sadly – every relationship, no matter the type, is different. But, there are basic check points in the cycle of recognizing that there’s a conflict, addressing the conflict, and resolving the conflict that can be worked through. The following is written assuming that stage one – identifying the conflict, no matter how big or small – has been completed. 

So never fear – a little help is near.

First, the cycle of emotions mentioned above is a dangerous cycle; it’s not dangerous because of the emotions you’re experiencing. Those are only natural. It’s a dangerous cycle because people misinterpret not only the emotions they’re experiencing, but they also inappropriately associate those emotions with a negative sentiment. It is okay to feel anxious, and afraid; in the words of the immortal Justin Timberlake: don’t act like it’s a bad thing. There’s a false myth out there that relationships should be smooth sailing all the time; there’s a false myth out there that relationships mean no fighting, and there’s a false myth of expectation out there that relationships will be smooth sailing and no fighting because the strong connection you made with that person will overwhelm you both.

Spoiler Alert!

The nature of relationships may begin with an instantaneous, positive, sweeping connection: realizing you two both like ranch on your wings at snack bar, that you both doubled up on Chem and Physics, that you also listen to John Coltrane while studying, that you both are waiting in anticipation for the cross country team to streak naked through the new Sawyer, or that you both hated the entry system. But in the same way that the phrase “Rome wasn’t built in a day,” refers to the literal fact that Rome was built in 1,009,500 days (approx.), it also means that patience and hard work are necessary to create a long-lasting end product. 

Arguments and fights, or spats and quarrels are only natural; we are meant to have disagreements with people because that is how we learn and reconcile and adapt.  These disagreements create an environment for healthy discussion in your relationship and not only intellectual stimulation, but a building of an emotional and mental connection. However, rather than welcoming the opportunity with open arms, there’s a myth out there that has taught people to flee, and view arguments as purely negative occasions. One of the many consequences that develop is that many people, then, don’t get to experience the process of resolving a conflict; as humans, we naturally fear – and avoid – what we do not know. As a result, when people think of confronting conflicts, this cycle of emotions only repeats and it causes us to neglect having the tough talks necessary to build healthy relationships.

Second, understand that no matter the type of relationship, whether it’s work-centered, romance-centered, amicably friendship-centered, or any combination, confronting conflicts will happen all the time. In some relationships it is easier than most because you are emotionally invested  a little more, or a little less; so if you’re great at handling tough talks in one domain, don’t assume you’re just as great in another. And don’t feel bad if you are not as great transitioning from one tough talk to another – it’s a constant learning process. 

It’s important that we recognize that every relationship we have is separate and unique; there may be similarities but there are also differences, and staying conscious of that will help you avoid making grave mistakes when addressing a conflict – making unfair comparisons, taking unwarranted, inaccurate advice, or making sweeping generalizations and assumptions that will be only make the tough talk that much tougher. The language we use, the references and location and tone we use to confront a conflict should all hinge upon, and only upon, that relationship. Tough talks in the classroom are very different from tough talks with a teammate or a sibling or a partner. 

So remember, perfect practice produces precision produces perfect precision. [a.k.a: practice makes perfect] But this is a constant learning process; relationships aren’t stagnant objects in our lives – as we change, so do our relationships. So don’t feel bad if you know someone who gives great advice at work, but not so great advice for friendships. And don’t feel bad if that someone…is you.

So that’s the torture before the talk even happens. Why are tough talks torturous? 

Stay tuned as we answer this question and provide some basic steps and important points for confronting your conflicts in a healthy, effective manner. 

Until next time!

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