Wow, that escalated quickly! You never meant for your conversation to get so heated. You were just trying to get your point across and then suddenly, mean and hurtful jabs were coming at you left and right. How did this get so out of control? What did you say to set them off like that? And what do you do now? Is your relationship over?
Most people save their cruelest punches for text messages or email. Mainly because they lack the courage to be so unpleasant to your face. Most of us that come from dysfunctional homes never learned how to communicate in a healthy way. We tend to avoid conflict and try our damnedest not to rock the boat.
But here you are, trying to walk the walk along the road to health and wellbeing and your friend, lover, or relative is behaving like you’ve just shot them in the eye. How do you respond? And what exactly is going on here?
Whenever I am faced with an emotionally charged electronic message and all I want to do is take a jab back at them, I take a step back instead and I utilize the 24 Hour Rule. I don’t respond, I don’t participate and I don’t escalate the situation. I wait 24 hours until the emotions have simmered down and I assess the situation. I ask myself a number of questions and evaluate what is really going on:
- Does this person always react this way? Or are they having a bad day?
- What role did I play in this conflict? (Put yourself in their shoes and try to see things from their point a view). Do they have a reason to be upset with you? Is there a misunderstanding? Can you find common ground?
- Do they bring value to my life and make me feel good the majority of the time? Or are they constantly trying to hurt me and make me feel bad?
- Would my life improve if they were not in it?
Adults that have been through childhood trauma definitely have impediments to healthy communication. Some of these include:
You Don’t Know How To Be Direct: Text messaging and emails are lazy communication. It’s easy to be harsh at arm’s length. If resolving the conflict is important to you, you’ve got to learn to meet it head on. Pick up the phone, or drive over to their home and have a calm conversation face to face. Hiding behind a text message is cowardly. Get in the habit of being direct. Healthy communicators are not afraid to be direct.
Black and White Thinking: You either agree with me or you’re completely wrong and against me and I may never speak to you again. There’s no finding common ground, or an attempt to find a solution. Instead you’re either all or nothing.
You’re Deathly Afraid of Conflict: When arguments broke out at your childhood home, you were taught to run for cover. You learned how to survive by being invisible and not rocking the boat. So, when conflict comes a knocking you ignore it and avoid it at all costs, leaving a long trail of unresolved issues, hurt feelings and broken friendships in your wake.
You’re an Absorber: When upset people throw jabs your way, you absorb their harsh words and accusations, which causes you to feel horrible and responsible. It goes against your tendency to people please and it’s killing you inside. So, you try to avoid dealing with them and their anger on account of self-preservation.
I recently had a conflict, with an old friend. I’ll share it here as it’s a great example of the difficulties we face in everyday communication. My friend and I have birthday’s close together in September and I wanted to combine the parties and have one big one and invite all of our friends. I was trying to come up with a venue. She lives in a condo in the downtown area with a big party room and I live in the suburbs, almost an hour out of town. So, I suggested to her in early July that we have a party at her place. Her response at that time was that it was too early to talk about it.
As the time drew nearer, I brought it up again via text message.
Me: Does your condo have a party room? I’m planning our birthday party. 😊
Her: Yup, but I’m not having a party. Likely be out of town.
Her: Zero interest in a party. Especially one that I will have to plan.
Me: ☹ all you’d have to do is book the room. I’d do all the rest.
Her: Nope, no interest.
Me: Party pooper. (several poop emojis). At this point I have accepted that she does not want a party and I’m done with the conversation. An hour goes by and she replies:
Her: I’m unemployed. I have nothing to celebrate and I want no part of feeding people. I do not want a party. Not sure how or why I should be subjected to what you want to do for your birthday. Have I ever expressed interest in having a party? You have never expressed an interest in coming to my condo since I moved here. Despite several invitations. Nope. But now you have decided that you want a party and I can be instrumental in your plans… These are clearly your interests and your wants. Nothing to do with me.
Me: When I brought it up the last time we were together, all you said was it was too early to plan. But I’m way beyond that now. I accepted that you didn’t want to have a party over an hour ago and moved passed it, only to get a scathing and accusatory text from you. “Why should you be subjected to what I want?” Really? Do you really think I wanted to use you for your party room? Are you serious? Who talks or thinks this way? When I moved to (my city) and offered to show you around, you backed out, so it goes both ways. I suggest you take some time and reflect on the language you’ve used here, as well as the mean accusations you’ve made. Friends don’t behave this way.
Her: Of course, I made it all up.
Me: All I did was make a suggestion. You created all these horrible motives in your head and attributed them to me. Please don’t text me again until you are out of this funk and ready to apologize.
Her: The only apology I can offer is that I am sorry that I apparently did not make it clear the first time you mentioned a party that I didn’t want one.
I didn’t respond for several days. I was pretty upset. So, I needed to calm down, take the emotion out of it and look at it logically. I asked myself – 1. Does she usually act this way or is she having a bad day? She doesn’t usually act this way. She was definitely having a bad day.
Next, I looked at my role in the conflict and I was able to put myself in her shoes. I’m an extravert, she is an extreme introvert and is uncomfortable in groups of more than 4. Maybe she thought I was trying to bully her into doing what I wanted, but that was not my intention. At worst I was only teasing her when I called her a party pooper. (Common ground)
Does she add value to my life? Absolutely. And my life would be diminished if she was not in it.
So, I put on my big girl pants and called her. I told her I was not willing to let go of a lifelong friendship over one bad day. She apologized and said, “Perhaps I over-reacted.” A few days after my birthday I went over to her condo and we spent the day together and had a great time.
The key to this resolution was stopping the escalation from going any further. I took a few days. Thought about it logically, put myself in her place and gulp, picked up the phone, tackled my fear of conflict and used direct communication.
Some conflict isn’t so easy. Sometimes you’ve got to know when to fold em. When people are consistently disturbing your inner peace and have shown you, repeatedly, that they don’t care about you, you have to make the decision that you’re not going to continue the insanity anymore. As Maya Angelou once said, “When people show you who they are, believe them.”
There are many people in my life who once enjoyed a front row seat to my life. Through their actions, I have placed them in the back row, where I communicate with them at arm’s length, or I’ve escorted them from the building entirely and have completely shut down all communication.
If you have tried to resolve the conflict and they refuse to meet you in the middle, or to have made no attempt to find common ground, there’s not much left for you to do. The beauty of this technique is that you know that you have done your best to resolve the conflict. If they can’t get passed it, you can put your mind at ease knowing that you did your part.
Remember that people can only meet you where they are. If you have put in a lot of work, making yourself healthier, you can’t assume that they have done the same. Chances are they are leaps and bounds behind you and lack the communication skills that you’ve acquired. Some people are never wrong and never sorry. You aren’t going to change their minds, or their behavior and they are never going to take responsibility for their actions. All you can do is remove yourself from their chaos and show them the exit.
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