This column often deals with how to prevent unhealthy conflict – but what do we do if things have already gotten uncomfortable?
Having an ongoing, tense relationship in our lives can be very draining. We’re always on the lookout for that person, tensed against the possibility of running into them at the store or an event. Since we tend to regard conflict as a threat, we scan our environment for that person the way we would scan on a hike for bears or rattlesnakes. It’s worth our while to look more closely at those conflicts in our lives, to consider how we can address them.
First, we need to look at the importance of the relationship to us. Is the person a family member or a close colleague at work? Maybe they’re just someone we see a lot in our usual haunts around town. It definitely takes energy to address conflict, so we want to make sure the relationship is worth the effort. If the relationship isn’t that important and we only see this person infrequently, it may be best to just let things be. We don’t need to be on perfect terms with everyone in our lives. Each of us will have a different take on the trade-offs involved, depending on our level of comfort with conflict and addressing it.
If, however, the relationship is important to us, personally or professionally, it’s worth spending some time and energy to see if we can restore things to a more enjoyable level. The problem can be where to begin. If we want to improve the relationship, we should make the first move. We often get stuck when there’s been a rift – nursing wounds and waiting for the other person to approach. Both people begin to harden in their respective positions and the conflict deepens. If you decide you want things to change, the next step is to let go of who was wrong and reach out to the other person.
We also need to get a sense of what lies at the heart of the conflict. Was there a clash of political or religious opinions? If so, the conflict may not be resolvable by discussing it and the best course might be to just avoid particular subjects when talking with that person.
Other times the conflict may be rooted in the way a particular incident was perceived. Maybe one or both parties felt a slight, or went away from a gathering with hurt feelings. Sometimes peace offerings like buying them a coffee or another small gesture is all that is needed to put things right.
If you decide to start the conversation, it’s important take a little time to consider what you want to say and how you need to say it. A carefully planned approach will increase the likelihood that your overture will bridge the gap rather than widening it. Be very careful not to stick any zingers in there – though it can be hard to resist. Avoid acting superior or magnanimous for being the one reaching out.
Don’t expect all the walls to come tumbling down – you may not even get a response. If so, keep focusing on the positive aspects of the other person. It takes two sides to have a fight, so if you can truly let it go, that’s the end of it for you. You have the relief of knowing you did your utmost and don’t have to dread seeing the other person.
If they respond well, also reaching out to help bridge the gap, great! Keep things positive and honest. Feel free to express your relief about getting along better.