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Building Healthy Friendships - Conflict Resolution

One of the most significant moments I've had with a friend came because we had a fight. Just a few days after graduating from college, my friend, John, and I were hanging out in someone's backyard having a BBQ and pool party. I said something sarcastic and silly and accidentally sprayed him with a hose. He responded quickly, saying something like- "Dude- you're so dumb". His tone was intense. My feelings were hurt. It all happened so quickly. 

A few minutes later, as I was changing in the bathroom I had a little discussion with myself. I realized that my feelings were really hurt- John had been a good friend, and I really, really didn't like what he said or how he said it. It occurred to me there and then that this was an inflection moment. My subconscious was telling me this was the time to push away and not be close friends anymore. I wanted to protect myself.

But then, I felt something else. I felt sad. I didn't want to dissolve our friendship- John was becoming such a close friend- like a brother to me. But the only model I'd ever seen before from my family was when you get annoyed or irritated with a friend- you move on. Never talk again. Find a new friend. I didn't want to do that, though. And yet, I knew I couldn't pretend like my feelings weren't hurt. It was too significant. I had to address the conflict.

I left the bathroom and approached John awkwardly. With as much courage as I could muster, I looked at him and said something like, "Man, what you said really hurt my feelings. I didn't mean to spray you with the hose. I know I was acting sarcastic, and I'm sorry about that. But I really didn't like what you said or how you said it." I don't think I took a breath at all and just stood there and stared at him. 

Here's the part I'll never forget. John looked at me for a few seconds and then broke into a huge grin. He said, "Do you realize what's happening right now? We're having our first fight! I've only have had fights and arguments with my brothers, never with a friend. This is awesome!" Then, he apologized, and we both laughed. We still laugh about it. 

That was twenty years ago. He's been like a brother ever since. 

I can't imagine how much richness I would've missed if we hadn't resolved that little conflict twenty years ago. His friendship means the world to me, and it's not the only time we've had to address conflict with each other over the years. 

Conflict is awkward. Uncomfortable. Distressing. Overwhelming. Vulnerable. But on the other side of it is all the good stuff- connection, intimacy, commitment, support, and love. 

We want every kid to have every opportunity to build a meaningful life, a life that's rich, and deep, and filled with love. So, we have to teach kids how to resolve conflict. It's not something that you just pick up. It has to be deliberately modeled, taught, and affirmed. By us. 

Here are seven uncommon sense principles for conflict resolution:

  1. Recognize there's conflict: the first step to resolving conflict is actually recognizing that there's a break in the relationship. This part is subtle- I'm always tempted to act or pretend or convince myself that nothing's really wrong. But, the more self-aware and honest I become, the more I'm able to recognize when something's been damaged and needs repair.
  2. Read the story underneath the story: renowned researcher, author, and speaker Brené Brown shared a pro-tip- whenever our feelings get triggered, our brains are wired to make sense of what we're feeling with a story we invent, and it's usually a negative story. For instance, let's say a friend shows up late to meet you for lunch. Subconsciously, we invent a story that our friend has more important things to do than spend time with us. Or, our friend isn't a real friend- they're selfish and chaotic. Either of those stories may or may not be true, but believing them causes a rift in the relationship.
  3. Own your part: in my experience, it's pretty rare for a conflict to be completely one-sided. In fact, I'd say 98% of the time it takes two to tango. It might be that you have a deep-seated belief that being early means you're a good person. Or, it might be that you knew their previous commitment might make it difficult to get there on time, but because the time worked better for your schedule, you pushed for it.
  4. Take initiative: one of the key parts of resolving conflict is the willingness to make a move towards the other person. I know- it's probably all their fault. They should make the first move. But, experience shows that if you're willing to make the first move, everything will go better. It might look like this- start by sending a text or mention over the phone, "Remind me to bring up something about lunch the other day when we see each other tomorrow."
  5. Share your experience, own your feelings: I'm sure you've heard this before- the notion that you should share your feelings with "I feel..." statements. Well, do you know why you've heard that so often before? Because it works! It also helps if you take Brené's advice and share the story that you invented in your mind about what happened. Give them a chance to respond to your story.
  6. Listen for understanding: the next hardest part is to give the other person the opportunity to respond and share their feelings and their experience. It's hard because they might not respond the way you hope. They might have hurt feelings, too. They might have a perspective that's difficult to hear. They might bring up old wounds. They might shut down and not respond at all. This is the point of your greatest surrender.
  7. Commit to repairing: finally, if you get this far and both of you had the chance to share your feelings and perspective, it's an opportunity to talk through ways to repair the relationship and avoid repeating the same patterns. It might be an apology and a hug. It might look like a commitment to show up on time, or be more honest with each other earlier. It might even be taking some space for a while to allow yourselves some time to work through your feelings. Or, perhaps, this is the time to shift the dynamics of the friendship. 

 

It's difficult to imagine someone going through life and building authentic, supportive relationships- the kind that everyone wants and everyone needs in order to thrive, without learning how to practice conflict resolution. What are the other options? Shallow friendships where we avoid getting too close? Shutting down friendships and moving on when things get uncomfortable or awkward?

Resolving conflict isn't for the faint of heart. It's not easy and it's incredibly vulnerable. But on the other side of a conflict is a deeper connection, stronger commitment, and a more meaningful life. It's worth it; we have to teach our kids how to resolve conflict.

A key foundational element for building a meaningful life is learning conflict resolution skills.

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Do you know?

For years we’ve been studying what a young person needs in order to transition into a healthy, thriving adulthood.  

They're uncommon sense ideas, really.

Download this checklist and use it with your students (or kids).

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