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How to Turn Conflict Into Connection: Navigating Tension in Social Circles

  • 11 min read

Do you have someone in your life whom you regularly spend time with…but there’s always a sense of tension or negativity between you?

Maybe this person is a co-worker.  Maybe they’re a part of your extended friend group.  Or even an imaginary friend you don’t get along with very well. (In which case, please do verify that they’re imaginary. Nothing creepier than finding out after 20 years that you’ve been stuck with an actual stranger living in your bedroom.)

I’m not talking about people who you have a history of real drama with.  But people who you don’t know very well, yet every time they’re around, you get a bit annoyed with their presence.

Whomever they are, if you currently have a situation like this, you may be surprised to learn that there is a tremendous opportunity for connection and mutual growth there.  

This post will give you the tools to find and explore that connection in 4 simple steps, which I’ll illustrate by sharing a similar story from my own life.

1. Connect with the Disconnect

The Story

My girlfriend and I often host events at our place for friends, strangers and acquaintances to mingle. And hopefully for all of them to end up as friends at one point.

One night, a guy showed up that I hadn’t met before.  

I initially welcomed him like everyone. But as the night went on, I had a tough time tolerating his presence in the group.

At some point, we both ended up in the kitchen alone.  I wanted to grab something from the fridge and he was blocking my access to it.  He in turn wanted to move out of the kitchen. But I was standing in his way.

We both stared into each others eyes for a tense moment, and then said simultaneously:

“We don’t like each other very much, do we?”

The Method

When there is a proverbial elephant in the room, people can only connect with each other in the areas where the elephant is not blocking them.

This is easy to understand when you imagine for a moment that there’s an actual elephant in the room.  

If you’re sitting in a group with a huge elephant in the middle, and you’re trying to strike up a conversation with a stranger on the other side, you can connect with them as far as your view is not blocked by the elephant. (”Hey, nice shoes you got there buddy!  I mean, those feet I see are yours, right?  I can’t connect your voice to your face for some reason I don’t see the rest of your body”).

Similarly, if you’re in a group where nobody is supposed to ever talk about your friend “Bruno”, you will not be able to talk about any memories where he was present, share life lessons you learned Bruno’s stories, etc. without at least omitting some details.  “Bruno” is the elephant that blocks the view of those topics.

If there’s a massive elephant between you and 1 specific other person (”We don’t like each other”), almost all connection will be blocked, until the elephant itself gets addressed.   Because this elephant is relevant to just about anything you too could talk about.  If you feel annoyed every time they talk, but you don’t talk about it, you’ll have to twist your words in all kinds of weird ways to keep the conversation going without that being communicated.

Pointing out the elephant in the room can be scary.  (What if people get angry that you called it out?)

But it’s also a form of service.  Maybe the other person was bothered by this elephant and dare to bring it up either. In that case you calling it out can be a relief for them.

The question is of course: what if you’re the only person who believed the elephant was there?  What if for them it wasn’t there?

It’s possible.  But if you were feeling a disconnect with someone and that person wasn’t, then that would also be a disconnect (as you’re both living in different realities).  So the first step to moving towards a connection is to connect with the disconnect, and bring that up in the conversation.

The key here is in the phrasing.  When pointing out the elephant, recognize that this is a feeling you have, and ask them whether they feel it to:

“I get the impression that there’s some tension between us, do you feel that too?”

“Sometimes when we interact, I interpret it as if there’s some unspoken conflict between us.  Have you ever had that?”

2. Set the Stage for a Safe Interaction

The Story

“We don’t like each other very much, do we?”

We couldn’t help but laugh a bit when that poor elephant between us died: “No, we definitely don’t.”

There were a few seconds of silence.  We still didn’t allow each other to pass.

And then we both said “Let’s find out why that is!”

The Method

First, ask for consent.

You may think “Really? Do we now need to ask for consent to have a conversation?  This world is going to hell in a handbasket!”.  You don’t need to ask anything if you don’t want to.  But imagine that a person you already dislike starts a conversation with you about the fact that they dislike you, without asking first if you were in the mood for it.  How well is that conversation going to go? 😉

You don’t need to actually bring a lawyered consent form to the table (of course, if you have a bureaucracy fetish, you do you 😉 ).  You can just say:

“Would you like to explore why we feel this way, and see how we can get along better?”

Once the answer is yes, create some basic agreements on how this conversation will go.

When having a conversation with people you dislike, there’s a lot of potential for it to escalate into an argument.  With the best intentions, we can get triggered into unconscious patterns and start:

  • Blaming the other person
  • Seeing them as a representation of someone or something other than them (your mom, your ex-wife, the patriarchy)
  • Shutting down to protect yourself from feeling intense emotions (”see, this is exactly why I don’t like you, I’m out of here”)
  • Focusing on “being right” over creating connection

There a possibility of this happening to both of you.  So you’ll need to be prepared to deal with it. Here are some possible agreements you could make that can help::

  • “Can we attempt to suspend our triggers and knee-jerk reactions as much as possible?”
  • “Can we see any triggers that do come up as opportunities to bring curiosity and explore together what’s happening for both of us there?”
  • “Can we see any emerging arguments as opportunities to get curious about the fact that someone else can be so different from us, and to explore what the other person’s reality is like?”

3. Take Turns Sharing Experiences & Impact

The Story

If we were to condense our 10 minute conversation into a few paragraphs, it went something like this:

ME: “When I see you interact with the group, I get the sense that you are pretending to be someone you’re not.  That idea bothers me.  Because I want this to be a place where everyone can be free to be who they really are and feel loved for it.  No pretending.“

HIM: ”I am a guest in your home.  And we are strangers. That is an intimidating thing.  And I’ve been doing my best to behave in a way that fits your culture.  But whatever I do, you seem to dislike it and to cut me no slack.  This makes me feel uneasy.  Because you are the man of the house, the person who could kick me out of this party and end my night. ”

ME: “All you had to do for me to like you is just be yourself.”

HIM: “This is myself.  I’ve been traveling the world since I was a little kid.  Becoming a cultural chameleon and adjusting my behavior to fit in with groups is how I learned to survive in new places.  It’s a defining personality trait and one of my biggest strengths.  But I can see now how in your house, where the culture is to be your self, it’s ironically the thing that stops me from fitting in.”

ME: “That must have been hard for you. I myself was never accepted or loved by groups as a kid.  So I can empathize with the feeling you have had at this party.  In fact, it’s because of my childhood that I now care so much about creating a place where people can be themselves and be loved for it in a group. The fact that you tried to be who I might want you to be, felt like a personal failure on my part to provide such a space.  I can see now how that thought actually stopped me from accepting and welcoming you as I intended.“

The Method

Take turns speaking and listening to each other’s experience of the interaction between you two.

As a listener, agree to not start replying (preferably not in your head either) until the speaker has finished speaking.

As a speaker, do your best to phrase your thoughts slowly and deliberately. And to make clear distinctions between the facts and your own feelings or interpretations.

Phrase your words in a way where you take full responsibility for your experience, rather than holding the other person responsible.

An example of NOT doing that would be:

“I get pissed when you are rude to people and that makes me dislike you.”

This is the sort of phrase we speak innocently, but can stir up drama.  

  • “Being rude” is not something you can actually do.  What is “rude” depends on the interpretations of the person(s) hearing it.
  • Someone’s behavior can not “make” you dislike them.  You are doing the disliking. They are doing the behavior.

To take full responsibility for our experience, we could phrase it this way.

“When you said this thing, I interpreted that as rude.  It became a pattern where I interpreted many of your words in that way, and I started feeling angry towards you.”

(For a full video on how to learn drama-free communication, click here. )

Once you’re done speaking, ask how the other person felt while listening to you.  This is the moment you switch roles and start listening to them.

Repeat this as many times as necessary.  If you stick to the method, you will be surprised at how quickly connection can take place.

4. Rejoice!

The Story

HIM: “Hearing that, I feel so happy that I’ve actually arrived somewhere where I can say whatever comes up in me without having to worry whether it’s appropriate.”

ME: I’m grateful for this lesson. I’ve now learned from you that if someone chooses not to, that choice can also be an authentic one.  And that pressuring people to be my version of authentic can make them feel less free.”

HIM: “I have the feeling you and I will become good friends some day.”

ME: “I have no doubt about it.”

The Method

Take a moment to be thankful for all that you’ve learned from this conversation with each other.

Even in the rare case that all the it led to was you concluding that you have wildly opposing viewpoints which are irreconcilable, there’s still something that now connects you:

Conflict can be scary.  And even though the conflict you had was with each other, the experience of facing it is a journey you shared together.

  • It took courage to confront that experience.  
  • It took vulnerability to share how the other person’s “being” affects your mood.  And it took patience to phrase those things with dignity towards the other.
  • It took humility and restraint to listen to someone speak about how another person’s mood can be negatively impacted by you.
  • It took willingness to look someone in the eye you disagree with. To both commit to seeing the opportunity for connection.

Congratulate, thank and praise each other for exhibiting such beautiful qualities.  

If more politicians and people in power did so, perhaps the world could become a radically different place.

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