Have you ever felt hurt by something your friend did and never brought it up, had a blow-up with a friend that got swept under the rug instead of fully processed, or slowly faded away from a friendship instead of talking things through? Many of us don’t have a ton of tools for working through a fight with a friend to create healthier, more sustainable relationships. “In most friendships, there’s no agreement that working through challenges is part of the deal,” says Ali Miller, MFT, a therapist who uses nonviolent communication principles in her work. She points out the general expectation that romantic and family relationships will face challenges, but friendships are supposed to be easy. “When challenges arise in a friendship, we’re caught off guard and don’t have a model for how to navigate the conflict in a productive and connecting way.” Experts In This Article
- Ali Miller, MFT, marriage and family therapist who uses nonviolent communication principles in her work.
- Meenadchi, healer, facilitator, and author of Decolonizing Nonviolent Communication:
- Roxy Manning, PhD, psychologist, nonviolent communication consultant, and author of How to Have Antiracist Conversations
- Terrie Lewine, DC, chiropractor, communication coach, and nonviolent communication practitioner
Psychologist Roxy Manning, PhD, a nonviolent communication consultant and author of the book How to Have Antiracist Conversations, sees conflict as an essential part of healthy human interactions. In other words, if you never fight with your friends, that may not be such a good thing, after all. It could mean you and your friends are repressing feelings, pushing aside needs, or avoiding direct communication. “Conflict just means that I’ve got some needs that are really important to me that I’d like to have met, and you have some needs that are important to you that you’d like to have met…[and we need to find] strategies to meet those needs that work for both of us,” says Dr. Manning. This is the crux of nonviolent communication (NVC). As the healer and facilitator who goes by Meenadchi shares in their book Decolonizing Nonviolent Communication: “We all share a universal set of life-affirming needs.” Those needs include things like belonging, self-expression, play, food, consideration, and love. “Everything people say and do is an attempt to get their needs met,” says chiropractor Terrie Lewine, DC, communication coach and NVC practitioner. “But we sometimes have tragic ways of meeting our needs.” Related Stories
3 things to never do in a fight with a friend, according to nonviolent communication experts
1. Fall into a courtroom mentality
If you’re in a fight with a friend, most of your energy is probably going toward proving how right you are and how wrong your friend is. “It can feel like you’re in a courtroom and you have to win the trial with a strong defense,” Miller explains. “The courtroom mentality of trying to figure out who’s right and who’s wrong, who’s good and who’s bad, destroys relationships.” Ditching the courtroom mentality means giving up blame that anyone did anything wrong. “I don’t think you can literally ever get out of conflict unless you drop out of blame,” Dr. Lewine says. It’s not about who’s right or who’s wrong. It’s about figuring out what both of your needs are, and how to meet them. “We think what we want is to be right, when the reality is what we most deeply want is to love and be loved, to care and feel cared for,” Miller says.
2. Go with your first reaction
“Just don’t,” Dr. Manning says with a laugh. When things are first brought up, both people are likely stimulated and unable to hear each other. When you pause and slow down, you can get more grounded and more easily actively listen to each other.
3. Use static language
Static language is absolute instead of dynamic, and we use it all the time in our daily lives—especially in conflict. “That’s where you get into ‘he is, she is, it is,’” Dr. Lewine says. We may use static language like “you left me out” or “you’re inconsiderate,” instead of saying “I feel hurt.” Feelings-oriented language can feel more vulnerable. But it’s ultimately much more honest and conducive to healthy conflict than static language, which can automatically put your friend on the defensive.
What to do in a fight with a friend, according to nonviolent communication experts
1. Distinguish the need itself from the strategy to meet the need
“In order to get our life-affirming needs met, we employ a variety of strategies,” Meenadchi writes in Decolonizing Nonviolent Communication. “Conflict does not occur at the level of needs. It occurs at the level of strategy.” Distinguishing needs from the ways we try to get needs met can be a collaborative process. Dr. Lewine points out that we often confuse the two; we may think our need is for our friend to take us to the airport, and while we do need a ride, the deeper need is to matter to our friend. When we understand that, a whole slew of new possibilities are opened up. What other ways could your friend show you that you matter to them, while also meeting their own needs? Maybe planning quality time for when you return or a FaceTime while you’re away could work for both of you. When we’re not hyperfocused on defensiveness and blame, we can try to understand the needs underneath our friend’s behaviors—and our own—so we can come up with better ways to meet each other’s needs. Invitations to share more of their feelings and needs, like “what were you hoping for when you did XYZ?” and “tell me more” can be helpful places to start.
2. Separate what *actually* happened from the meaning you’re making of what happened
“This is really essential,” Dr. Manning says. “There’s what the person actually said or did, and then there’s what you heard.” We do this meaning-making all the time: A friend doesn’t offer to split the Uber and we hear that they don’t care about our financial stress. A friend says they can’t talk right now, and we tell ourselves we’re bothering them. A friend looks at their phone when we’re talking, and we hear that we’re not important to them. There’s a big distinction between what happened and the story we tell ourselves about what happened, and it’s critical to get clear on those two things. In a fight with a friend, we tend to lean heavily on the interpretation (“you ignored me!”) instead of the facts (“you looked at your phone when I was trying to talk to you.”) Try to do the opposite, and share observations instead of interpretations. When you want to share an interpretation, make it clear that’s what you’re doing with language like “I took that as” or “the story I told myself when you looked at your phone was….” If you’re struggling to hear each other in a fight, Dr. Manning recommends using the question “what did you hear me say?” to separate the extra layer of meaning from what was said.
3. Take responsibility for your feelings
Instead of saying, “I felt this way because you did that,” express your own feelings and needs. “Your friend doesn’t have to get defensive because you’re not saying ‘I felt this because you did this to me.’ You’re saying, this is what happened and this is what came up for me, this is how I felt,” Dr. Manning says. When we drop the courtroom mentality and let go of the need to blame our friend, we can own our feelings, needs, and sensitive spots without making our friend bad or wrong.
4. Go for the “both and” instead of the “either or”
Binary thinking is part of so many systems we’ve been given, which is part of why we default to making each other good or bad. “We can’t see the gray. Maybe you were trying to support another friend when you interrupted me, and that was hard for me at the same time that there was beauty in what you were trying to do,” Dr. Manning says. “Both things can be true. I can still honor and celebrate how much you care about all our friends being heard, and share how hard it is for me when I’m interrupted. Being able to go for the ‘both and’ rather than the ‘either or’ is essential.”
5. Express your needs
It can be hard to understand what our needs are in the first place during a fight with a friend, so slowing things down and taking time to introspect before bringing things up to your friend is key. If you’re the friend an issue is being brought up to, it could be helpful to just listen at first, then take some time to think about what your needs are before responding. “Conflict is what happens when our needs aren’t met and we don’t have the skills to talk about our needs (and related feelings) in connecting and productive ways,” Miller says. “When a friend, for example, says or does something we don’t like and we get mad, hurt, or upset, the default mode for most of us is either fight (blame, judge, argue) or flight (withdraw, keep your feelings inside, or stay but pretend you’re not upset).” Slowing things down and expressing needs can break the default cycle.
6. Embrace empathy
“You can listen in a way that creates deeper empathy and connection and gives your friend the experience of being seen, heard, and understood, even when you disagree with what they’re saying,” Miller says. Try to connect to the needs of the human in front of you, no matter how mean or complaining they may sound. “What’s the precious thing they’re trying to get you to hear?” Dr. Lewine says. “You can ask, ‘what’s alive in you?’ or ‘why are you upset?’ to try to get down to the need itself.”
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