Conflict is an inevitable part of every relationship and friendships are not immune to this. Here, an expert shares her tips for dealing with arguments and heated discussions within friendships.
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Falling out with your close friends is the worst. This is partly because your friends tend to be the people you go to when you face conflict in other areas of your life – romantic relationships, work and family dilemmas – so it’s easy to feel lost and isolated when the issue is with the person or people you rely on.
But dealing with conflict is also an essential part of maintaining healthy relationships, particularly when difficult situations arise that you have no control over. Difficult situations like, for example, a global pandemic. Research by YouGov found that friendships suffered the most out of all relationships during the year since the first lockdown began in the UK. 61% of people with close friends said they felt less close to their friends and 26% of 18-24 year olds with close friends said they had fewer friends now than before the coronavirus pandemic began.
Maybe you’re dealing with an issue within a friendship because of an external factor like the pandemic. Or maybe a particular friend has done something to upset you. Either way, it’s probably something that you need to address in order to move past it, even if addressing the issue might cause conflict.
“When conflict in friendships occurs, it can be really hard to handle,” says Grace McMahon, a life coach at Being Well Family. “If an issue within a friendship is causing you anxiety, it’s something that you need to address,” she continues, explaining that this is true even if it is something that you consider trivial.
“Friends bicker and communicate in unusual ways, which can be okay as long as it works for you and isn’t causing you stress,” Grace says. “But if the way you and a friend communicate makes you feel like you don’t want to spend time with them or it’s causing a problem for you personally, you need to address it.”
Of course, dealing with this kind of conflict is easier said than done. So, here are Grace’s tips for managing disagreements and issues within your friendships, while also maintaining a good, healthy relationship with them.
Grace’s advice for handling conflict within friendships
Always choose safe spaces to have difficult conversations in
“Texting someone is an immediate invitation for misinterpretation and fuel for conflict,” Grace says, explaining that meeting someone in person to discuss an issue is the best route, with a phone-call being the other option to consider if you can’t meet someone in person.
“Make sure you find somewhere to meet where you both feel comfortable,” she goes on, suggesting one of your houses or a coffee shop that you’re both familiar with. It can be useful to have these discussions in public because that means you’re both on equal footing in terms of how comfortable you are in the space. However, if you do think you need to express a lot of emotion in order to resolve the issue, it might be best to have the discussion in one of your houses, Grace advises. “In public, you’ll try not to cause a scene but sometimes an outburst of emotions is just what you need in order to be heard and understood,” she says.
Try to see things from your friend’s perspective
When someone, or something in particular, has upset you, it can be easy to see things completely from your point of view. But this is unhelpful during disagreements. “It’s hard to be the bigger person but it can be so helpful to step into the other person’s shoes,” Grace says, explaining that this will help you make fairer points and come to a resolution quicker.
“Do more listening than talking,” is another thing Grace advises in order to help you empathise with your friend. It’s also key to focus on the situation at hand and avoid bringing up things from the past, which can cause unnecessary drama and escalate the situation, she explains.
If you need to take some time to calm down before you speak to your friend, then do so, Grace advises. “If you’re in a calm and collected mindset, that will be far more helpful than starting a conversation in the heat of the moment,” she explains.
The best way to speak about conflict, according to Grace, is to state the problem and explain how it’s making you feel and then listen to the other person’s response. “A lot of the time we try and guess how other people feel so making the time to really listen to them is key,” she explains.
Make some notes before discussing an issue with a friend
Confronting someone can be daunting and it’s easy to feel intimidated when it comes to saying what you really mean during disagreements. We’ve all been there – spending the entire bus journey prepping in your head the calm, confident and collected points you’re going to make to a friend, only to greet them with a big hug telling them, ‘everything is fine!’
To combat this, and to ensure you can actually move on from the issue at hand rather than brushing it under the carpet, Grace recommends that you make physical notes before confronting a friend. “Make a few bullet points in a notebook or on your phone about what you want to say and why you need to say it,” she advises. “This will help to make you feel less stressed, which can help you put your point across in a more amicable way. This will also stop your friend from feeling defensive.”
Grace says that it’s totally fine to have your notes with you while talking to your friend. You can explain that having them with you makes you feel less anxious about the situation and a good friend will understand this.
Over-explain how you’re feeling if you need to
When we’re facing an issue that is causing us anxiety or stress, it tends to be something that plays on our mind a lot. You’ve probably thought about it hundreds of times and considered the issue from every angle. But this might not be the case for your friend. “When we talk about a problem, we often think we’ve explained it really well because we know exactly what’s happening,” Grace says. “But you need to always check in with yourself that you’re making things as clear as possible.”
Over-explaining can also be helpful when it comes to putting up walls. “Often we’ll shrug things off when we’re faced with conflict which is unhelpful in the long-term,” Grace says. “If you catch yourself doing that just stop and explain to the other person that you didn’t mean to shrug that off and that, actually, it is something that makes you uncomfortable.”
It might seem silly to go back on yourself but if you don’t, this issue will keep on happening, so it’s better to deal with it there and then and sometimes this requires making yourself vulnerable.
Set boundaries to prevent similar issues happening again
A lack of boundaries is often the root cause of many issues that arise within friendships. So, if you’ve been able to resolve the issue at hand, a good next step is to put some new boundaries in place with your friend to prevent further conflict in the future. “We need boundaries to protect ourselves and putting them in place with a friend shouldn’t upset them if you explain why you need them,” Grace says.
The boundaries you put in place will be very personal but they’re often based around communication. For example, you might need to set some rules about the ways in which you communicate and how often you communicate. “You have to be quite strong-willed with boundaries,” she explains, noting that you will have to check in with yourself to make sure you’re keeping them in place.
Grace also explains that it’s important to make sure you don’t offer your availability to someone when you’re not actually available. In order to be polite, you might tell your friends that you’re always there for them if they need you or that they can call you at any time. But if you aren’t at a point where you can be there for them all the time, this will only cause more issues. It’s best to be honest with friends about what you can put into that relationship right now and, if that is very little, tell them that you’ll come back to them when you have more to offer. “You have to prioritise looking after yourself because you can’t be there for other people if you’re not okay yourself,” Grace says.
Decide whether you need to end the friendship
If you can’t come to resolve the issue and it continues to upset you, it might be time to break-up with your friend. This can be really difficult but cutting someone who is making you unhappy off can ultimately only be a good thing for everyone involved.
You can read some expert advice on how to break up with a toxic friend from The Curiosity Academy here.
Grace McMahon, life coach
Grace is a certified and accredited Life Coach, with a background in education, psychology and counselling. She has further accredited training in; Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), Neuro-linguistic Programming, as well as mental health and wellbeing for both adults and children.
Images: Getty and Grace McMahon