How to Make Confrontation a Little Less Scary

Unhappy couple sitting on a couch.
Photo by Klaus Neilsen on Pexels.

The first significant argument my long-term boyfriend and I had happened about three months after we started dating. I couldn’t even tell you what it was about, but I do remember how I felt. My muscles were tense, I was sweating, and my heart was racing. My defenses were up. My boyfriend, however, was calm. He suggested that our fight was not “us against each other,” but rather “us against the problem.” My mind was blown. I felt immediately calmer, less tense, and more open to being vulnerable after hearing his words. I didn’t have to defend myself. We were on the same side.

Over the next few weeks, I tried to approach every problem I faced with this mindset. Whether it was with him or with my sister whom I was living with at the time, I found myself able to be more vulnerable and hear feedback. I felt less nervous about bringing up a problem.

Today, it’s been five years since my boyfriend and I started dating. Not only are the conversations easier and gentler when conflict arises, but also we experience less conflict in general. I suspect it’s because I no longer view problems as negative. It’s just a puzzle we need to figure out together. Additionally, I’ve applied this outlook to other relationships (roommate conflict, sibling tiffs, coworker discussions) and it’s been instrumental in keeping all difficult conversations from turning into tense confrontations.

Below are five tips I’ve found that make confrontation a little easier!

1. Replace “but” with “and”

It’s easy to come off as defensive in your response during conflict. When you are confronting someone with a problem, try replacing the word “but” with “and” — this makes it easier for people to hear your point. For example: “I know you didn’t mean it as an insult but you hurt my feelings” versus “I know you didn’t mean it as an insult and you hurt my feelings.” This phrasing allows for both truths to exist while maintaining respect and not placing blame.

2. Use “I” Statements

When discussing an issue with someone, focus on how the tension at hand affects you. Don’t focus on comebacks or criticizing them; talk about your feelings and why you are bringing up the original problem. For example, avoid an accusatory statement like “You are so lazy – you never do dishes,” in favor of, “I need some help with the dishes sometimes; I’m feeling overwhelmed”.

3. Chat in a neutral space

If your roommate never tidies up the apartment, try taking a walk or chatting over coffee at the local cafe, instead of knocking on their bedroom door and confronting them. Meeting in neutral territory helps both parties feel safe and offers the option to walk away from the conversation and have some privacy if they need to cool down afterward. Propose this by saying something like, “Are you free for a walk this weekend? I would love to chat about how we can tackle chores together.” 

4. Find a good time for everyone

Ask the person you’d like to have a conversation with, “When is a good time to have a conversation about ______?” and then respect their answer. Avoid bombarding someone only when you are ready to talk. Allowing space for someone to prepare emotionally for the conversation shows respect right off the bat and will hopefully show them that you want to collaborate on a solution. 

5. Really listen

It may seem obvious, but really listen to what the other person has to say. If you notice your defenses going up, try to acknowledge that and keep an open ear. You can feel resistance and also hear someone out. Share your side of the issue, ask their side, and then try to come up with a solution together. Listening is the key to compromise.

At the end of the day, having tough conversations is, well, tough. I always try to lead with empathy and show myself and the other person grace. Whether you are navigating confrontation in your personal or professional life, utilizing these tips can hopefully help make the experience easier.

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