Editor’s Note: Strong relationships are at the core of a happy life, but sometimes, dealing with the people in our lives is tricky. That’s why Thrive Global partnered with The Gottman Institute on this advice column, Asking for a Friend. Every week, Gottman’s relationship experts will answer your most pressing questions about navigating relationships — with romantic partners, family members, co-workers, friends, and more. Have a question? Send it to [email protected]!
Q: Two friends of mine had a sudden falling out a couple months ago, and now there’s tension in our friend group. A part of me feels I should get involved and help make peace, but I’m afraid that doing so will inevitably put me on one of their sides, and will worsen the situation. Is there a way I can help heal the wound without adding more blood?
A: You’re in a very tough position. It can be awkward and even heartbreaking when a conflict between two people not only has a negative impact on their friendship, but also on their close-knit group of friends.
Because you care, you’re tempted to help. However, you have that all too common fear: “What if I get in the middle and then one or both of them becomes upset with me?”
It’s possible to use a couple of techniques that are specifically designed by professionals to help people manage conflict in their personal lives. One is called NVC, which stands for “nonviolent communication,” developed by Marshall B. Rosenberg, Ph.D. NVC emphasizes people resolving conflict through using “I” statements to carefully articulate their observations, feelings, needs, and requests. The people in conflict take turns speaking and listening to one another, ultimately hoping to better understand each other and respond to one another. If you are going to try to help your friends, it is worth reviewing NVC to better understand the concepts.
Another tool I recommend you use in this situation is the “Aftermath of a Fight,” developed by John and Julie Gottman, and inspired by Dan Wile’s book, After the Fight. Though this technique was designed for couples, many use it with success in their family relationships. I could easily imagine using it with friends. To adapt the tool, all you would have to do is to substitute the word “friend” for “partner” throughout.
Wile notes the key to processing conflict is to help people have a “recovery conversation” without getting back into the fight. The Gottman tool is effective because the “recovery conversation” is very well scripted. Staying with this format helps partners, and I believe friends, to avoid getting back into the fight.
Think through whether the two friends are open to hearing each other and repairing the rift between them. In order to do so, each has to be able to hear the other’s reality or account of the conflict, and accept that both realities or accounts are legitimate. Each person’s feelings perceptions and needs are valid. They have to commit to expressing their realities in an honest, conscientious manner, while attempting to understand and accept the other’s reality. If they cannot trust or commit in this manner, do not proceed.
If you believe they may be able to hear and work with each other’s realities, I suggest saying:
I’m concerned about this fight you guys had and its impact on both of you and our wider group of friends. I’m sorry everyone is hurting. I found a tool used to help people process fights and recover from and get past them. It does require the two of you answer a series of questions to one another, and try to understand the other person’s point of view. Are you willing to give this a try? Are you OK with my helping you with it?
You also need to set boundaries for your role, indicating what you can and cannot do.
I can help guide you through the process, but I cannot take sides. You have to work this out between you. I can try to help mediate the discussion to help you better understand one another. If this is going to work, I can’t judge.
The Balcony and The Stage
Before you start the exercise, I suggest making the following statement that I have heard Julie Gottman say many times: “As we begin, it’s like you both are sitting on a balcony looking down on a stage where the fight occurred. It’s calmer now, and you can both explain where you were coming from and why without getting back into the fight.”
I would also add, “If it gets tense again, we will take a breather and continue when it’s calmer. We have time to take breaks if needed. Our big goal is to debrief from this fight, without getting back into it.”
Have both friends, one at a time, tell each other what they were feeling at the time of the fight or regrettable incident. Explain that they will start with identifying their feelings, because feelings are easiest for people to hear and relate to. Give them a list of feelings to help them tell each other what they were feeling. The “I Feel…” deck in the Gottman Card Decks app is great for this.
“I feel that you are/did” statements or “you made me feel” statements are not allowed, because they come off as blaming. Tell them at this point, they are to just name feelings they felt at the time without explaining why they felt the way they felt.
As each person listens to the other, they do not respond. They simply hear one another’s feelings. This lays the groundwork for empathy.
After they have heard one another’s feelings, have each person describe to the other, one at a time, what happened from his or her perspective. The person who describes his or her reality is “the speaker,” and tries to describe what happened like a reporter, saying things like, “I thought I heard you say this. And then that other thing happened, and I did not know what to think.”
The speaker tries to avoid blaming. To that end, he or she should only use “you statements” to describe what happened, and “I statements” to describe feelings or needs. For example, the speaker might say: “When you did not show up, I felt angry and frustrated. I need to be able to count on you when we agree to shoot hoops together.” The speaker should discuss his or her reality in a matter-of-fact kind of way, rather than attempting to persuade the listener.
The listener should just listen to the other person’s reality. The listener can ask clarifying questions, but cannot ask questions to make a point. The listener tries to understand and validate the other person’s perspective, but does not have to agree with it. The listener may say something like, “I can understand why you would feel that way. I am late when we agree to meet up. I also have not shown up. If I were you, that would make me mad.” When the friends switch roles, the friend who was listening describes his reality in a similar manner.
Wounds, Nerves, or Sore Spots
The friends in conflict describe any emotional wounds, nerves, or sore spots that may have gotten triggered by the incident. This is an opportunity for each friend to say more about the story of what bothered them, where they were coming from, and why.
You can say something like: “Sometimes when a conflict occurs between friends, the conflict triggers an emotional nerve or sore spot or wound from earlier in life. That is why fights can get so intense. Did this fight trigger anything like that for either of you?”
One of the friends might say to the other: “You seem to show up on time for everyone else, so when you are late, I feel like I do not matter and everyone else does. So, I feel like I don’t matter to you. That’s a sore spot. And I hate that. It happened all the time with my father, when I was supposed to spend time with him right after the divorce, and before he moved away. He’d show up for my brother and sister, but he couldn’t seem to get there for me. So, it really bothers when people don’t show up or a really late.”
The other person then just tries to listen and understand: “I had no idea that this bothered you so much. I can certainly see why. It must really sting when I am late or particularly when I do not show up at all. It must hurt that much more, because it is some version of how your father treated you.” The speaker who was listening then describes his wounds and the other friend listens and affirms them.
Admitting Mode and Apologies
Here you emphasize to your friends: “No one’s perfect. Sometimes other things that are going on inside us or in our lives set us up to have fights. Was anything like that going on for you?”
The “Aftermath of A Fight” has a list of things each person can choose from. One might say, “I have been overly sensitive lately. At the end of the summer, we are all going our separate ways. I am dreading that.” The other might say, “I have been so preoccupied with what is going on in my life, that I have totally missed how my behavior was coming off to you.”
After that, they both apologize to one another or express something they regret they did in reference to the fight. One friend might say, “I am sorry I did not tell you how much this was bothering me.” The other might say, “I am so sorry I missed this.”
Making it Better Next Time
The last step in this tool is for both friends to answer the question: “What could I do differently next time? What could you do differently next time?” This is an attempt to construct a solution that may decrease the likelihood of having this kind of a fight in the future. One might say: “I gotta tell you sooner how I feel when you are late or a no-show. You gotta either show up or call and explain why you’re late or couldn’t make it.” The other person might say, “I need to be more careful when I say I will show up to make sure I can really get there. I need you to keep your cool as we talk this out.” Based on their answers, the friends agree upon a plan to help avoid getting into this kind of a fight next time.
If going through this feels choppy and challenging, do not despair. When your friends stick it out and go through all the questions, the technique will begin to help their relationship recover from the fight. Remember, your role is just to explain the steps to them, and let them work it out.
You can help them to understand one another, through pointing out what each of them feels or means. If you do so, you have to make sure you understand each partner and give them both equal time.
When we process fights and disagreements, we guard against a buildup of very negative feelings that might ultimately cause friendships to break down.
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