Did you “unfriend” someone on social media during the last presidential election? Many people did. Silencing someone online whose views we find offensive or disagreeable is as easy as a click of a button. What about our friendships offline? How do you manage conflicts in your real life relationships? Over the years, I have seen how the presence or absence of stable friendships directly relates to a person’s sense of well being. From sharing our Cheerios with our best friend in preschool, to sleepovers, to supporting one another through the trials and tribulations of first love, friendship is a cornerstone of our human experience. However, conflicts with friends sometimes put us at odds with the very people that we count on the most. As a person who tends towards conflict avoidance, I have grown to appreciate the process of conflict resolution in my relationships.
The 2016 presidential election sent many running to their silos, severing ties with those whose political opinions conflicted with their own. Rather than listening to and receiving another’s perspective, many people shut down those personal lines of communication and became further entrenched in their own perspectives and beliefs. We have become a culture that surrounds ourselves with people who support and further crystalize our own values and beliefs. We have become resistant and fearful to hearing and “seeing” another’s viewpoint.
Holding another’s viewpoint does not mean that you accept that viewpoint as truth. It does mean that you accept that person as a unique individual whose life experience and system of beliefs have given her a world view different from your own. Sometimes, these alternative perspectives are greater than a relationship can tolerate. However, often these viewpoints are just big enough to challenge your own thinking. The result: a shift or enrichment of your own viewpoint. It also may lead to a deepening in your relationship with that friend.
At a time when the reports of loneliness are on the rise, it is wise to take inventory of your own relationships. You might find that some of your beliefs about what makes for a healthy friendship are holding you back from more fulfilling and rewarding relationships. Make no mistake, excessive negativity in friendships is unhealthy and toxic. It is important to recognize truly harmful dynamics so you can make the necessary changes in those relationships, even if that means ending a friendship. However, while relationships defined by conflict can be unhealthy, conflict is not, by definition, bad for relationships. In fact, relationships which allow for differing opinions and perspectives establish a foundation for a strong and lasting friendship. The key is identifying points of conflict and their role in your relationship.
Here are 5 ways in which conflict with friends can help you elevate your friendships and your personal growth.
1. Conflicts with friends challenge long held beliefs. Just because you hold a belief, does not mean that belief is true. Many of our beliefs come from what we learned as children. Often, we have incorporated these beliefs into our personal constructs without validating them as adults. When a friend comes along and challenges a truth that you have held for your entire life, it can feel uncomfortable and offensive. However, if you can sit with that discomfort long enough to listen to and receive that challenge, you might find growth.
2. Conflicts with friends help develop your problem solving skills. Conflict resolution in relationships is an important life skill. In my daughters’ school, “peace talks” are held between students who find themselves at an impasse. This set of skills can help us manage difficult situations at home, work and in all of our personal relationships.
3. Conflicts with friends force you to confront potential flaws in your thinking. Sometimes you might actually hold a perspective or belief based on inaccurate facts. It may take an outside observer to point this out and shed light on potential errors in your thinking. A good friend will do this in a respectful way caring for your emotions in the process. Their purpose should be towards your growth and not to bring shame into your experience.
4. Conflicts with friends allow for honesty in your friendships. A healthy friendship is one that allows each individual to exist in the relationship with authenticity and integrity. To do this, each person must trust that they can express what they hold as truth in a safe space. While you and your friend may disagree, you can express your disagreement in a respectful and considerate way.
5. Conflicts with friends help you to develop your empathy. Being able to receive and hold another’s differences requires a certain amount of empathy. Empathy is the experience of identifying with or experiencing the thoughts, ideas and/or feelings of another. This means that you connect some part of your internal experience with your friend’s experience to better understand his reality. This directly impacts how you engage with and treat your friends.
Friendships are a complex but essential part of life. In the normal course of relationships, we should expect moments filled with laughter and joy, but we should also anticipate the challenges that come with managing times of conflict in our relationships.
Social media, while allowing us to access a greater number of personal contacts, can also lead us to isolate ourselves to those groups that best reflect our own ideas and beliefs. Maybe our focus in all of the spaces that we occupy in our daily lives should be on engaging with a diversity of friends with a variety of experiences.