“You know what? Never mind!” Click. The silence was as swift and fresh as the wound it left. I sighed into the empty receiver. I called Norah back and got her voicemail. How do I communicate with someone who refuses to talk? I wondered, and hung up.
I had known Norah my entire life. Our lives were so integrated, I considered her family. When I cut my first tooth, Norah was there. When I fractured my foot, Norah went with me to the hospital. The first time my heart broke, Norah patiently helped me piece it back together. But when I moved two states away after college, it was our relationship that seemed to tear.
The distance spanned more than the miles. While I was busy with a new job and life, Norah felt neglected. I struggled to express in a way she could understand, that I still cared about our relationship. But each attempt was more confusing and frustrating. Communication became difficult. Stifled. I felt misunderstood. Soon our unspoken issues hung between us like an old Christmas sweater; we only brought them out once a year and they were ugly. It would have been easy to let our fray wear through, but Norah was too important to let this continue. I knew if we didn’t confront the problem, we would go on as if nothing happened. And I would feel resentful.
When conflict is mismanaged, relationships suffer disconnection and alienation. Resentment, bitterness and frustration weave a fabric of tension. This relational pattern can shroud our perception of conflict with feelings of fear, anxiety and danger. We wonder, is it possible to confront without wounding a relationship further? In their book How to Have that Difficult Conversation You’ve Been Avoiding (Zondervan, 2005), Drs. Henry Cloud and John Townsend affirm that healthy confrontation strengthens the bond between two people. But what, exactly, does healthy confrontation look like?
I sighed once more and called Norah again. “I know you’re upset,” I told her voicemail. “That’s okay. But not talking won’t solve either of our frustrations. Call me when you’re ready to talk.”
Conflict triggers strong, difficult emotions. Yet our ability to handle conflict successfully relies on staying connected to our feelings. Cloud and Townsend assert that the ability to do this in confrontation is the very fiber of a good conversation. It also requires us to be gracious and understanding. We must not only be aware of our own feelings, but those of the other person. When we extend ourselves to another for the sake of the relationship, we create a safe environment for each person to be emotionally present.
Many times, however, our ability to stay connected and be understanding is only possible with the help of something outside of ourselves. We can pray and ask God for clarity, perspective and a “cool spirit.” “He who restrains his words has knowledge, and he who has a cool spirit is a man of understanding” (Proverbs 17:27).
CLARIFY THE PROBLEM
After about a week of silence, Norah emailed me, apologizing. “ I couldn’t talk to you because I was too angry,” she wrote.
Past hurts color our view of the present situation. But it is important to focus on the current problem. State the nature of the problem as clearly as possible. Be specific. Don’t say, “You’re such a slob!” Instead try, “Yesterday you left your dirty dishes on the coffee table, and this morning your dirty towels on the floor.” This ensures you are both on the same page so you can work toward a resolution together.
Next, clarify the effects of the problem. Include facts, as well as what it does to your relationship. Stay away from “you” statements, which place blame. Instead, own and state your feelings such as, “When you do _____ (behavior), I feel _____.” Addressing the effects of the behavior helps awaken the other person to problems for which he might not be aware.
“I appreciate your apology,” I told Norah. “It’s okay to be upset, but when you hung up on me, I was hurt and confused.” I told her I didn’t understand what I said that made her so upset. And when she didn’t answer my calls, I felt alienated and punished.
Finally, clarify your desire for change. At the heart of a conflict is a relationship that matters to us. Cloud and Townsend caution against only addressing the negative aspects of the problem. This can make a person feel attacked and abused. It is not productive or helpful. Instead, we can offer solutions or suggestions for what we would like to see change. This builds hope for the relationship.
I told Norah it is helpful to me when she communicates how she feels and why she is upset. Even if that means saying, “I’m too angry to talk to you right now.”
CONTINUE ON TRACK
A good confrontation has a clear and specific focus. However, focus can derail when defensiveness enters the conversation. Defensiveness takes place when the confronted person is not open to receive feedback or the truth. In their difficulty to accept their flaws or responsibility in the problem, they deflect attention away from themselves. In these instances, “you always” or “you never” statements fly freely. If caught unaware, we could find ourselves in the middle of a slugfest of past offenses.
Cloud and Townsend advise to anticipate defensiveness and to lead with gracious understanding. The Bible says, “Judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:13). Leave space for the other person to express their feelings. They might have an important point we need to understand. Acknowledge the validity of their feelings and determine if their point is something that needs to be addressed at another time. Continue with the problem at hand.
“I don’t think you realize how offensive your tone can be,” Norah said. “Every time I call, I feel like you’re annoyed with me.” Her perspective was illuminating. I was unaware how I came across and that my tone caused many of our misunderstandings. I folded this information into my brain for future interactions.
CONFESS YOUR PART
It takes two people to create a conflict. Jesus once asked, “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? (Matthew 7:3)” It’s essential to own our part in a problem. This is important for two reasons:
First, when we do not deal with our own hurt, it is difficult to see the other person clearly. We see them through lenses tinged by past experiences and fears. Second, when we approach someone whom we have hurt with a problem, it is difficult for them to hear us clearly. Our words pass through a filter of their invalidated feelings. Confess and apologize for your part in the problem. Humility nurtures healing change.
When I put myself in Norah’s shoes, I understood how she felt hurt. “I’m sorry you were hurt by what I said,” I offered.
COMMIT TO CHANGE
“I wish we were closer,” Norah said. “I want that too,” I replied.
Healthy confrontations help people grow emotionally, relationally and spiritually. They work through a problem toward a common goal. And they communicate care and commitment to the health of the relationship. This should be our first priority and motivation for confrontation.
Cloud and Townsend write, “The extent to which two people in a relationship bring up and resolve issues is a critical marker of the soundness of the relationship.”They assert that relationships are meant to be whole. The more parts of ourselves we connect to another person such as strengths, weaknesses, vulnerabilities, passions, desires, and failures the greater the depth and intimacy of the relationship.
Norah and I discussed some of our barriers to closeness and ways to communicate better both inside and outside of conflict. We still have a lot of holes left to patch, but we agreed to work together. And I already feel closer.