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Caught in the Middle

Supportively Deescalating Conflict Between Friends and Family

written by Dr. Erin Leonard August 20, 2019
Caught in the Middle

Two close friends are fighting. The battle is heated and both people need support. One wrong word or sentiment may fuel the fire. The situation is tenuous and both friends are distraught. How does a person help without taking sides?

The situation is complicated, but the answer is simple. Stick with the feelings. For example, Lisa calls and says she overheard Patty saying negative things about her daughter at the orthodontist. Lisa confronts Patty. Patty defends her remarks. Patty believes Lisa’s daughter bullies other kids. Lisa disagrees.

Of course Lisa is hurt, angry, and needs a confidant. Yet, Patty is also a good friend and the loss of Patty’s friendship would be devastating. In addition, listening to only one person’s side of the story may be narrow minded. So, how does the friend support Lisa without alienating Patty? Focus on the feelings.

Honor the Feelings

Respond to Lisa with statements like:

You are really hurt. I get it.

You are so upset. You have every right to be.

And you are really angry. I understand.

By simply honoring Lisa’s feelings, she feels understood and supported. The friend has successfully avoided speaking negatively about Patty and has side-stepped endorsing Lisa’s side. Remaining empathic but neutral keeps a person out of the middle of a war zone.

Say Lisa presses the issue and says, “Can you believe her? She’s awful. You are not planning on going to her party on Saturday, are you?”

The pressure is on, but the friend may want to stay the course, “Lisa, you are so hurt. It’s hard to imagine a party when you are upset. I get it. What happened is really painful. Saturday is a ways off. Let’s take it one day at a time.”

Again, the friend reflects and validates Lisa’s feelings so Lisa feels supported, yet avoids aligning with Lisa against Patty. After some time passes, the intensity of Lisa’s hurt and anger may dissipate, allowing her to move to a more balanced perspective.

Details are Less Important than Feelings

Alternatively, a person who exploits the situation and broadcasts only Lisa’s side of the story hoping to condemn Patty and exile her from the friend group in order to get closer to Lisa, is exercising a dysfunctional pattern of interpersonal relating. If the person’s children are exposed to this tendency to “gang up” on another person and exclude him or her from the friend group, they may repeat the cycle with their own friends, amplifying the bullying epidemic.

Thus, it’s important to remember that the details of a conflict are rarely as important as the feelings of the participants. By skipping the details and going straight to the heart of the matter — hurt, angry, or disappointed feelings, a person is able to empathize and soothe the participants immediately. Preventing the conflict from escalating by refraining from taking a side or speaking negatively about another person is critical when deescalating and resolving conflict.

Dr. Erin Leonard

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