Communicate Before You Detonate

How to communicate healthily in conflict

A few months ago, I borrowed my friend’s car. For the sake of this story and his privacy, let’s call him Anthony. After I used and returned his car, I texted him to say thank you and asked if there was anything else he needed from me. I didn’t expect a response, so it surprised me when he asked me to pay the toll. My mind went on a spiral “seriously? Is he kidding? This is such a small amount of money… I feel like he’s just being petty”. I went onto thinking about how many times we had supported each other professionally free of charge and yet he couldn’t forgo the toll charge? Needless to say, I was triggered and I went on to spin a story in my head that he was being self-centered and selfish.

 

I wanted to confront Anthony and show him the ridiculousness of his request. However, before I did that with all my bubbling energy, I asked a few friends for their opinions. To my surprise, I was met by responses that were in support of Anthony. “Pay the toll, Red. Why is he paying for the toll when he’s lent you his car?” Finally, I decided to ask Anthony the reasons behind his request. His explanation was simple: if he paid the toll, it was as if he were paying for me to use his car. Why was he being penalized for helping me out? After he shared his reasonings, I understood – it was not about the money; it was the principal. He was very justified in asking me for the toll charges. It was unfair to Anthony to cover for me on top of doing me a favor.

 

In the time between his request and my clarification, I had spun stories in my head of Anthony being cheap. I had convinced myself he had a sudden change in character, and I was emotionally bent out of shape over my assumptions. Had I given him the benefit of the doubt, not internally judged him so critically, and calmly asked for his reasoning, my thoughts and emotions wouldn’t have escalated and potentially thrown a wrench in the friendship.

 

In another recent event, I was triggered when a couple of employees returned from getting coffee much later than I had expected. I needed to meet with one of them and as the minutes went by, I became irritated. It is established in our workplace that we notify each other when we are going to be out for longer than usual. Communication in our organization is a key value. I couldn’t help feeling like I was being taken advantage of by these trusted team members. I caught myself spinning a story and felt myself getting caught up in the negative energy. I needed to clarify between what were my feelings and the actual facts. I knew I had to approach my team members straight on, and in a non-confrontational manner. My approach was to make it clear that I wanted us all to understand each other and our intentions. I ensured that I would provide a safe space where we could be open and honest, and leave my negative feelings at the door.

 

My team members apologized and were appreciative that I handled the issue directly and with compassion. I did not attack them or try to come down hard on them even though that was my initial urge. I realized that the urge came from a place of unhealthy ego.  All I needed was to have an honest conversation so we could clear up the miscommunication and move forward. It was just as important for me to understand what was going on for them as it was for them to see how their lack of communication affected me. Expectation management is a process present in all relationships, and when a situation falls short of our implicit expectations we can feel like others have taken advantage of us. When we communicate our wants and expectations in a healthy and productive manner, we can avoid these icky feelings and strengthen our relationships.

 

Similar to my situation with Anthony, I didn’t see the full picture. I made internal judgments based on my unhealthy ego and could not see the situation in a positive light. Since it’s the easier path, we get wrapped up in the negative energy and let it be a guiding compass during conflicts. We feel good being the right one, which fuels our egos. We become the judge, jury, and executioner before anyone has even taken the stand. We can prevent ourselves from negatively judging others by asking questions before jumping to conclusions.  

 

As human beings, we immediately gravitate towards the stories that soothe our egos and that tendency makes it easy to settle on one-sided negative judgments. We buy into convenient narratives that fuel our unhealthy egos, and miss opportunities to go deeper that help strengthens our relationships. It is important to admit to ourselves when we do not know the full story – to take time and process our negative emotions. Only then can we return with kindness and an open heart to approach conflicts with compassion and accountability.

 

Upset feelings, misunderstandings, and quick judgments are part of our natural wiring. It is important to remember that we can take a step back, de-escalate our trigger, and work together to move forward with clear and focused intentions. This mindset leads to healthier relationships with ourselves and with those that are within our orbit.

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