Sometimes it helps to pause and think before speaking
“My boyfriend never picks up my calls. He’s either with his friends or working on a project. It’s as if there’s no connection between us anymore.”
This is what my friend, Anuja, told me one evening when we were walking around the university campus. She and her boyfriend, Varun, seemed to be having a lot of interpersonal problems. What triggered this particular outburst was how she was expecting him to do something special for their one-year-anniversary, but he was too busy playing a game with his friends even to meet her.
From where I stood, it appeared as if Varun was callous and insensitive. After all, he chose to prioritize a game over spending time with his girlfriend on their anniversary. And especially if Anuja said she didn’t feel a connection with him anymore, I felt the best way out for them was to break up.
“You deserve so much better than him,” I told her. “You shouldn’t be settling for a guy who doesn’t even do anything special for your anniversary.”
This seemed to calm Anuja down, and we spent the rest of the evening brainstorming how the two of them weren’t compatible. She did most of the talking, but I kept encouraging her outburst, believing she needed to rant to calm down.
By the time we were done, Anuja had prepared a list of thirty reasons why she should break up with Varun. Granted, most of the reasons were silly (like “He has bad taste in movies” or “He doesn’t like wearing shirts with black and white stripes”), but she seemed pretty convinced that breaking up was the only option.
Imagine my surprise when the two of them got back together the next day.
I had no problems with Varun per se, but I genuinely thought Anuja wanted to be with someone better. Apparently, I was wrong, because irrespective of how many reasons she wrote down, she wanted them to be together deep down in her heart.
Thankfully, Varun never found out about what Anuja and I had discussed that evening. But each time the three of us were together, it created an unsettling dynamic. Anuja was aware of my feelings for Varun (which I’d been pretty vocal about that he is a bad boyfriend), and try as I might, my mind couldn’t stop flashing back to those 30 reasons each time she held his hand or smiled at him. Eventually, we couldn’t hang out together anymore without too many unexpressed emotions in the air.
This incident taught me a lot about being the independent observer in interpersonal relationships, especially when one of the parties involved is a close friend and the other merely an acquaintance. It turns out, brutal honesty isn’t the correct way to move forward.
I learned valuable lessons from this episode of Varun and Anuja’s “almost-breakup.” I know now that I made the same mistakes most people make while passing judgment as a third-party in case of conflict. It’s helped me become better at interpersonal relationships, hold more meaningful conversations in such cases, and positively impact others' lives.
Rather than getting them to burn bridges with another person, you can help them understand themselves better.
Whenever you find yourself as the unwilling confidante in an interpersonal relationship tussle, consider the following two scenarios carefully:
1. The person being talked about is actually a bad person.
In that case, your advice should obviously be for your friend to detach. But without enough information at your disposal, how would you be aware?
Truth is: unless you’ve spent considerable time with both the people involved, you’d rarely have full information about how they actually behave when they aren’t under any duress.
2. The person only committed a single mistake and was spoken too harshly about.
What your friend told you was said in a fit of emotion. They were upset over something that recently happened, and this triggered their outburst.
As in the case of my friend, Anuja — the thirty reasons she wrote for breaking up with Varun were fueled by the discontent she felt at him not turning up for their anniversary. I needed to understand that one isolated incident didn’t give me the right to pass judgment on their relationship. I didn’t know the full story. Hearing only one person’s perspective is hardly ever the gospel truth.
Once you recognize the scenarios and appreciate your understanding might not be sufficient, the next big question is: how does one deal with a situation like that?
Choose to focus on the person, not the problem. Try and understand why are they feeling the way they’re feeling, what’s the core issue, etc.
Dealing With Conflict Without Inflaming More Emotions
I barely knew anything about Varun. Today, four years after that incident, he and Anuja are still together. She calls me sometimes, flushed with happiness, telling me about some sweet thing he did to make her day. “We might be soulmates,” she often wonders out loud.
This only makes my chest tight at the thought of what might have happened had she listened to my advice all those years ago. What if my misplaced concern actually robbed her of her only chance to be happy?
To make sure something like that never happens, you need to be extremely careful while dealing with a close friend who comes to you complaining about their relationship. This can be a romantic liaison, but these tips hold for family, friends, and work colleagues as well. Based on research, here are a few things you need to keep in mind about what you can do in situations like these without jeopardizing their relationship with the other person.
Make sure you validate their emotions
The first thing you need to do is make sure your friend knows their feelings are valid. Most of the time, when someone is complaining about a person or incident, they are seeking sympathy and emotional validation. If you tell them they have no right to feel that way, they might end up feeling even worse.
Let your friend vent out their emotions, but hold your tongue. Don’t say anything that might amplify their negative emotions.
In retrospect, it wasn’t a good idea to encourage Anuja to make a list of reasons she should dump Varun. This only inflamed her emotions further and made her angrier at him. Instead, I should have put myself in her shoes and responded to her complaints with empathy.
Simon Baron-Cohen, in his book, Zero Degrees of Empathy, argues that there are two stages in empathy :
- Recognition of how they are feeling. This can be achieved by actively listening to their words and observing their body language.
- Response of the appropriate manner, so you don’t say or do anything to further hurt their feelings.
Genuinely care about the person
Research published in the Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine suggests that “caring” could be a better way of conflict resolution than empathy. The researchers argue that empathy may lead to mistaken assumptions and an absence of corrective curiosity. Caring, on the other hand, consists of close observation, precise listening, and responsive questioning.
Combined with actions directly addressing the other person’s problem, caring can be a powerful tool in making them feel better about themselves.
Focus on the person, not the problem
When you talk about why your friend is upset, talking about their grievances might incite them further. Also, in most cases, people who complain aren’t asking you to “fix” their problem for them. Instead, choose to focus on them: why are they feeling the way they’re feeling, what’s the core issue, etc.
As this post by Forbes suggests, here are some questions you can ask to focus on the person and not the problem:
- How are you doing in the relationship, assuming the triggering incident hadn’t occurred? What’s working well? What’s not?
- How is the other person doing? What feedback are you getting from them?
- How do you see this current situation? What is your role in the current predicament?
- What are your goals from this relationship? Where do you see yourself a few years down the line?
Taking the “focus on the person” approach will help your friend discover their blind spots. It will make them question whether they are taking accountability and what their goals and aspirations are. In the long run, this approach will help your friend understand themselves and their relationship better, without you having to resort to playing the blame game.
Hearing only one person’s perspective is hardly ever the gospel truth.
Four years ago, when Anuja came crying to me, she was simply looking for someone to listen. Without knowing the dynamics of her relationship and the full context of their fight, I pushed her down a path that might have had drastic consequences.
It turns out, Varun was having a tough time at college — coping with the exams and the pressures of a rigorous routine. Resorting to games with friends was his way of coping. Anuja and her incessant demand for attention were taking a toll on his already hard-pressed time. All they needed was a heart-to-heart conversation and a few compromises from both sides. Today, they are happily in a relationship and planning to get married later this year.
Since then, I’ve learned that when a friend comes to you complaining that another person has hurt them, your first instinct is to protect them, so you end up blaming the other person. The next time I find myself in a situation like that, I’ll analyze whether the other person is actually wrong or if my friend is judging them too harshly based on a single mistake.
With your own friends, try to be more empathetic, ask the right questions, and show that you genuinely care. Focus on your friend and not on fixing the problem. At the end of the day, your friend is their own person. No matter how hard you try to convince them, they will decide what feels right to them. Rather than getting them to burn bridges with another person, you can help them understand themselves better.
As a protective and concerned friend, this is probably the most logical (and science-backed) step you can take.
Empathy may lead to mistaken assumptions and an absence of corrective curiosity. Caring, on the other hand, consists of close observation, precise listening, and responsive questioning.
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