What to Do When Conversation Turns Ugly

by Christa Hines on February 2, 2017

Conflict and confrontation are part of the human experience, but that doesn’t make these difficult conversations any easier. Last week, I discussed ways to approach differences of opinion in a more thoughtful, measured way by being informed and listening. But what do we do when a discussion turns aggressive or mean-spirited? Here are a few common scenarios (particularly in the social media realm) and suggested solutions.

The shut-down. A controlling friend or relative strongly suggests that you pipe down on a topic that you feel strongly about. They might say something along the lines of “get over it”,  “maybe you should unfriend me”, or “you’re making people not like you.” 

Solution: Women, in particular, are frequently the target of the “be nice” card. Ask yourself: This is important to me. Am I willing to risk alienating myself from some people by voicing my thoughts on this topic? Are they really my friends to begin with?

Maybe unfriending them is the best case scenario if they can’t handle differing opinions. True friends and loved ones are much more tolerant of diverse opinions. They know you, appreciate you and respect you despite any differences of opinion. And chances are if they disagree, they’ll just keep scrolling along.

Contempt. A friend, family member or acquaintance responds to something you say in a dismissive way, discounting your feelings and attempting to make you feel as as if your thoughts are beneath them or simply don’t matter.

Solution: Dr. John Gottman calls “contempt” one of the “four horsemen of the apocalypse” and it is one of the number one predictors of divorce. Contempt is destructive to other relationships too. It’s defined as “the feeling that a person is beneath consideration or worthless or deserving scorn.” Often there’s name-calling and sarcasm involved (i.e., “maybe you should run for office if you have such strong opinions”). It’s OK to say, “I don’t allow people to talk to me the way you’re addressing me.” If the behavior continues, say goodbye—or put them at a healthy arms-length if you can’t completely dump them from your life.

Anger. You’re engaged in a confrontation where you feel yourself becoming overwhelmed with emotion.

Solution: Give yourself permission to walk away. This is a form of self-care. Tell the other person that you’ll have to continue the conversation later when you feel calmer: “This conversation is blowing my emotional circuits right now. I don’t want to say something I’ll regret so I’d like to continue this conversation when I feel calmer.” Take at least a 20-minute break to go for a walk or engage in an activity that steadies your heartbeat. By taking a break, you aren’t conceding defeat, but you are doing something much more valuable—you’re honoring your feelings and preserving a relationship that you care about.

Online confrontation. You’ve said or posted something that gets under someone’s skin or makes them hopping mad. This person lashes out. You angrily lash out in return. People dig their heels in deeper. Friends jump in to take sides. Trolls show up. And the online mudslinging commences.

Solution: Most of these debates tend to be relatively pointless and generally leave both sides feeling emotionally shattered. You can’t see the other person’s body language. There’s no real opportunity for closure or relational repair through nonverbal signals, like softening of tones or kind gestures as in face-to-face situations. Thank the other person for their opinion or suggest you take the conversation offline. If someone is trolling you or making inflammatory remarks, take the behavior in hand, instruct them to move their opinions to their own page and/or kick them out of your space. 

Email bullying. Someone decides that attacking you on social media wasn’t enough so they begin emailing or messaging you in an aggressive way.

Solution: Unless you see an opportunity to clear up a misunderstanding, either ignore the message or tell them to stop or you will block them from contacting you in the future. 

What are some of the most difficult confrontations you’ve dealt with? How did you resolve the situation? 

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