Healthy Conflict + Emotional Safety
- July 10, 2019
- Esther Followwill-Johnson
PAST: We were driving up the coast of California, stuck in traffic 7 hours into an 8 hour journey. When out of nowhere, Charles put his hand on my arm and said to me, “I want you to know it is ok to directly tell me if you don’t like something, or if something upsets you. You can always tell me exactly what you think and feel without worrying how I am going to receive it, or how I am going to react.”
That comment wrecked me. Not because I hadn’t felt free to express myself in my relationship with Charles. The dude is a veritable peace-jacuzzi of emotional safety for me. But his words made me realize how instinctively I brace myself for rejection from others whenever I voice any hurt in my life. Ouch.
This week while having coffee with a friend, I recounted a tough conversation I’d had, and I joked that gracious and healthy conflict is a love language of mine.
Because it is so rare. And because I have been so hurt by UNhealthy conflict.
Obviously, conflict is inevitable in every deep relationship, but navigating it in a healthy, truthful and humble way is UNCOMMON. The goal in healthy conflict is simple: to seek reconciliation. That means being willing to receive correction. To admit fault. To reconcile, forgive, to seek UNITY and move forward in grace and kindness.
Not that hard right? You’d think the words “Wow, I’m so sorry that hurt you, it wasn’t my intention,” wouldn’t be so difficult to say. The fact is, most people struggle to SEE that they’ve been wrong, much less verbally ADMIT to the hurt they caused. Because vulnerability looks like weakness… and most people don’t want to seem weak.
The truth is, most of us don’t know how to engage in healthy conflict-resolution, because we’ve never been taught (or we’ve never witnessed) how to do so. Or we’ve been trained to respond poorly. Most people become either defensive and aggressive, or passive and obsequious, indirect or resentful, etc. the list of potential communication pitfalls goes on forever!
I will level with you: telling someone “you hurt me” is my personal worst nightmare. It is horribly difficult for me. Why? Because it’s easier just to not say anything, but to take the hit and move on. When 2 or 3 people demonstrate that you are just ONE negative interaction away from being cut out and cut off, then you simply don’t feel safe to communicatethose things. So you learn to just swallow it, or take responsibility for everything yourself.
Maybe you’ve had a trusted friendship you felt safe in, when suddenly something happened and all bets were off.
In several key friendships in my life, any conversations of conflict we’d have, would turn majorly defensive. I’d express hurt/misunderstandings/pain about something, but instead of experiencing kindness, there would be a flip and a huge tirade against me. A deluge of all the things I was doing wrong, the hurt I had caused THEM (which evidently they’d had no intention of addressing with me up until that point). So in an effort to salvage the relationship, I’d end up apologizing for my many shortcomings, even apologizing for ever even saying anything at all. I would hope the person just wouldn’t turn on me, wouldn’t stay angry, and wouldn’t cut me out of their lives. Rarely if ever would the other person acknowledge what I had shared, would validate (or at least try to clarify) why I was hurt. Therefore there was rarely ever an actual apology.
This pattern essentially taught me that expressing hurt of any kind wasn’t safe for me. That instead I would have the conversation spun around, I would be accused, have issues blown out of portion, etc. and end up apologizing just to fix it. Thus, the words “you may not have intended this, but _______ hurt my feelings” was and is unbearably hard, for me to express.
Thankfully, through intentionally pushing past the discomfort of communicating, (and let’s face it-praying for more mature friends!) I’ve found some good healing. THANK God.
My closest friendships now are those committed to emotional health and grace. Each wants to 1) listen and understand, and 2) have the humility to apologize and make amends. It’s just that simple.
I’m not an overly sensitive person, but there is a lot of freedom that happens when you feel loved enough to be direct and honest about how you’ve been hurt.
Honestly, most friendships don’t go deep enough to have actual conflict. But for those that do, I legitimately believe that healthy conflict is so life-giving. People feel loved when they can engage in hard conversations and get grace and truth in return. When someone interacts in disputes or unpacking hurt without flipping a lid on me, or trying to manipulate, or disregard me, that level of kindness is a LOVE LANGUAGE.
No one gets it right all the time- least of all me. (I have to apologize to my daughter multiple times a day. It doesn’t matter if she is 3 years old. She is an emotional equal with valid feelings and if Mama is wrong, I have to own it! I want her to feel safe to express any hurt, knowing that I will myself be gentle and receptive as I listen to her. That means, I have to model confessing my stuff to God, and acknowledging the ways I was wrong. How else will she learn a healthy way to process or work through conflict or sin?)
When someone admits to their faults and seeks to resolve them, then genuinely healthy relationship dynamics can thrive. Without this, walls stay up, hurt continues to exist, and authentic connection is hampered.
The lack of healthy conflict also keeps fellowship shallow, or even dishonest. It’s all pride. And pride will successfully keep any health, growth and love at bay.
Are you receptive or defensive? If you want to love people well, be willing to admit when you’re wrong. Receive correction. Pursue honest and humble communication.
Conflict does not have to be damaging. Good conflict can heal.
*NB: I feel compelled to clarify that I am not referring to experiences with my parents at all. I think sometimes with these kinds of blogs, it can become an indirect side-jab at parents. I am fortunate to have been raised by receptive and loving people who can admit when they’ve been hurtful in some capacity. These negative experiences haven’t included them.