Written by: Juney Ham
How to avoid mutually-assured destruction
My friend Tristan* recently started an IM conversation with the following phrase:
I just made Albert’s* fiancée cry.
Oof. I could already tell that this one was going to be a doozy.
You see, Tristan and I have a bit of a history together. We’ve been friends for a long time, and at one point in the mid-2000s, we worked at the same company when he led the engineering team that supported my marketing team. Tristan had always had a reputation among his friends as being a “hothead,” and at work we ended up having pretty epic disagreements about … well, basically everything.
While working with someone like Tristan was stressful, we learned a lot from the experience and became better employees, co-workers and leaders to others as we continued our careers. Nowadays, we’ll ping each other for feedback when handling conflict resolution scenarios — both good and bad.
However, this one was a bit of a #fail after a long track record of successes:
I literally blew a gasket.
Anyway she starts saying she’s telling me this because Albert can’t communicate and is bad at communicating and I went into this long diatribe about like, “I’ve been friends with Albert for longer in my life than not, and I’ve never had a problem communicating with him, and every time we argue it’s because YOU decided to insert YOURSELF into a conversation between ME and HIM, and I don’t know how many arguments we have to get into before you realize this is a bad idea and never works and you’re always creating more problems than you think you’re solving! That’s around the point when she cried and said “do whatever you want” and hung up.
Even without really processing this, when she hung up I was like “…fuck.” So intuitively I knew it was like “ok, I could have handled that better.”
Without going into too much detail about the entire saga, I felt he was completely justified in his frustration (even as an outside observer)! Unfortunately, while he had legitimate reasons for being upset, he practically “went nuclear” with his delivery. It was clear to him that even though his reasons were valid, losing his cool didn’t accomplish anything. He still had an unresolved problem and an upset friend’s fiancée.
I suggested the following, which he thought would be a good thing to write a brief blog post about (which brings us full circle).
- First, stay silent. Don’t say anything until you’ve taken a few breaths. This is important!
- Separate the problem from the emotion. What is the issue, exactly? You’re mad and you want to yell, sure—but yelling will just get the other party upset, defensive and less willing to end things on a positive note.
- You can now start thinking tactically about coming up with a solution. Armed with a clear head, you’d be surprised at how many potential answers stare you in the face.
- Speak calmly but firmly about how you feel, using “I” statements. An example of an “I” statement is “I felt frustrated because the schedule kept changing” as opposed to “you kept changing the schedule on me!” This helps keep the other party from getting defensive or feeling attacked.
- Propose the solution. Again, speak calmly, but firmly. You don’t need to be conciliatory, but you should definitely present anything as objectively as possible.
- Pat yourself on the back because you just averted World War 3!
Now, not every situation will warrant an approach like this. Death threats, a cheating spouse, or someone eating more than their fair share of cupcakes—these are all situations where you should rain napalm and activate your Mutually Assured Destruction scenario (kidding).
However, for most situations, this process might help resolve issues and come up with solutions that work for everyone involved.
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