Disagreements Within Challenging Relationships

One of the more popular topics on this blog is dealing with disagreements

Disagreements are challenging for everyone.  On this blog, we’ve written about how to recognize difficult people, as well as some tips for dealing with them. Some other great questions that have been asked about challenging relationships are:

“What do you do when you disagree with challenging people?”

“How can you know what to say?”

“What if it sets them off?”

“What if it makes it worse?”

Handling disagreements with some people can be very challenging.
Handling disagreements with some people can be very challenging.

The answers to these questions are complicated, and there are no black or white answers. However, the purpose of this article is to delineate some tried and true techniques that may help you get through these types of situations with your self-respect and confidence in tact.

For example, Betha works with a difficult individual, Elmer. Elmer is often moody, argumentative, and in the past, he has yelled at colleagues. Betha, the project manager, has been assigned the task of explaining to Elmer that his performance in her work group is not meeting departmental goals or standards. Betha wishes for a miracle, considers quitting her job, and then contemplates just calling in sick. Anything to just get out of it.

Judy has a sister, Samantha, who has always been competitive. Samantha often says hurtful and embarrassing things to Judy. Even as an adult, Judy dreads seeing her sister at family get-togethers. Judy is in charge of arranging for the next holiday party, but Samantha wants to do it at a time that won’t work for anyone else. Judy doesn’t want to disagree with Samantha, as it only seems to make Samantha’s behavior worse.

If you find yourself in a situation, like Judy or Betha, you may feel trapped between a rock and a hard place. And in fact, you are. Just because you are cordial and polite, doesn’t mean the other person will be respectful or appropriate. But learning some tools to help YOU will minimize the distress you feel, regardless of the outcome. For example:

Take some deep breaths, stay calm, and try not to take the disagreement personally

As hard as it is, you can’t control the other’s behavior, you can only control your own. If they call you names, you can make the choice to not believe it. It’s hard, particularly if you are a caring person. But if you know it’s not true, don’t put your energy there. Put your energy into taking care of yourself after the conversation, not being hard on yourself.

Staying relaxed can help.
Staying relaxed can help.

Remember to act like a kind adult and not a child during the disagreement

Some challenging people are particularly adept at finding others’ vulnerabilities and using them to their advantage. For example, if they know you are not confident with software, they may say something like, “How can you criticize my behavior on this issue if you are not even confident with the software?” In such circumstances, a child may want to argue back, roll her eyes, stick their toungue out, or insult them. As an adult, you can speak to the person’s emotion. “Sounds like this feedback is hard to hear, huh?” or “Thanks for the feedback, but I really need to keep this conversation about the project due date, and not about those other issues.”

Act in a way that shows self-respect

One rule that I always encourage between parents and children is, “No trying to work things out when someone is upset.” Similarly, with other disagreements, the same rules apply. If you feel demeaned, threatened, upset, or verbally abused, politely put an end to the conversation. Or if you notice the other person is upset and defensive, it is also time to pause. You may say something like, “Let’s talk about this more when we are both calm.” Sometimes, the other person may say something like, “What?!! I am calm,” and want to try again immediately. But, if anyone has been upset, it is best to try again later. Just excuse yourself and leave, or end the phone call. Arguing or becoming upset is draining and doesn’t reflect self-care.

Sometimes, if things get heated, you need to walk away and try again later.
Sometimes, if things get heated, you need to walk away and try again later.

Remember your values and maintain them

If you value honesty and respect, remember that going into the disagreement. Use manners, calm language, and good eye-contact. Smile, if necessary.  Michelle Obama, in one of her recent speeches said that her family motto is, “When they go low, we go high.” Respect who you are enough to make good choices. It’s not always easy, but you will feel better about yourself and your efforts if you do.

Be clear about your position

This is a lesson learned from parenting research as well. For example, Betha could tell Elmer, “I need you to be more accurate in your software coding, with fewer careless errors,” rather than “You need to improve the quality of your work.” Ask for what you need in clear, specific tones.

One person at a time

Many times people who are defensive or insecure try to align with other people to help them feel stronger. (The clinical term for this is triangulation). Unfortunately, the other person may not know the bigger picture, or may not feel comfortable standing up to the difficult person. Some difficult people are very convincing and charming when they want to be.  If this happens to you, you can say that you are glad to consider the information.  But, talk to one person at a time.

It is important to talk to one person at a time.
It is important to talk to one person at a time.

Keep an open mind toward the other’s person’s concerns

If you prepare for something to be difficult, oftentimes it is. Most people can tell when someone is defensive, scared, or angry. Perhaps, Elmer may have a good reason for his work performance that Betha hadn’t considered before. Or maybe Samantha recently started a new job, and really can’t get away easily during the holidays. Be respectful and listen to where the other person is coming from.

Finally, protect yourself

It never hurts to let someone else know that you are walking into a potentially challenging situation. If you are frightened, you may wish to leave the door open and ask someone to call you out by a certain time. If you are at work, you can make your manager aware of the conversation or ask them to sit in. That way, if things don’t go well, your manager is prepared

If you’ve already had the difficult conversation, review this list. Ask yourself if you managed to do any of the things above. If you did, congratulate yourself! It is hard! If you didn’t, try again next time. None of us is perfect. But, having some strategies and ideas going into these conversations may help you feel proud and successful, regardless of the results.


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