Ways I’ve Derailed Healthy Conflict
Yesterday, I happened upon a thought-provoking Twitter thread from web developer Marco Rogers, about the ways in which white people are conditioned to avoid difficult conversations. Marco said, “Did ya’ll know that a lot of white people don’t have the cultural concept of ‘real talk’? You know where you stop saying the diplomatic thing and tell people what’s really going on. They just don’t have it. You try to have a moment of ‘real talk’ and they freak the fuck out.”
In the conversation that followed Marco’s tweet, many people of color shared how they have attempted to initiate candid, productive discussions with white loved ones or colleagues, only to be viewed as aggressive or inappropriate for doing so.
Many white people also chimed in to share their experiences of giving and receiving “real talk.” Poorer white people shared that their home culture embraced candor, for example, whereas wealthier white families blanched at it. Autistic people of all races shared how their directness and honesty has been punished. Some white folks also shared how they personally have acted to discourage or shut down real talk.
I was struck by this reply, because I recognize so much of myself in it. Though I am Autistic and male-aligned and generally communicate in blunt, direct ways, I also have taken on the role of peacekeeper and smooth-over-er many times in my life.
When my real-talk-dispensing hillbilly father used to say things that struck polite white Midwesterners as inappropriate or rude, I would to rush in to fix it. When relatives were in conflict with one another or rifts began to open up in my friend groups, I was a bug in everyone’s ear, trying to make the hard feelings go away. I’ve downplayed disagreements in classrooms and offices, used jokes to distract from arguments in Facebook groups, and micromanaged others’ emotions at activist meetings and text chats.
I’ve managed to get myself into a codependent relationship with the entire universe.
I am a conflict averse, anxious Autistic person who learned from a young age that making people angry is dangerous, and I’ve managed to get myself into a codependent relationship with the entire universe. My relational playbook is full of feints and dodges and smiling, defensive distractions. My desperate people-pleasing has neutralized healthy conflict and left people feeling placated, yet unheard.
I don’t like that I do this. My own forthrightness has been rewarded professionally, so it feels hypocritical for me to discourage it in others. I’m grateful when people are honest with me; I’d much rather know where I stand with someone than be forced to guess. And I recognize that the world desperately needs more hard, real conversations. So when I see two people doing that difficult, essential work, I don’t want to reflexively jump in to make it stop.
In the spirit of building a world where “real talk” is facilitated rather than snuffed out, here is a reflection on the ways that I’ve derailed healthy conflict in the past. In each section, I also discuss alternate approaches I’ve tried that work far better.
If you’re not used to open conflict resolving itself in a safe way, even just witnessing a tense disagreement might be enough to send your body into fight-or-flight mode. Of course, the term “fight or flight” is an oversimplification of the many reactions the body deploys to cope with stress. Freezing up is another common reaction, as is fawning. Fawning is when a person becomes agreeable, placating, and passive in the hope of downplaying conflict as quickly as possible.
I have used fawning as a conflict resolution strategy many times in my life. An old boyfriend of mine had serious problems with anger and entitlement. If anything bad happened in his life, he’d rage and rant about it all day and all night, and I’d respond by trying to meet his every need and soothe his every worry. My needs and opinions dropped out of my mind.
Once, my ex’s bike was stolen, and he spent days trying to track down (and beat the shit out of) the man who did it. I didn’t agree with the violent, cruel, uncompassionate things my boyfriend was saying about the bike thief. I felt moral disgust as I watched him review his apartment building’s security footage, in hopes of tracking the guy down and throttling him. I was pretty certain the bike thief was someone in our neighborhood who was poor and struggling, and I didn’t see how punitive violence would solve anything. Yet I kept my mouth shut and coddled my explosive, enraged boyfriend, instead of contradicting his worldview.
I’ve fawned in activist spaces when group members have expressed concerns about racism in the group. In my mind, I thought I was doing the “right” thing, comforting a marginalized person who’d been harmed, trying to heal their wounds with softness, sympathy, and universal agreement. But really, I was just distressed by the emotional temperature of the room and doing whatever I could to turn the thermostat down. I should have just allowed the person to express their anger and given the group space to confront its problems, instead of trying to make it all go away.
Feigning understanding and agreement
One time a few years ago, my friend Doug tried to engage in some “real talk” with me about my own actions. He thought I needed to make more of an effort to include a mutual acquaintance, Henry, in some of our group hangouts. It was unfair that I kept excluding Henry from invitations, he thought.
I was distressed when Doug brought this issue to me. I’d just witnessed a major fracture in another friend group related to some people not taking a sexual assault accusation seriously. In the wake of that loss, I clung desperately to the communities I had left, fearing that if I stood by my guns on every issue, I’d lose everyone. So I told Doug that I understood his concerns and agreed with them, even though I didn’t.
“You’re so right, I should have thought to include Henry,” I told him. “Thank you so much for helping me do better.”
The truth is, Henry wasn’t even my friend. I’d met him once or twice and didn’t follow him on any social media. The few times we’d shared spaces, I found him stressful to be around. He wasn’t a bad person; he was just not a good listener and I found his narrow-mindedness exhausting. I don’t think he especially liked me either. So we hadn’t hung out.
Though I felt gross being told how to behave and believed I had the right to set my own boundaries regarding who I invite, I nodded along and told Doug that yes, absolutely, I could see why he thought that, and I’d try to do better in the future. I even invited Henry out a few times. He never came, probably because he felt as indifferent to me as I did him. Doug continued to judge me for not including Henry — until I finally confronted him and explained how unreasonable I thought he was being.
I should have respected Doug enough to openly disagree with him. He was trying to level with me about the expectations he had for my behavior, expectations I actually believed were unfair. Instead of being real in return, I lied about agreeing with him and trampled all over my own comfort. It was wrong, and it filled me with resentment and Doug with a sense of not being really heard. It would have been far better if I’d said, “Actually, I don’t like hanging out with Henry, and I think I have the right to invite who I want to my house.”
“Just so you know, Julie is really mad at you right now for forgetting about her birthday. You should probably get her a card, and do something nice for her to show that you’re sorry.”
This kind of vicarious, conflict-avoidant communication tactic is called triangulation, and I used to engage in it all the time. In my family, triangulation was how we preserved appearances and prevented fights. For instance, when I got in trouble for skipping class as a teen, my mom cautioned me that we didn’t have to tell my grandparents about it. She was trying to save me from embarrassment, but I walked away with the impression that my actions were so shameful they couldn’t be shared. It wasn’t actually my mom’s responsibility to manage my grandparents’ impression of me, but she’d taken it on and let their hypothetical feelings guide both our actions.
As I grew up, I started to fall back on triangulation as a means of avoiding “real talk” too. I’d tell romantic partners when I thought they needed to reach out to family or if I got the sense someone was disappointed in them. If one friend said something hurtful to another friend, I’d approach the offending party in private and tell them to take back what they said. I told people how to feel and how other people felt and how to go about “fixing” those feelings.
I was robbing people of agency and manipulating them into taking passive, agreeable actions—all because I was too anxious to even witness a conflict between other people. Today, I try to disrupt triangulation by speaking to people directly. I also avoid assuming that I know how somebody else feels or what they want, and I try to let fights that don’t involve me play themselves out.
Defensive urgent “fixes”
Last summer, a small conflict broke out in a Facebook group I manage. One person posted a meme that had potentially ableist implications (basically, it mocked people who don’t know what the word “heterosexual” means). Initially, I missed that the meme could be read as making fun of intellectually disabled people and didn’t notice as group members chatted about this in the comments in a civil way.
Days later, as I was reviewing posts in the group, I found the discussion and immediately panicked. There had been tension, and offense, and I hadn’t been there to address it. It was a productive, kind conversation about ableism and how subtle it can be. But it set my placating, real-talk-dodging alarm bells off, and I freaked out and made an announcement to the group.
In my announcement, I told group members that I was sorry I hadn’t seen the ableist post and that they could always tag me on a post or report it if they needed me to get rid of it. I mentioned that I had quietly deleted offensive posts in the past. I said that people could always ask me to get rid of anything harmful. Then I fell over myself apologizing a few more times.
I realize in retrospect (and thanks to a few conversations with friends) that this was not the right move. My announcement was panicky and defensive and signaled to people that offensive material should be removed, rather than discussed. It was actually a good thing that people had engaged in real talk about the ableist post. If I’d acted in haste and tried to make the problem go away, I would have denied people a valuable conversation. By signaling that any post could be deleted for any reason, I had made the group a less comfortable space and one where less “real talk” was possible. Now, when I see these conversations happening, I try to step aside and let learning happen.
Excusing and apologizing for others
“He’s just upset. He doesn’t mean the things he says when he’s upset.” When my dad would rant and rage and say threatening things to my sister, this is how I would respond. “Don’t take his words seriously. Don’t hold him responsible. He’s upset.” A few times, when my parents fought, my dad made me repeat these words to my mom too. “He doesn’t mean the things he says when he’s angry.”
Years later, I had a boss who’d occasionally yell and throw things. Once he got angry and punched an employee in the shoe. It was half-joking, half aggressive—a nod to the fact he wanted to be more violent, but couldn’t. In private, I’d explain away this guy’s actions to the newer, younger employees. “Oh that’s just the way he is. Don’t take it personally. He never does anything worse than that. Don’t worry.”
This is the missing stair phenomenon, where a person’s bad actions are managed, navigated, and accommodated behind the scenes rather than challenged. Like a loose stair in a rickety old house, I had learned to walk around my unpredictable boss and warned other people to avoid him too. This ensured the underlying problem never got fixed. We simply coped with it.
When I reassured people that my boss’ actions wouldn’t ever get any “worse,” I was minimizing the things he already did. “That’s just how he is” has an unstated major premise hiding behind it: so you better get used to it. I had gotten accustomed to his abuse and expected others would as well. But no one should have to get used to all that.
In later years at that job, I learned to confront my boss’ behavior more and more. In my final year on the job, he threw a magazine at me, and I picked it up and hurled it right back, yelling at him that his actions were unacceptable. I’m sure it made the other employees in the room uneasy, seeing me causing conflict and naming mistreatment like that. But I think it it was something I should have done all along.
Distracting and joking
When people are upset, I want to make their bad feelings disappear. Sometimes I do this by fawning and collapsing in on myself; other times, I do it by turning into a jester and trying to entertain their problems away. I share memes, tell embarrassing stories about myself, ask their opinion about unrelated topics, and put on an elaborate song and dance, knowing that once I get them to smile, I’ll feel safe.
There’s nothing wrong with comforting an upset friend or helping a person come down from the emotional high of an intense experience. But the other person has to be ready for it, and their concerns need to be heard first. If you start joking and distracting too early, you’re not giving comfort, you’re censoring. And I haven’t always known the difference.
Most of my life, I’ve been surrounded by people who are uncomfortable with open emotionality and who cope with it by laughing awkwardly or even mocking a person when they’re upset. As a young person, I was emotionally shut down and would needle at people if they got “carried away” by big feelings. My little jabs would make them appear to calm down, but only because they had retreated inside themselves out of shame. I was also on the receiving end of this chiding, invalidating kind of emotional censorship many, many times.
Today, when people around me are upset, I still don’t know how to behave. I want to make them better. I want to put on a comforting show and kill the problem dead in its tracks. I want to feel secure, lovable, loved. But I recognize now that I don’t actually have the power to control others’ feelings, nor should I try to. Sometimes I just have to sit in my own panic and insecurity and let the person sit in whatever they’re feeling too.
I recognize that my urge to placate others, minimize conflict, and mend negative emotions is unhelpful and disrespectful. And for the past few years, I’ve been working on getting okay with healthy, productive conflict. I am still objectively terrible at it. When someone’s voice raises or another person’s posture changes and becomes more closed off, I snap into anxious fawner mode. Still, I recognize now that this internal panic doesn’t have to dictate my behavior, and I try to ride it out by doing the following:
Listen receptively to a person’s concerns, but don’t commit to a position
It is always okay to say, “I hear you, and I need some time to think about this.” It’s much better to reflect on what a person has said for a while than to dishonestly feign understanding and agreement.
Let people feel how they feel
When two or more people are in conflict, my goal should not be making all negative emotions go away. I have to mentally detach from other people’s feelings and remember that expressing anger, sadness, confusion, or outrage can be perfectly healthy and that silencing such emotions erodes trust.
Step away and regulate my own distress
If a fight or some challenging “real talk” freaks me out, I should deal with those feelings myself. It is always okay to excuse myself, take a walk, sit alone in the stairwell, call a friend for their outside perspective, or go sit and journal about my feelings. I can walk away and let two other people duke it out. What I should not do is try to manipulate others’ feelings in order to calm myself down.
Destroy the triangle
If someone asks me to pass along a message on their behalf, I can cut through triangulation by saying something like, “I think you need to tell Majorie yourself.” If someone passes a vicarious message to me, I can respond by saying, “That’s interesting. Bill can talk to me directly if he has any concerns.”
Stop guessing what others want
Rather than assuming a person wants to be entertained or reassured, I can ask them what kind of support they’d like. Often an upset person just wants to be left alone. Other times, they just need someone to really hear their concerns.
Get comfortable with unresolved problems
Most issues that are deserving of “real talk” are big enough they can’t easily be fixed. When I rush in trying to delete offending posts, change event policies, send agreeable emails, or mend broken trust, I distract from the deeper issues at work. Naming a problem is just the first step.
Don’t apologize for others
This is a hard one for me. I love all my friends, and I want so desperately for them all to love each other. But if Nathan hurts Jenny’s feelings, and Jenny never wants to speak to Nathan again, that’s actually none of my business. I don’t have objective knowledge of who a person is and what they’re capable of. I don’t get to decide how hurt a person deserves to feel. I can let my love of Nathan co-exist alongside Jenny’s mistrust of him.
Dispense “real talk” when I need to
It’s easy for me to resent other people for voicing their concerns when I am forever silencing myself. The more I speak out about how I’m feeling, the more I can feel seen and understood by my loved ones and my community.
Realize there is no such thing as “ruining” an event by being honest
Asserting a boundary at Christmas is not “ruining” the happy spirit of the holiday. Standing up for myself makes family time more honest and vulnerable. When someone at an activist meeting interrupts the proceedings to draw attention to some racism or sexism at work, they’re not “ruining” the meeting either. They’re helping to make it more bearable and safe.
Disagree and question openly
If I think someone is making an unreasonable demand of me, I can tell them. If I don’t understand an issue or grievance, asking for clarity can help everyone involved. In order for a relationship to be genuine, I have to bring my full self into it.
Have you found yourself blocking “real talk” because you fear open conflict? How have you coped with the distress that sometimes bubbles up and worked to create space for disagreement? I’d love to hear in the comments!