Failing to apologize for your mistakes is a big sin in the workplace. It can cost you good coworker relationships—or worse, your job. But on the other hand, constantly apologizing, starting sentences with “I’m sorry…” or prefacing everything you say with “Sorry…” can make you seem weak, insecure, or indecisive. Politeness is one thing, being a doormat is another. It’s also not advisable to use “I’m sorry” as conversation filler, just like you wouldn’t use “like” or “um.”
Here are 13 particular circumstances in which you should never say I’m sorry:
1. When you’re really #notsorry
People can tell when you’re being insecure. Just like dogs can smell fear. If your sorry is very clearly sarcastic or insecure, don’t even bother saying it.
2. When you didn’t do anything
Aka when you have nothing to say you’re sorry for. It’s not polite to throw in a ton of meaningless apologies for normal things like expressing an opinion or ducking into the restroom.
3. When you’re sticking to your principles
A coworker, or even your boss, is suggesting you do something off your moral tracks. It’s okay to stand up for yourself. You don’t need to preface your “I don’t believe it’s right to lie [cheat/steal/defraud/etc.]” with an “I’m sorry.” You shouldn’t be.
4. When it’s your bad
You’re late or you didn’t finish a project on time. Don’t just fling out a “Sorry!” and hope that you’ll be immediately exculpated. In short: don’t abdicate your responsibility too often.
5. When it plants a bad seed
You may know that you didn’t spend quite enough time on that presentation, but there’s absolutely no reason to lead it off with that fact and an apology. Do the best with what you have and don’t give them a reason to doubt your work before you’ve managed to present it.
6. When you’re not prepared to own it
Sometimes we say sorry and consider it the end of the road. Forgiveness granted! If you’re going to wield the word, be prepared for the apology recipient not to get over it immediately. Some mistakes or wounds take time to heal and build back trust. Recognize when someone is perhaps not ready to forgive you.
7. When you quit
You’re not sorry you’re taking another job. If you were, you wouldn’t be taking it in the first place. Leading with an apology in this situation also opens the door for your boss to try and guilt you into staying. Better to stand firm and get out the door with good feelings on both sides.
8. When you had nothing to do with it It’s much better to save your apologies for when you can and should assume 100% responsibility for the situation. Throwing ‘sorry’s around about things that were not in your control or in any way your fault will just take power away from you when you need to wield an apology for real.
9. When someone asks you to pass their apology along
If someone tells you to tell someone else that they’re sorry for [insert whatever actually bad thing they might have done], just stay out of it. Pass along the information that so-and-so wanted to say something to them or speak to them, and let it go at that. Don’t do their dirty work. If it’s just an innocent “Jane says sorry she couldn’t be here; she’s giving birth to her second child!” then that’s probably safe to pass along. Just stay away from the hairier stuff.
10. When you’re in the middle of debate You’re having a heated argument, or a debate full of passion. The last thing you want to do is throw in a “sorry” to minimize the conflict, i.e. “sorry, I just don’t agree…” It weakens your position and it will almost always ring insincere.
11. When you’re genuinely upset Someone does something legitimately upsetting to you or near you. You object. You’re more than justified in calling them out on their behavior. The last thing you want to do here is to say sorry first. “I’m sorry, but that was wrong” doesn’t leave enough room for the actual apology that you should be receiving from the wrong-doer.
12. When you’re asking for something
“I’m sorry, but could you [help me with/do for me/save the day]” is not a good thing to say when asking for help. If you actually felt bad, you wouldn’t have asked. Instead, after asking simply, humbly, and clearly, say thank you. Which should be what you really mean to say.
13. When the moment has passed Especially if you’ve already apologized and everyone is already over it. Don’t rehash the past. Move forward! If you’re really still beating yourself up over something, then put that energy into making sure you never make that mistake again. No need to dredge up old drama. Keep moving forward instead.
It’s hard not to get worked up emotionally when you’re in a tense conversation. After all, a disagreement can feel like a threat. You’re afraid you’re going to have to give up something — your point of view, the way you’re used to doing something, the notion that you’re right, or maybe even power – and your body therefore ramps up for a fight by triggering the sympathetic nervous system. This is a natural response, but the problem is that our bodies and minds aren’t particularly good at discerning between the threats presented by not getting your way on the project plan and, say, being chased down by a bear. Your heart rate and breathing rate spike, your muscles tighten, the blood in your body moves away from your organs, and you’re likely to feel uncomfortable.
None of this puts you in the right frame of mind to resolve a conflict. If your body goes into “fight or flight” mode or what Dan Goleman called “amygdala hijack,” you may lose access to the prefrontal cortex, the part of your brain responsible for rational thinking. And making rational decisions is precisely what you need to do in a difficult conversation. Not only are you losing the ability to think clearly but chances are your counterpart notices the signs of stress — your face turning red, the pace of your speech speeding up — and, because of mirror neurons that cause us to “catch” the emotions of another person, your colleague is likely to start feeling the same way. Before you know it, the conversation has derailed and the conflict intensifies.
Luckily, it’s possible to interrupt this physical response, manage your emotions, and clear the way for a productive discussion. There are several things you can do to keep your cool during a conversation or to calm yourself down if you’ve gotten worked up.
Breathe. Simple mindfulness techniques can be your best friend in tense situations and none is more straightforward and accessible than using your breath. So when you start noticing yourself getting tense, try to focus on breathing. Notice the sensation of air coming in and out of your lungs. Feel it pass through your nostrils or down the back of your throat. This will take your attention off the physical signs of panic and keep you centered. Some mindfulness experts suggest counting your breath— either inhaling and exhaling for a count of 6, for example, or just counting each exhale until you get to 10 and then starting again.
Focus on your body. Sitting still when you’re having a difficult conversation can make the emotions build up rather than dissipate. Experts say that standing up and walking around helps to activate the thinking part of your brain. If you and your counterpart are seated at a table, you may be hesitant to suddenly stand up. Fair enough. Instead, you might say, “I feel like I need to stretch some. Mind if I walk around a bit?” If that still doesn’t feel comfortable, you can do small physical things like crossing two fingers or placing your feet firmly on the ground and noticing what the floor feels like on the bottom of your shoes. Mindfulness experts call this “anchoring.” It can work in all kinds of stressful situations. For example, for a long time I was afraid of flying, but I found that counting while touching each of my fingers with my thumb helped to get me out of my rumination mode.
Try saying a mantra. This is a piece of advice I’ve gotten from Amy Jen Su, managing partner of Paravis Partners and coauthor of Own the Room. She recommends coming up with a phrase that you can repeat to yourself to remind you to stay calm. Some of her clients have found “Go to neutral” to be a helpful prompt. You can also try “This isn’t about me,” “This will pass,” or “This is about the business.”
Acknowledge and label your feelings. Another useful tactic comes from Susan David, author of Emotional Agility. When you’re feeling emotional, “the attention you give your thoughts and feelings crowds your mind; there’s no room to examine them,” she says. To distance yourself from the feeling, label it. “Call a thought a thought and an emotion an emotion,” says David. He is so wrong about that and it’s making me mad becomesI’m having the thought that my coworker is wrong, and I’m feeling anger. Labeling like this allows you to see your thoughts and feelings for what they are: “transient sources of data that may or may not prove helpful.” When you put that space between these emotions and you, it’s easier to let them go — and not bury them or let them explode.
Take a break. In my experience, this is a far-underused approach. The more time you give yourself to process your emotions, the less intense they are likely to be. So when things get heated, you may need to excuse yourself for a moment — get a cup of coffee or a glass of water, go to the bathroom, or take a brief stroll around the office. Be sure to give a neutral reason for why you want to stand up and pause the conversation — the last thing you want is for your counterpart to think that things are going so badly you’re desperate to escape. Try saying something like, “I’m sorry to interrupt you, but I’d love to get a quick cup of coffee before we continue. Can I get you something while I’m up?”
Keep in mind that you’re probably not the only one who’s upset. Your counterpart is likely to express anger or frustration too. While you may want to give them the above advice, no one wants to be told they need to breathe more deeply or take a break. So you may be in a situation where you just need to let the other person vent. That’s usually easier said than done though. It’s hard not to yell back when you’re being attacked, but that’s not going to help. Jeanne Brett, a professor of dispute resolution and negotiations at Kellogg School of Management, suggests visualizing your coworker’s words going over your shoulder, not hitting you in the chest. But don’t act aloof; it’s important to show that you’re listening. If you don’t feed your counterpart’s negative emotion with your own, it’s likely they will wind down.
Let’s face it. Conflicts with coworkers can be tough. But you’re not going to solve the underlying issues or maintain a positive relationship if you barrel through the conversation when you’re completely worked up. Hopefully, these five tactics will help you move from angry and upset to cool as a cucumber.
When someone is fighting fair, call it out and say “thank you”
Have you ever had a conflict with a co-worker? Of course you have. If your company employs more than one person, workplace conflict is inevitable. And even if you’re a sole proprietor, you’re going to have challenges with clients, vendors, industry colleagues and others. Unless you only surround yourself with people who think, speak and work exactly like you (and how boring would thatbe?), you are going to come up against people who challenge your ideas–and who challenge you.
That’s a good thing. Disagreements can lead to diversity of thinking, improvements in products and services, and greater productivity. Disagreements can also lead to better working relationships, but only if everyone involved fights fair.
Let’s assume you already do–you communicate directly and thoughtfully, you are considerate in your language and tone, you engage others in a dialogue rather than a monologue, and you are focused on achieving a good outcome and a healthy relationship. Good for you!
But how do you get your colleague to do the same? How can you work better with someone who may be working against you? By acknowledging and thanking her for demonstrating “agreeable disagreement” behaviors every time you see them.
Here are three healthy conflict behaviors to look for so that you can say “thank you” when you see them.
1. Telling you directly.
In the words of Napoleon Bonaparte, “The people to fear are not those who disagree with you, but those who disagree with you and are too cowardly to let you know.” As uncomfortable as it feels to hear negative feedback or be confronted directly, it is significantly more uncomfortable (and less productive) to have a colleague who is secretly seething, holding a grudge, acting passive-aggressively towards you, or telling everyone but you that she has a problem with you.
When a colleague tells you directly that they’re frustrated with you, seeing a situation differently from you, or otherwise feeling disgruntled, consider it a gift. If you know, you can do something about it (or make an informed decision not to do anything about it). If you don’t know, you’re in the dark.
Try saying this: “Thank you so much for telling me directly that you [didn’t like my decision/felt disrespected by me in the meeting/wished I had consulted with you]. I appreciate you trusting me enough to share that feedback. Would you like to discuss it further?”
2. Using a respectful tone.
In the face of an interpersonal conflict, our brains register a threat in approximately 1/5 of a second. We immediately go into fight, flight or freeze mode, and it’s easy to become snippy, short-tempered, sarcastic, surly – or even go silent. It’s reacting rather than considering how to respond.
If your colleague is willing and able to stop his automatic reaction, and demonstrate emotionally intelligent self-management by speaking to you calmly and with care, thank him. It likely took some work to be able to do that, and some respect for you to be willing to do it.
Try saying this: “I just want to thank you for the calm tone of voice you’re using right now, even though I know you’re upset. It makes it easy for me to really hear your perspective, and to have a productive conversation.”
In the words of legendary radio host Bernard Meltzer, “If you have learned how to disagree without being disagreeable, then you have discovered the secret of getting along–whether it be business, family relations, or life itself.”
3. Being curious.
Healthy communication navigates and balances between two practices: advocacy (promoting our own ideas, perspectives and points of view) and inquiry (being curious about the other’s ideas, perspectives and points of view.) In a conflict, we tend to over-rely on advocacy–telling the other person what we think and “know”, why we’re right, and why they’re clearly wrong. Inquiry tends to go out the door. We’re often more committed to getting our way than to getting new information that could sway us (or, heaven forbid, reveal that we were wrong).
When you hear your colleague asking you questions like “How do you see it?”, “What do you think I’m not understanding here?”, “What would you like to see happen?” or even prompting you with, “Tell me more…”, thank her for being curious.
Try saying this: “Thank you for asking me. I’d like to tell you how I see it, and then I’d like to learn more about how you see it.”
And if she also really listens to your answers, thank her again. As Winston Churchill said, “Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak. Courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.”
A conflict doesn’t have to hurt people’s feelings or slow down productivity. In fact, a conflict where both people care about the relationship as much as the outcome can be a catalyst to interpersonal and organizational progress.
Few managers will admit to actively avoiding difficult conversations with colleagues. But I’ve noticed that while many speak about the importance of candor for getting things done, managers often sidestep or steer clear of emotionally charged situations by pretending they don’t exist, delaying the day of reckoning, or bringing in sympathetic third parties.
I recently had to deal with this issue while working with a company (disguised here) that was grappling with an unusual conflict among senior leadership. In this case, the board of a small food industry startup hired a new CEO to accelerate the commercialization of its technology. His first six months were successful: He raised a new round of funding, streamlined the manufacturing process, and focused the company on a few critical goals, particularly a key safety approval from federal regulators. He also recruited several senior managers with years of experience in the food industry and strong relationships with the regulatory authorities.
One of them, however, became unsatisfied with her second-fiddle position and secretly went to the board chair, demanding to be put in charge of the company and threatening to leave (and take another senior manager with her) if the board refused. Although the chair was pleased with what the CEO had accomplished, he felt that losing these executives would significantly undermine and delay the approvals needed for full product launch. It was too big of a risk. So in consultation with the rest of the board (but without talking to the CEO), he acquiesced to her demands and asked the CEO to step down.
This coup-like situation clearly appears deplorable, demonstrating a lack of honest communication on the part of the senior manager, who acted underhandedly, and the board chair, who threw the CEO under the bus. Neither seemed to have the courage to talk directly with the CEO.
You and Your Team Series
What’s interesting, though, is that both the senior manager and the board chair felt that they acted appropriately and with the best interests of the company and its investors in mind. The senior manager felt that she had the right skills and contacts to get the company to the next level but the CEO (who had come from outside the industry) did not. Because she didn’t think he would agree, she decided that it would be a waste of time to approach him and that it would be better to go directly to the board. The board chair also thought that the best way to protect and grow the company was to side with the senior manager — and once his mind was made up, he didn’t think a conversation with the CEO could be constructive.
This kind of rationalization is common. We often avoid difficult situations or conversations because we think that they won’t be productive, that we won’t be able to convince the other party to come around to our point of view. Because we start with this kind of win-lose perspective (and don’t want to lose), we seek ways around the confrontation and often end up causing more damage. In our case, the board chair and senior manager knew that the right thing to do was talk to the CEO about their concerns, but since they believed he would disagree and trigger a conflict, it seemed best to avoid bringing him in altogether.
Unfortunately, this avoidance was shortsighted. Switching out the CEO caused disruption and lowered morale within the company — this was the fourth CEO change in less than two years. While the senior manager did indeed have relevant food industry and regulatory experience, she didn’t have some of the key skills that made the CEO successful, such as the ability to raise money, deal with investors, excite potential customers, and motivate employees. It also made for an awkward transition period for the leadership team and the board chair, which will likely compromise their ability to collaborate in the future.
Obviously, there are no guarantees that a candid discussion would have led to a different outcome. But other arrangements might have prevented the anger, distrust, and disruption that ensued. Creating co-CEO roles or promoting the CEO to serve as vice-chair of the board, for example, would have leveraged the skills of both the senior manager and the CEO. As the (now former) CEO said later, “I don’t know if we could have worked it out or not, but talking through the issues would at least have given us a chance.”
This was certainly an extreme and unusual case of avoiding difficult conversations. But the same dynamic undoubtedly happens on a much smaller scale (and without the threats to quit) in workplaces on a regular basis — say, in negative performance reviews or in team conflicts, or simply as a result of incompatible personalities and work styles. The truth is that managers and employees avoid all kinds of tough situations, rationalizing their actions along the way, and end up making tensions worse.
Avoidance is so common that there’s no panacea for overcoming it. Perhaps the best we can do is become more aware of our tendency to rationalize it and practice dealing with tough situations so we feel more prepared when they arise. For example, you might ask a trusted colleague or friend for feedback about moments when he or she caught you “kidding yourself” about something. (Just be prepared for some answers you might not like.) You could also ask a colleague who makes you uncomfortable — someone you don’t like, who intimidates you, or who you feel competitive with — to go out for coffee in an attempt to resolve your issues. This kind of low-risk “practice” can help you learn the skills and develop the emotional intelligence necessary for handling difficult conversations and knowing when to dive in or back off.
The bottom line is that none of us like being in emotionally difficult situations. Learning how to deal with them more openly and easily, however, might be one of the best things you can do to improve your own leadership and create more value for your company.
In a traditional team structure, conflicts can be escalated to the boss to resolve. Can’t agree on how to prioritize projects, or on which deadlines need to shift? Ask the team leader to step in and make a call. Think a coworker is acting snarky, or that their work is too sloppy? Advise the manager to give them some feedback. But for flat or self-managed teams, that’s not an option. Self-managed teams must identify different ways to find and address day-to-day conflicts.
Self-managed teams can focus on three things to help them successfully resolve conflicts. (Traditionally hierarchical teams may benefit from them too.)
Encourage openness to productive conflict. First and foremost, self-managed teams must commit to openly discussing their differences. Conflict should be seen not as an annoyance that leads to anxiety and alienation, but as an opportunity for growth and strong working relationships.
To create this culture of open communication, try turning conflict resolution into an organized group activity. A technique called Planning Poker has opened my team’s eyes to just how productive having dissenting viewpoints can be. Using a point-based system, the technique encourages all team members to raise their opinions, weigh every option, and collectively vote on the best plan. Planning Poker is predominantly used by software developers, but it can facilitate virtually any business decision.
Come to a common understanding about which conflicts can be resolved without the involvement of others. For example, you might develop norms about what constitutes a low-risk decision (for example, it affects few people, or the related costs fall below a certain threshold), and encourage the team to resolve low-risk conflicts without group intervention.
Prioritize accountability over blame. Autonomous teams should win and lose as a group. When shortcomings occur, teams shouldn’t assign blame to the contributors closest to the debacle. Rather than looking at who was responsible, as people express only the symptoms, they should investigate whythe issue occurred.
This mode of conflict resolution is akin to the “blameless postmortem” approach much of the technology world takes to understand why products and endeavors don’t reach their full potential. If a team is comfortable speaking openly about conflict and hardships, asking “How did this happen?” when conducting a postmortem won’t lead to the blame game; it will yield the root cause. As Etsy CTO John Allspaw says, people are “the most expert in their own error. They ought to be heavily involved in coming up with remediation items.” Punishing them for contributing to conflict discourages this productive dialogue.
To further enhance the blameless approach, a team can discuss the situation with several other teams at the company and gather multiple unbiased opinions regarding the conflict’s root cause and how it could be addressed. Even if this doesn’t result in a unanimous opinion or a clear plan of action, it shifts the focus from the responsible parties and opens the remediation process to many diverse, productive ideas.
Quantify the impact of the problem. A team at my organization was recently at odds because a developer preferred to work at night — which was inconvenient because everyone else worked during the day. This employee was absent from nearly every important meeting, and his teammates constantly found themselves taking extra time to fill him in on everything he missed.
The tension continued until the team quantified the impact of his absence. Each meeting the employee missed took 60 minutes, and the team would spend 30 more minutes recapping for him and hearing his thoughts. With six members on the team, that’s a combined three hours of unnecessary discussion. To top it off, the employee missed about 10 meetings each month, so his team was devoting more than 350 hours per year to these conversations. Instead of focusing on the symptomatic conflict and requiring the employee to work during the day every day, the team decided to develop a flexible schedule that worked for everyone. On meeting days, the night owl could arrive in the afternoon, share a few hours of overlap with everyone else, and then burn the midnight oil as he pleased.
Quantifying the impact of conflict provides several benefits. It encourages productive conversations, creates alignment around the gravity of the issue, and unlocks creative solutions as people identify both the source and the impact of their conflicts. Assigning a numeric value to waste helps teams find better ways to reduce it.
When a disagreement gets heated with a colleague, it’s normal to feel all sorts of emotions: disappointment, anger, frustration. But should you express those emotions? Or try to keep them close to your chest? Will it help if you tell your colleague that they’ve made you mad? Should they know how upset you are?
Of course, just because you feel angry, doesn’t mean you have to express it. And the real issue is not whether you reveal your emotions or not. What’s most important is that you have the ability to choose whether or not to share your feelings. This isn’t always easy because when we’re having an argument with someone, too often we feel as if we are in the grip of the emotions and they’re dictating what we say and do, rather than the other way around. Under these circumstances, you’re not able to make a smart choice about what to say and do. You need to put space between what’s happening (the disagreement) and your reaction. Here’s how.
First, recognize that conflicts at work are usually not one-off events. Many people I work with in my practice describe being caught off guard by a disagreement. They might say “I didn’t see it coming” or “I was blindsided.” But most conflicts have an element of predictability to them in that they have the roots in prior behavior. Chances are that the current argument you’re having is tied to a pattern of behavior, what usually upsets you about that person (or people in general). For example, you might work with someone who you feel makes unfair decisions or takes advantage of others.
When we get upset, it may be because we’ve sought evidence that proves these patterns. When you feel like someone is a slacker, you’ll look for ways that they aren’t carrying their weight. If you worry that your manager is unfair in her treatment of the team, you’ll be on alert for signs that she’s showing preferential treatment. Recognize these patterns so that you’re not caught off guard next time. Instead of feeling surging anger, you might realize, “This is something I often get worked up about.” If you’re more attuned to the conflicts that arise in you and around you, you can be more emotional agile.
Then, when a specific conflict arises, you can make a conscious choice about if and how to express your emotions by asking yourself these four questions:
Who’s in charge – the emotion or me the person experiencing the emotion?Ask yourself if you are making thoughtful decisions about how to react or if the emotion is driving your reactions. If your thoughts and emotions are in charge, it’s a sign that you’re hooked by your feelings and you’re going down a path that is unlikely to help you resolve the argument and more likely to make it worse. If the emotion is dictating how you act, it will be difficult to do what you need to – take the other person’s perspective, have compassion, clearly articulate your narrative of the event.
What exactly am I feeling? When you feel angry (a common emotional response to a conflict), what’s often sitting beneath that anger is a more nuanced emotion, such as betrayal, feeling unseen, or disappointment. Before you can decide whether to express your emotion, you need to better understand it. Ask yourself: “What is it that I’m experiencing exactly? What is the emotion beneath the emotion?” And when you come up with an answer, ask yourself, “What are two other emotions that I’m experiencing?” The accurate labeling of emotions is a critical step to moving forward effectively.
What is the function of the emotion? Remember that emotions are signals. What is this sense of betrayal telling you about what matters to you? What is the sadness signaling? Perhaps it’s that you care about loyalty from your team members, or that you value equity. This will help you figure out how to talk to your counterpart. Telling someone you’re angry is far less helpful than explaining that you’re disappointed that they didn’t follow through on their commitment and that reliability is important to you. You can also ask yourself, how does what this emotion is telling me relate to what my counterpart feels is important? If you can identify overlapping values or interests, you’ll be in a better position to work through your disagreement.
To what extent does expressing my emotion serve me in this situation?Finally, after you’ve decided whether you’re hooked by your emotion, labelled it, and considered what it might be telling you, you want to ask yourself whether saying “I’m really angry” or “I’m frustrated by this situation” will help you in your goal of solving the conflict. Psychologists talk about “hot” and “cold” emotions. If you’re experiencing a “hot” emotion, one that comes with an urgent sense of entitlement or even revenge (“I have to tell him exactly how I feel!”), you’re hooked and it’s better to find a way to calm down first. If the emotion is “cold,” in that you can manage it, and the intention behind it is to make the situation better (“I want to tell him how I feel because it might help him understand my perspective”) then it’s probably OK to express it.
It’s best if you can go beyond just naming the emotion to explaining what matters to you. Telling your counterpart that fairness is important to you, for example, is the first step in developing a shared set of values. Perhaps fairness matters to her too and then you have a starting point for resolving the conflict – and avoiding future ones.
Of course, there is always a risk that you will express an emotion or sentiment that’s important to you and the other person doesn’t reciprocate or even retaliates. This has to be a chance you’re willing to take, and you’ll be much better equipped to accept the consequences if your intention is to develop mutual understanding.
Conflict is never one-sided, and neither are the emotions that accompany it. If you’re going to express that you’re angry and feeling betrayed, you have to consider what the other person might be feeling as well. This perspective taking – and the empathy and compassion that it triggers – is extremely important to solving conflicts. So if you decided to express how you’re feeling, it’s best to follow up by asking the other person about their emotional experience. This doesn’t need to – and shouldn’t – turn into a competition about who’s most hurt by the situation but it can be a way to get your emotions and interests out on the table and find a path forward.
Making up after an argument is more than just saying you’re sorry.
Jason and Kate had one of those late-night arguments last night…again. It wasn’t one of their worst, but it left them both feeling raw. The next morning was awkward, circling around each other in the kitchen as they got coffee. One of them finally mumbled an apology, and the other did the same, both trying to just put it behind them. Case closed.
There are a lot of ways couples try to mop up after an argument: Jason and Kate’s mumbled apologies; for others, make-up sex, or several days of deep-freeze during which no one talks until it somehow gradually defrosts, but nothing more is said as things go back to “normal”.
Disagreements will flare up in any close relationship, and there are two parts to them:
At the front-end is the way the argument unfolds. This is about balance and containment. The balance is exactly that — that both partners need to feel safe enough to speak up. It doesn’t work when there isn’t that balance — when one person dominates the conversation through rants and bullies and the other person shuts down. Or when both partners shut down, or worse, stop bringing up problems at all. These couples keep everyday conversations superficial, walk on eggshells, and use distance to avoid conflict.
Containment is about keeping the disagreement in emotional bonds — where it doesn’t turn into open warfare in which each person digs up the past to throw more wood on the emotional fire. This is where hurtful things are said and things can get physical, creating emotional or physical scars that don’t go away but create more fear, resentment, and fodder for future arguments.
But then there is the backside of the argument—the making-up.
What You Don’t Want to Do
Don’t pretend it didn’t happen. You skip the apologies and get up on Sunday morning and pretend that what happened last night didn’t.
Don’t continue to punish the other guy. You do the silent treatment, not because you don’t know how to make-up, but because it’s your way of punishing and essentially continuing the argument in another form. Here partners often throw in passive-aggressive behaviors to rub salt into the other’s wounds.
Don’t do the deep-freeze. Even if it’s not about punishment, but anxiety and awkwardness, the deep-freeze creates an awful climate in a relationship as home becomes a who-will-blink-first contest. This is particularly harmful for children, who are forced to walk on eggshells and often naturally and erroneously believe that it is all somehow happening because they did something wrong.
Don’t not apologize. Apologizing is not about saying that the other person is right, i.e., you’re wrong and she wins the argument, but simply about acknowledging that you hurt the other’s feelings. Apologies are simply about taking responsibility for your side of the argument.
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Doing It Right
Cool off. You want to cool off in order to get your rational brain back online. If you try to talk too soon, you’re likely to trigger each other again. That said, couples usually differ in how much time they need to calm down (and men often take longer). If you’re not ready yet to come back and make up, simply say, in one sentence, “I’m still upset; I’m not trying to ignore you, I just need more time to cool off.”
Go back and solve the problem that started the argument. The dishes left on the counter, the money spent on shoes or video games, the time the kids need to get to bed. This is where it is easy to fall down. Jason and Kate say they’re sorry, but don’t return to the topic. Why? Because they are afraid it will only turn into another fight. The challenge is to go back and talk about it and solve the problem, rather than sweeping it under the rug.
Your job at this point is to stay sane — pretend you’re at work and act as you would if a coworker did something that bothered you. Resist the urge to plow back into the argument: you said, no I didn’t, if you hadn’t said, etc. Move forward — figure out a plan for dealing with the dishes, the expenses, the bedtime. If it gets hot again, stop, cool off, try again, or write down your solution to the problem, then circle back and talk again.
Figure out the moral of the story of the argument. You want to fix the problem so it doesn’t keep coming up, but you also want to learn something that the argument can teach you about communication and, often, the underlying source of the problem.
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Questions to Ask Yourself
Is there a deeper issue underlying the problem?
The dishes are not about dishes but about feeling criticized, or feeling like the other person doesn’t hear you and dismisses your requests, or feeling like you are Cinderella and the other person isn’t doing his or her share of the work. Ditto for money. Bedtime? Different parenting styles, a power struggle about parenting, or something else? Be curious: Dig down, look for the larger pattern that makes the argument merely the tip of the iceberg, then have a conversation about the bigger stuff.
Why did it turn into an argument at all?
Was there something that the other person did that pushed your buttons? Talk about that. Was it because you were both tired and cranky already, or that it was late at night and you both had had a couple of drinks? Talk about that, and how to do it differently going forward. Was it because you were holding things in for a long time and finally blew up? If so, talk about what you need to feel safe to bring things up sooner. Was it because you both had been feeling disconnected from each other, and somehow had subconsciously developed this pattern of picking a fight so you could then have make-up sex or cuddly make-up and get recalibrated? Talk about how to catch the disconnection sooner and develop better ways of bringing you both closer.
The goals here are clear: Solve the problem and learn from the experience so you don’t keep repeating it. The challenge is having the courage to do so, to step up (or step down), and approach your anxiety rather than avoiding it.
Conflict avoidance is one of the biggest topics that keep coming in couples counseling sessions. Holding off conflicts happens when one partner avoids conflicts in order to protect the relationship against another escalation. Sometimes withdrawing or distancing yourself in order to avoid conflicts makes so much sense.
However, this pattern erodes the relationship foundation because if you keep withdrawing from communication, your partner does not feel safe anymore. Moreover, if you keep avoiding conflicts to save the peace in your relationship, you inevitably start a war inside yourself.
How Does Conflict Avoidance Affect Your Marriage?
There is a problem in your marriage and your spouse wants to discuss it with you. His feelings are hurt and he wants to talk about that. However, your partner’s attempts to communicate his feelings over the situation are met with silence on your end. You simply withdraw, refusing to participate in the conversation, saying something like “Oh…whatever…”, “Just leave me alone”, and similar.
When this conflict avoidance becomes a repetitive pattern, it is inevitable for resentment and dissatisfaction to start building up in a relationship.
A communication style where you simply withdraw from communication and stop responding is called stonewalling, according to Dr. John Gottman who’s has researched divorce prediction and marital stability for the last 40 years. This communication style is different from an occasional time out to calm down — stonewalling is total refusal to consider your partner’s perspective.
Dr. Gottman considers stonewalling to be one of the four most harmful behaviors to marriage (the other three include criticism, contempt, and defensiveness): according to his research, stonewalling is the second behavior that predicts divorce with over 90 percent accuracy.
This communication style usually occurs as a response to contempt (a moment in conflict when you, your partner, or both become truly mean and start treating each other with disrespect): you tune out, disconnect from communication and stop responding to your partner.
Stonewalling is a form of emotional suppression that usually happens as a result of feeling emotionally flooded in a situation of distress: the state in which you cannot discuss things or act rationally, so you simply decide to tune out.
We often feel overwhelmed in a situation where our partner wants to talk about feelings. Although you might think that stonewalling more often occurs in men, who are wired to withdraw and avoid talking about a problem, this avoidance tactic happens in women too.
Research shows that stonewalling can not only damage your marriage but also cause health problems with the heart and the autonomic nervous system. In addition, the level of stress one spouse feels when the other one uses stonewalling as avoidance tactic can trigger anxiety disorders and depression.
How to Reduce Stonewalling in a Relationship?
The best way to reduce stonewalling is learning to communicate without accusing and judging each other. You see, when you use contempt and start accusing your partner, it is most likely that he/she will start feeling defensive and decide to shut down and withdraw from communication. So learning to communicate without putting your spouse on the defensive is a huge step towards removing stonewalling from your relationship dynamics.
Conflicts Are Not as Bad as You May Think
Anyone who’s ever been in a relationship knows that conflicts are simply unavoidable. People often wrongly believe that if they are in love, arguments and conflicts should not exist in their relationship. Most of us were taught since childhood that conflicts are something bad that should, by all means, be avoided if we want to live happily. However, arguments can actually be good for a relationship.
Therefore, don’t try to avoid conflicts — they can actually benefit your relationship if you know how to restore after an argument.
Studies show that most of couples who learn communication skills fail to use them in real-life situations because those skills simply don’t last. Sooner or later, we return to old communication patterns, particularly when we are in the middle of an argument.
Conflicts allow you to explore your deepest emotions and to talk about them with your partner. If you constantly avoid reflecting on your feelings, you will inescapably become emotionally distant and detached.
Furthermore, conflicts can help you get to know each other’s personality better. Better understanding of one another will allow you to adapt to each other’s communication style and personality and cherish your differences.
Arguments can also boost your empathy, allowing you to understand your partner’s perspective, to “put yourself in their shoes” and experience their feelings. In addition, conflicts enhance honesty. They enable you to be vulnerable and tell your partner what you think or how you feel honestly and openly.
We all know that conflicts are unavoidable part of our relationships. We sometimes have a tendency to avoid conflicts and withdraw from communication, believing this is the best way to protect the relationship in those moments when we feel emotionally flooded. However, avoiding conflicts can destroy your marriage.
Stonewalling as a conflict avoidance tactic is a complete refusal to consider your partner’s perspective that usually leads to emotional disconnection and divorce. The best way to cut down stonewalling in a relationship is learning to show vulnerability and communicate your feelings openly and honestly. Conflicts are not necessarily bad. If you learn how to repair after an argument, conflicts can actually help improve your relationship and strengthen the bond with your partner.
Your mind and heart feel like they’re split in two.
You want to do something, but another part of you is screaming “NO WAY!”
You believe in something, but you just cannot condone an action that belief teaches.
You feel like something is right, but then you also feel like it’s wrong.
How can you make any sense of all this mess, all this internal conflict? You feel like your brain is melting and you’re starting to get desperate.
If you feel like you’re going a little bit crazy, or the confusion is getting too much to handle, stop right now. Pause what you’re doing, close your eyes, and take a deep breath. For the next minute, focus on your breathing coming in and out. In this article, I hope to help you get to the root of your internal conflict and how to find peace of mind.
What is Internal Conflict?
Internal conflict is the experience of having opposing psychological beliefs, desires, impulses or feelings. In the field of psychology, internal conflict is often referred to as “cognitive dissonance,” which is a term that refers to holding conflicting and inconsistent thoughts, beliefs, and attitudes. This mental struggle can occur at any point in life over any topic such as relationships, work commitments, religious beliefs, moral standpoints, and social ideologies.
An example of internal conflict would be a person who believes in women’s rights but does not condone abortion. Internal conflict can often be seen in relationships where one person loves their partner, but they don’t feel emotionally available. In the religious world, internal conflict often occurs when one is faced with a doctrine or teaching they are uncomfortable propagating.
Why Does Internal Conflict Occur?
Your worst battle is between what you know and what you feel. – Anonymous
When we experience any kind of internal conflict, what is really happening is that there is a disagreement between our heart and head.
As shown by research conducted by places such as the HeartMath Institute, our hearts carry their own special kind of intuitive intelligence. As we were raised in societies that were (and still are) dominated by the mind, we become very confused and disconcerted when our hearts get involved in everyday matters. It is very easy to listen to the mind, mindlessly obey what others teach us, and logically plan our lives. But our hearts carry their own special kind of intelligence, an intelligence that is nonlinear, subtle, and often very abstract. There is no formula or set of rules that are attached to the heart’s intelligence: it is up to us to tune into the voice within, which is often what confuses us so much.
Our head intelligence is what helps to give our lives structure, direction, and practical application. But our heart intelligence is what breathes life and truth into this framework of our life journeys. Without listening to our hearts, we live soulless, unfulfilling, and inauthentic lives. But without listening to our heads, we live in absolute chaos.
As we can see, balance is needed. We need to listen to both the heart and head, but often, we tend to value one over the other which is what causes us to experience internal conflict.
So why does internal conflict occur? It occurs because we lack equanimity and balance between the heart and head. Our heart says one thing, but our mind says another: and both shout at the same intensity. When our actions don’t match our values, the inevitable result is a feeling of discomfort, even shame. So which do we listen to, when, and why? We’ll explore the answer to this question soon, but first, we need to understand what creates internal conflict in the first place.
What Creates Internal Conflict?
We experience internal conflict for a number of reasons. Often, there is no one “single cause” or origin, but there are a number of factors which include:
The beliefs and rules we inherited from our parents
The religious beliefs, dogmas or creeds we were indoctrinated to believe
The societal values and ideals we adopted growing up
Quite simply, the more mental beliefs, ideals, expectations, and desires we have, the more likely we are to suffer from internal conflict.
8 Types of Internal Conflict
There are many different types of internal conflict, and I will attempt to cover as many as I can below. Pay close attention to which ones you resonate with.
1. Moral Conflict
Moral conflict arises when we hold conflicting beliefs about something to do with our personal ethics. For example, moral conflict could occur when a person believes in human rights but doesn’t believe in euthanasia. Or a person could value telling the truth, but lie to save another person’s life.
2. Sexual Conflict
Sexual conflict often overlaps with other types of internal conflict such as religious or moral conflict. For example, a person might be a faithful Christian but they discover they’re homosexual. Or a person might value monogamous relationships when sexually they are better suited to polygamous relationships.
3. Religious Conflict
Religious conflict is quite common because it revolves around belief and beliefs are very mind-orientated, making them particularly fragile. Examples of religious conflict could be believing in a loving God, but finding it hard to accept that this “loving” being sends people to hell for eternity. Or a person who is religiously faithful, but also believes in the use of medical marijuana (which is still classified as a drug). When faced with scientific facts, religious conflict may arise within a person who values both truth and their religious belief.
4. Political Conflict
Political conflict arises when a person feels split between their own beliefs and their political party’s beliefs. For example, a person may believe in America but doesn’t believe in paying taxes. A person may align with one party but disagree with their treatment of the healthcare system. Or a person may believe in the political philosophy but struggle to support the politician propagating it.
5. Love Conflict
Love conflict is what happens when we love someone, yet we want to do something that hurts them. For example, we may love our children, but believe we have to smack them to make them obedient, which causes us to feel guilty. Or we may love our partners, but find their habits to be intolerable which causes us to act out. We may also love a person and wish to keep them, but realize we have to let them go.
6. Self-Image Conflict
Your self-image is the mental idea you have about yourself, e.g. “My name is Karen. I’m a patient, loving, and compassionate person. I’m a disorganized artist who supports the rights of animals … etc.” Internal conflict arises when we are met with evidence that contradicts our beliefs about ourselves. For example, a person who believes they’re honest might lie on their resume to get their dream job. Someone who takes pride in eating healthy might not want to give up smoking. A person who identifies as an empath may feel constant resentment towards another person. Or a person may believe they’re ethical but might enjoy buying clothing that contributes to sweatshops.
7. Interpersonal Conflict
Interpersonal conflict overlaps with other types of internal conflict such as self-image and love conflict. This type of conflict occurs in social situations when you want to be one way, but find yourself acting in another way. For example, Sally hates talking about sports, but she finds herself faking interest in what her coworkers talk about. An introvert doesn’t have much energy but creates a high-energy facade to fit in with others. Or someone is offended by a friend but says nothing even though they want to.
8. Existential Conflict
Existential conflict involves feelings of discomfort and confusion about life, particularly when two opposing beliefs or desires arise. For instance, hating life but loving life at the same time. Or wanting to live life to the fullest, but not wanting to make any changes or get out of your comfort zone. Existential conflict can also be directed towards the world, for example, wanting to save our planet, but at the same time believing that it’s doomed.
Please note that all of these examples of internal conflict frequently overlap with each other. This list is also not definitive, so feel free to leave a comment if you believe I’ve left any types of internal conflict out.
How to Find Peace of Mind
All war originates within as internal conflict. And what is the root cause of internal conflict? Attachment to beliefs, desires, and expectations.
Quite simply, all our suffering occurs when we believe our thoughts,instead of seeing them for what they truly are: passing fluctuations of energy within the brain. Do we control our thoughts? No. Otherwise, we would always choose to think happy and harmonious thoughts. We don’t even know what our next thought will be, or what our next ten thoughts will be because they all spontaneously arise and fall within the mind. If we don’t control these thoughts, then how can they possibly mean anything about us unless we give them meaning?
If you can truly understand what I’ve just written, you’ll find that a lot of your internal conflict dissipates very quickly. Simply sit down for however long you want, and try to notice where your thoughts come from. Do you control them? Or … are they controlling you?
Aside from that, here are some other tips which I hope can help you find more peace of mind and clarity:
Distinguish between intuition and fear. The intuitive voice within your heart is very clear, strong, and unemotional. However, the fearful voice is vague and emotionally-charged. Learn how to distinguish between these two voices because they are often confused. Read more about following your intuition.
In the long-term, what would be the wisest choice? When our heart dominates, we tend to make rash, poorly thought-out decisions. This is where the head comes in: foresight. Foresight is wisdom. With the limited knowledge you have right now, what would appear to be the wisest decision in the long-term?
Weigh up the pros and cons. If you’re struggling to find clarity, divide a page into two sides. List all the pros of your decision on one side and the cons on the other.
Figure out your number one priority. Internal conflict often appears when we have no clear priority. What is your biggest priority at the moment? What do you value the most?
What mistaken beliefs are fuelling your confusion? What false, misleading, limiting or second-hand beliefs are causing the conflict within you? Write down your problem on a page and next to it ask “Why?” For example, you might want to keep your job but also crave to stay at home with your kids. Asking why relentlessly, you might discover that you believe that staying at home with your kids makes you a failure, and you’ve adopted this belief from society.
Be ruthlessly honest: what are you scared of? Fear always underlies internal conflict. What is inflaming your cognitive dissonance? What are you truly scared of? Sometimes discovering your underlying fear helps you to gain more clarity and direction.
What is the “lesser of two evils”? If you had to choose – gun to your head – what decision would you make?
Adopt a future perspective. From the perspective of you resting on your deathbed, what would you regret the most?
What is resisting the flow? One easy way to examine what is “not meant to be” is to examine what is causing the most resistance in your life. Remember, life flows effortlessly. It is our thoughts and desires that cut the flow. So, explore what is creating the most resistance in your life. Are you clinging to a ship that sailed long ago?
What is a more loving approach? Are you honoring your authenticity or honoring what you “think” you should do/be? What approach or choice is more aligned with the truth, with love?
Is there a more important underlying issue? Sometimes internal conflict actually hides deeper issues that need to be explored to find a resolution, such as negative self-beliefs, unresolved shame or childhood wounds.
Relax your mind. Relaxing your mind is a great way to develop new perspectives. Try meditating, listening to soothing music or practicing mindfulness. Often the best answers come when we aren’t looking for them.
Choose to stop participating. Do you need an answer right this very moment? Sometimes allowing life to move in the direction it wants is a better option than forcefully blazing a path. As teacher Wayne Dyer once wrote, “Conflict cannot survive without your participation.”
I hope these tips can help you find more peace of mind. Remember that it’s completely normal to experience internal conflict – there is nothing weird about you. Also, when it comes to internal conflict people tend to romanticize the heart and believe that we should only listen to whatever the heart wants. But this is an imbalanced approach: we need to use the heart as well as the brain so that internal harmony is created.
In a perfect world, we would all get along beautifully — no fighting, no misunderstandings, and no awkward tension. Unfortunately, with so many different personalities and opinions, this reality isn’t very likely, but we can work to make communication a little smoother. There are a number of tricks that can help us resolve conflicts faster, and although that doesn’t mean that disagreements will never happen, these tactics can make for quicker and less stressful resolutions.
“Conflicts escalate fast when we move into ‘Reptilian Brain,'” psychotherapist Lena Derhally MS, MA tells Bustle. “Reptilian Brain is the most primitive part of our brain that responds to threat. A threat response is survival mode, and there are two ways humans respond to threat: fight or flight. Once reptilian brain is activated, we tend to lose all rational thought and reason. This is why some people say and do things in the moment that they usually regret later or say [things] they don’t mean.”
Part of being good at resolving conflict involves knowing some tactics ahead of time, so when it comes to a tense moment, you don’t act solely out of emotions. Here are seven tricks that can help you resolve conflicts faster, according to experts.
Many people tend to get defensive as a typical reaction to conflict, which can make things worse. Avoid this by repeating back what the person is saying to you to make sure you understand. “Instead of getting defensive, mirror the other person in a calm way by saying, ‘So what I’m hearing you say is…'” says Derhally. “Mirroring is shown to calm the brain and make people less defensive and reactive. It also helps you listen clearly to the other person. So much of conflict is mishearing and misunderstanding, so it’s very important to truly hear someone else out.”
2. Admit Fault
Ego always seems to get in the way when it comes to conflict, so put yours aside and acknowledge where you went wrong. “Usually in conflict, each person involved has some accountability for what happened,” says Derhally. “If you can find one thing you were responsible for in that conflict and apologize for it, it will usually soften the other person and invite them to make an apology as well.”
“In conflict, there are two perspectives and realities that are very different,” says Derhally. “Just because your perspective and reality may be different than someone else’s, it doesn’t mean yours is right and vice versa.” According to Derhally, an example of a validation would look like: “It makes sense that you were in a bad mood the other night and snapped because you had such a bad day at work.” “It doesn’t excuse the other person’s behavior,” she says. “It’s just a way of understanding and connecting instead of putting someone else on the defensive.”
If you feel yourself bubbling with anger, pause before you let out what’s on your mind. “Stop yourself before you say anything,” says Derhally. Try to use a word or a mantra that will signal to yourself that you need to take a step back, and think about what you want to say before you say it.”
6. Evaluate Your Feelings
If you are the one triggered in a conversation, try to see if you can figure out what about the situation is making you feel so intensely. “Do you feel not seen?” says Castaños. “Do you feel that you are constantly criticized and that no matter what you do it is never enough? Once you recognize this trigger, see if it is true. Most likely that ‘always’ or ‘never’ is not quite true.”
7. Listen Twice As Much As You Speak
It’s tempting to want to get everything off your chest, but listening can go a long way. “When in conflict, listen twice as much as you speak,” therapist Ann Dillard, MA, LMFT tells Bustle. “It was always said that we have two ears and one mouth because we need to spend more time listening than we do talking.”
Follow these tips, and you might find that your issues with others get resolved much more quickly.