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Updated: Dec 8, 2020

Twenty years ago, I stumbled upon something important. I was working as an employee at a mid-size business at the time and got into a minor skirmish with another employee. This employee and I had been friends for at least five years, and I didn’t think much would come of it, but when I returned to the office the next day I began hearing from other co-workers that Lois had been bad-mouthing me all morning – telling people that my refusal to skip lunch in order to meet with her implied that I had a character defect and that “I was not the man she thought she knew.” This bothered me and I went to talk to her. I told her that her willingness to redefine my character based on one disagreement felt like a betrayal of our friendship. Unfortunately, this talk did not go well. Lois doubled down, insisting that her behavior was entirely justified and that I was solely at fault. A couple days later, I made a second attempt to resolve the issue, but this failed too. At this point, I decided that I would remain courteous and professional in the office, but back away from the friendship. It was unfortunate, but I had done what I could.

Then things got weird. Lois made no mention of our previous disagreement, but started going out of her way to be friendly. She would stop me in the hall to tell me about a book she had read and thought I might like, or would bring the daily crossword puzzle into the lunchroom and suggest we solve it together. At this point, I remember telling her: “Lois, I am really confused. Two weeks ago you made it clear that you were willing to end our friendship over a disagreement, and now you’re going out of your way to be friendly. But nothing has been resolved. So now I’m in a weird position: If I cut you off when you try to talk about books or refuse to do the crossword puzzle with you, then I’m being rude, but if I pretend that everything is fine and we do the crossword puzzle together, then I feel like a phony. I don’t know how I to act around you anymore.” I had not planned to make this statement, but the effect was immediate. Instead of getting defensive or escalating, Lois paused for a moment and then left the room without saying anything. A week later, she approached me and told me that she had been thinking all week about what I had said. She missed our friendship and apologized for how she had handled things earlier.

This got me thinking. Why was this statement impactful, while nothing else I had said made any difference? After all, I had not really added any new information to what we had discussed before. The answer, I later realized, had nothing to do with the content of my statement: it was the form.

For one thing, I was talking openly about an internal dilemma. This by itself is a bit unusual, because typically people (myself included) try to resolve things in their own minds before communicating with others. In this case, I might have decided that my friendship with Lois was irreparably damaged and I just needed to let her know this. Or I might have told her that I needed an apology from her. In each of these cases, though, I would be staking out a position and inviting further argument (e.g., “No. You owe me an apology!”). By talking openly about my ambivalence, however, there was not much to argue about. Lois could not very well tell me that I did not feel conflicted – only I would know about this.

The other unusual thing about my statement to Lois was that I offered no solution. It sounds strange, but I believe that in this situation this omission was actually beneficial, because it invited her to think of solutions too. This is an automatic reaction: when someone presents a problem, it is natural to start imagining solutions. For example, if someone tells you that they can’t figure out how to get their child to stop whining in the grocery store, or how to keep the dog out of the garbage most of us immediately start thinking about how we would handle these situations.

Finally, by talking openly about my dilemma I was sharing an experience that all of us have faced in some fashion. The specifics of the dilemma will vary, of course, but finding oneself caught between two opposing impulses is something we can all relate to. Should I talk to the neighbor about how he treats his children, or should I mind my own business? Can I give honest feedback to the depressed person, or will this only make things worse? If someone’s jokes are offensive should I laugh it off, or say something and risk coming off as a killjoy?

In the past, my standard response was to stay quiet until something reached a certain threshold and then to step in after this line was crossed. Over time, however, I began to see that this is not always the healthiest response. For example, if I refrain from saying anything to the depressed person until my patience is exhausted and then unload on him, this is unlikely to improve the situation. What would happen instead if I said: “I’ve noticed that you often come to me for advice, but when I offer something you want to argue with me about it. It feels like a no-win situation and I’m not sure what to do about it.”

Here, at least, there is a chance for open, honest dialogue. I am reminded of a quote from the poet Rumi: “Before you speak, let your words pass through three gates: ‘Is it true? Is it necessary? Is it kind?’”

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