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Confrontation Is Key To Long-Lasting Friendships — I’d Know

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Last year, a key confrontational moment happened in one of my most treasured friendships: Sat across from one of my best friends, drink in hand, we’d been talking for hours. It was a regular Friday night in London after work, and we were having an overdue catchup. Some light conversation, some heavier subjects. Out of nowhere, he made a joke at my expense that was, to me, highly insensitive. “I’m not okay with what you said just there,” were the words that instantly came out of my mouth, which caught him off guard, too. In that moment, both of us had to figure out what would come next. I explained why his comment crossed a line, he listened, then apologised and explained his side of it, and promised he wouldn’t joke about it again. We moved on, and continued our night out, that momentary blip insignificant to the rest of the night but crucial in solidifying our longstanding friendship. Over the 10 years we’ve known each other, we’ve only clashed twice, but both times we’ve held each other to account and I’m so glad we did. Our friendship can handle moments of tension. If we hadn’t raised the things that bothered us at the time, how would things be different now? I can’t know for sure, but I think our friendship would lack a few of the boundaries we’ve built through these confrontations. At the very least, we understand each other’s vulnerabilities better. I’m not sure exactly why I’m “good” at confrontation, other than I’m terrible at holding things in — but I believe confrontation is necessary for maintaining any romantic or platonic relationship.
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Maya Angelou once said: “As soon as I feel myself insulted, the person who has insulted me is the second to know.” I think that’s an admirable way to live, and I truly believe in the value of this approach. Maybe this is also why I’m “good” at it. My friend and I arrived at a confrontation that night because I brought it to the table. It's a word that sends tension down the spines and panic through the brains of many people, understandably so. But I think we’ve got it wrong. I still get nervous raising these things — I’m not immune to the unease of it all. The difference perhaps for me is that my belief in the pay off of confrontation overrides the fear in doing it. Confrontation has the power to strengthen relationships when those unpleasant disagreements threaten to bruise them. It’s about honouring your own needs, while protecting and ensuring the longevity of a connection with someone else, platonic or romantic. It’s healthy. But I hate arguing and avoid it at all costs. Arguing to me is far less productive, and less about working towards a resolution than confronting is. I’m happy to say, I don’t argue with my friends or the people I date. And yet, I recognise that annoying, hurting, upsetting and misunderstanding are all part and parcel of being involved with people.
Trust and respect go hand in hand with successful confrontation. With that friend, we have both of these things in ample amounts, which helps us navigate conflict. The person being confronted is protected against feeling targeted, and the confronter is protected against facing social repercussions for speaking out. For me, confronting a friend isn’t always instantaneous. Sometimes I need to go away and thoroughly think about what I want to say to the friend, and the outcome I’m hoping for. Other times, I might say it in the moment if it feels like dwelling on it later might only make the situation worse. I don’t have a method as to which is best, I simply trust that I’m a reasonable person and go with my gut. Sometimes a person in my life might get three strikes on the same issue before I say anything, to give the benefit of the doubt. It varies case by case, but the key thing for me is I’ll always know going in if the situation at hand is a dealbreaker to our relationship (which is incredibly rare), or whether this is one small thing in an otherwise long and caring connection. And before I do anything, I need to trust the person I’m confronting, just like they need to trust me. Not trusting someone and how they might react has definitely held me back in the past. Researchers recently confirmed the importance of trust in a study that found confronters can be “disliked, derogated and avoided”, but when the confronted person trusts the confronter, this is less likely to occur. “Most existing research has only examined bias confrontations between strangers,” researcher Laura Hildebrand writes, “[...] there is little information on how interpersonal dynamics influence reactions to confrontations.” She adds that “trust is a powerful remedy to the barriers (e.g. fear of anger) that might otherwise prevent confrontation.” The stronger your relationship with someone, the less risky confrontation may seem. 
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But I’m not saying that confrontation is without its problems. Whoever you have these conversations with, their views on confronting are going to come into play and affect the success (or failure) of it. A wonderful childhood friend, who would rather stick pins in her eyes than confront someone, sees me as a “confrontational person” (said in a tone that isn’t flattering). I see that we disagree on the merit of confronting. I also have a friend in my life with whom a confrontation is almost definitely in order, but because I know she would immediately become defensive, I don’t see the point. So I get that it doesn’t always work. Both sides have to be willing to calmly talk things out, and want to hear each other to find a solution — even if that involves listening to criticism. Not everyone has positive experiences with confrontation, so I can imagine those people must struggle to see it as anything other than an attack. As well as personality and life experience, culture plays a role. British people are notorious for their “stiff upper lip” while Americans are famous for expressing themselves so confidently, and one study found that people of the same culture are better at resolving conflict together than people of different cultures, because culture affects confrontation style. The Culture Map by Erin Meyer also points to this. Meyer claims some cultures are more confrontational than others and that it’s key to understand this so we can all work better together. On her Disagreeing Scale, Japanese cultural norms tend to avoid confrontation, while French culture leans into it. Although I’m third generation British, perhaps having ethnic minority heritage has subconsciously influenced my outlook differently to some of my friends. Maybe being outspoken was normalised in my house in a way it wasn’t everywhere, though I have nothing else to compare it to and can only wonder. Whatever the reasons, I’ve come to learn, some people will just never be okay with confrontation. 
On the flip side, a close friend says she loves that I “say it like it is”, and has often told me stories in which someone said or did something questionable, then followed it with “I wish you’d been there to call it out.” I like to think that those I’m closest to see this quality in me as a positive, and that they can trust our relationship is open and honest enough to hold space for those tricky moments. Of course, it goes both ways — friends can call me out too (and have done). I’d rather they did so we can avoid bitterness later down the line. Almost always when issues come about, it boils down to misunderstanding, so the conversation only needs to be gentle. Ultimately, I think being able to withstand confrontation is a gift, to yourself and your relationships. Those I’m connected to know that if I value our connection, I have the toolkit to sort things out when they occasionally arise. 
One of my best friends I confronted over drinks last year never did cross that line with me again, for which I’m grateful. These moments of conflict can act like building blocks I think, helping you to understand each other better. My relationships are all the better for those occasional confrontational moments, so I think it’s time we stopped feeling so scared of them. A healthy friendship can withstand it, and a good friend like mine will be glad you said it.

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