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How to tell a friend they've upset you without making things awkward

Addressing conflict with a friend can feel aggressive or uncomfortable. Here’s how to do it in a constructive way.
People talking
As tempting as it is to hide behind technology, bring up your concerns in person — it cuts down on the amount a friend has to infer from your words and reduces miscommunication.10'000 Hours / Getty Images

I looked in the mirror at myself and spoke out loud, “I’m pissed at you.”

This wasn’t a comment directed at myself, but at a close friend of mine — the person I had started to resent a few weeks prior, but instead of bringing it up at the time, I remained silent, distant, passive.

So there I was, alone at home practicing the very words I wanted to utter that afternoon over lunch, uncertain that I'd have the courage to make it happen. I am always struggling with finding the right way to let the people I care about know that I’m upset, disappointed or simply pissed off. Except for my boyfriend of three and a half years. When he makes me the slightest bit rattled, he knows it — immediately. I have no problem voicing my concerns with an assertive — and sometimes borderline aggressive — tone. But why is that so hard to do with my friends?

Shannon Kalberg, a licensed marriage and family therapist, explains that addressing difficult issues in friendships can be tricky.

“It’s hard to be honest without hurting other people’s feelings or fearing that they may end the friendship,” says Kalberg. “With a romantic or familial relationship, there have been more opportunities for intensified emotional or physical attachment and vulnerability. However, being vulnerable and honest with a friend about their flaws can create a stronger bond if it is done with care and respect.”

It can be hard to do, especially if we’ve been hurt by friends before or vice versa.

Elena Jackson, a licensed professional counselor and a licensed mental health counselor, says that people usually have a long history of pain related to friendships.

“Our earliest rejection or abandonment can happen in friendship. Some pain starting as early as rejection in day care, which we may not remember,” says Jackson. “Children are taught to keep the peace. Consider the repetition of the advice 'play nicely with your friends.'”

Because of that, Jackson says that friendships are often more sensitive to anger than romantic and familial relationships.

“Friendships require fun, lightheartedness and feeling valued. These feel absent to us when anger is present,” says Jackson.

Because friendships are centered around being with people we have a good time with, it’s easy to brush certain feelings or conversations off our shoulders, which can lead to future resentment.

I knew I needed a game plan to confront this friend without things getting awkward, aggressive or fueled by pure anger. That’s why I turned to a handful of experts for advice and came up with the following strategy.

Take a step back and identify what’s really wrong

It’s easy to rush in with finger pointing, but if we’re going to bring up issues to our friends, we have to get our facts straight and our emotions in line.

Ibinye Osibodu-Onyali, a licensed marriage and family therapist, recommends that before communicating with your friend, you ask yourself what exactly he/she did to upset you.

“Was it something that was said? Was it something that was done? Ask yourself why it triggers you so much,” says Osibodu-Onyali. “Perhaps it reminds you of a time when someone else treated you badly. Or maybe your friend keeps doing this over and over again. It's important to be very specific and address only one incident at a time so that your friend has clarity.”

Generally we use the term 'angry' as a blanket emotion. But [it's] a secondary emotion ... if you look underneath your anger, you will find another emotion.

It’s also good to have an understanding of how you’re feeling. Generally we use the term 'angry' as a blanket emotion. But anger is a secondary emotion. It means if you look underneath your anger, you will find another emotion,” says Osibodu-Onyali. “So if your friend excluded you from an event, perhaps you feel lonely. If your friend was gossiping about you, perhaps you feel hurt. If your friend criticized you, perhaps you might be feeling sad.”

Practice what you’re going to say

Without fully talking through what words we’re going to use, we risk saying too much or saying hurtful things.

Dr. Angel Montfort, a licensed psychologist at the Center for Maternal Mental Health, first suggests setting up the conversation with language like, "Can we talk about something?" Or, “I’d like for us to talk later today” to set the stage for an intentional discussion. Then, Dr. Montfort suggests using "I messages" and neutral language such as "I felt hurt when you..." as opposed to "You hurt me when you..." or "I feel anger when you..." as opposed to "You pissed me off when...".

“Be sure to also stick to the facts. Avoid making assumptions or judgments about the other person's intentions or reasons for their behavior. Work on describing exactly what happened, and describing your reactions to it, as these are the only things that you can truly describe accurately,” says Montfort. “Use the sandwiching technique and begin with a positive affirmation of your friend, or a gratitude statement toward them, interject the difficult feedback (using 'I messages'), then end the conversation with a piece of positive feedback.”

When the conversation has a lull or you want to take a break from speaking, Montfort recommends asking questions to open up the dialogue that can provide clarity for both parties.

After learning these tips, I was able to step away from the mirror (and from the words “I’m pissed”) and sit down with my friend and explain how I was feeling. The conversation led us to a discovery that communication was lacking and resentment was present. When it was over, we didn’t hug and make up, but there was a mutual understanding that we both needed to change, which is realistic in friendship, yet hardly spoken about. Two people being there for each other requires adapting, shifting, and beyond anything else, understanding. When I began to look at voicing my concerns as a part of this process, instead of a confrontation, it made it much easier to have those tough conversations. It's still not pleasant, but it sure beats stewing in resentment for weeks on end.

CORRECTION (Aug. 9, 2019, 6:09 p.m.): An earlier version of this article misstated the proper application of the so-called "7/38/55 rule," which says that only 7 percent of a speaker's meaning is conveyed through word selection. The rule is intended to apply only to a situation where a speaker is expressing feelings or attitudes. It is not about verbal or non-verbal communication as a whole. Because the rule was incorrectly applied in this article, the paragraph containing it has been removed.


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