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Mediating friendships

by Kim – 5th Feb 2024

How to handle a respectful complaint

Say you’ve just received a message… “Hey, could you please not do this _____ anymore. It makes me uncomfortable/hurts my feelings” or some variant of what we will call a ‘respectful complaint’.

Our initial thought is to be defensive. We didn’t mean to hurt our friend, it’s an insignificant thing for them to be upset about, they’ve hurt me too! These are only a few of the thoughts running through our heads. It’s our natural reaction when we feel like we are being criticised!

First be understanding. Your friend has come to you and told you they’re upset. Be proud of the fact they’re being mature enough to discuss it rather than keeping it secret and letting resentment build up, and they were brave to come to you with their problem knowing it may cause conflict. This means your friendship is strong and you’re able to communicate even if it’s uncomfortable. Unfortunately the key to healthier relationships is to have uncomfortable conversations sometimes! Everyone makes mistakes and friends will eventually argue. It’s what you do to fix your mistakes and remedy the friendship that matters!

Rather than immediately trying to defend yourself, think on it for a bit. Perhaps a few hours or even a couple days. If it was a big argument that has left you both hurt then it may be longer. Although it may sound better to immediately respond, this may make you feel pressured if your friend is also replying, or in the heat of the moment you may lash out and say something hurtful, which isn’t going to repair the friendship. Taking the time to reflect might help you feel less defensive. I have before felt offended that I was being “accused” of hurting someone, but after reflection I realised I did make a mistake.

Understand even if their problem seems “insignificant” their feelings were hurt, and may still be hurt. You might not feel like what you’ve done is worth getting mad or upset at for a multitude of reasons, but if it’s affecting them it should be addressed. The important thing is, whether intended or how “justified” their hurt feelings are, they are upset and that’s the important thing. Acknowledging this will show your friend you are taking responsibility for your actions.

If they’ve respectfully complained to you, mirror this maturity and emotional intelligence by responding in a similar manner. Apologise whilst showing a clear understanding of how feelings got hurt, take responsibility, promise to be a better friend. Their forgiveness isn’t always a guarantee depending on the circumstances, but I’ve found that they will likely thank you for apologising, and you can work together to build the foundation for a healthier relationship.

If they have brought the problem up to you angrily, the situation becomes a bit more complicated. They are likely acting on sadness or anger, but a hostile environment makes communicating a lot more difficult, and may make you feel unable to express your feelings! Try to mediate the situation by apologising, but also take a step back to let them calm down, you can always ask for a mediator like another friend, teacher or manager.

If you’re mad at a friend, tell them. Sometimes people don’t realise they’ve hurt another person because we are often quite distracted and focused on ourselves (not in a selfish or uncaring way!) “I have so much work to do, did I do my laundry, I’ve got this due next week” are the thoughts usually rushing through our head. Unfortunately this means we can miss the fact we did something wrong and upset someone. Communication is key, and don’t assume someone hurt you on purpose. It could have been an accident, which may offer you peace of mind knowing they didn’t mean to hurt your feelings, and it can be resolved through some healthy communication!

Sometimes it’s hard to start a conversation about how we are feeling. Read more.

Image credits: istockphoto, The Mix


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