Check Your Vibes: 7 Ways To Stay Afloat When You’re Surrounded By Conflict

It’s a moment we all dread: one day, you wake up to find that the tension that’s been slowly building between two or more of your close friends has reached a brutal boiling point, and a conflict erupts with a magnitude that rivals an earthquake. Now you may find yourself in the unenviable position of being asked to play moderator, or worse: forced to choose sides. Sadly, this isn’t something we grow out of in junior high, and adults can act just as foolishly in arguments as kids. Complicating the stress that comes with watching your pals fight is the fact that you probably have an opinion or two about the conflict itself. Maybe you feel that one of your friends is particularly justified in being angry at the other – do you say anything about it? After all, staying neutral may be the ideal, but real life doesn’t always allow for that kind of emotional tidiness.

If you’re conflict-averse, this may be your worst nightmare. Few things terrify me more than being cornered into voicing an opinion that I know will ruffle the feathers of people I love, which is what frequently happens when two friends are at odds over who’s right. No matter how mum you try to stay, you may find yourself interrogated by otherwise-reasonable friends who are caught up in the passion of the moment and refuse to stop grilling you until you reveal whether you also share their distaste for the actions of a mutual buddy.

It’s not always the best choice, but my default survival strategy in groups is often to keep strong opinions about interpersonal drama to myself at all costs. This tactic is useful when you’re trying to stay out of the drama at, say, work or a gathering with your significant other’s extended family whom you barely know, but it’s not always the greatest strategy among the people you’re closest to. Unfortunately, close relationships with friends and family members aren’t perfectly tidy, and disagreements are bound to happen — attempting to stuff them down doesn’t lead to much good, and it’s something I and other conflict-avoidant people need to keep working on until we find ourselves in a more constructive pattern. I’d even venture that each time I hit the emotional wall of having to watch close friends hash it out, it’s meant to be a teaching moment, because I have yet to master actually dealing with it.

In those moments that I do cave and say something divisive about a friend’s disagreement or admit I’m not fond of their choices, I immediately panic about the fact that I put those words out into the open and can’t take them back. I start to feel like a turtle without a shell to retreat back into, attempting to curl back into myself to avoid drawing attention or making anyone around me “upset.” I wonder if what I’ve said will be used against me or hurt someone else, or whether I’ve made an irreversible choice by taking some form of a side in a conflict I’d rather have stayed publicly neutral on, even if on the inside I knew with certainty who I thought was right. (It’s worth noting, of course, that if your friends are decent people, they’re not as likely to live up to these phobias or twist your words against you, even when they’re blinded by the anger they’re feeling towards another friend.)

As you can imagine, this “method” isn’t very sustainable or helpful to anyone, nor are many other coping mechanisms we use to handle others’ conflicts. There has to be a better way! Here are a few ways of avoiding emotional casualties and getting out in one piece when your dearest friends or loved ones suddenly can’t get along.

1. Stay neutral at all costs. If your warring buddies manage to save their friendship, the last thing you want is for the bad things you said about them to one another during the argument to come back and haunt you. Remember the age-old tactic of avoiding saying anything too damning about a friend’s freshly-dumped ex, lest she reunite with him or her and suddenly see you as the bad guy who hates their partner? That applies to platonic relationships too.

Even if your negative words never come back to haunt you, they’re often simply not constructive. Staying neutral is a way to show respect for the individual friendships you’ve cultivated. Remember, though your friends are the ones fighting, your own emotional well-being is important here too. Protect your feelings and sanity, because nobody has the extra mental capacity take on all this extra conflict without it dragging down happiness in other areas of your life.

2. Take a side if totally necessary. Okay, so this contradicts #1, but should only be deployed in extreme cases. If you do take a side, be prepared to potentially lose the friendship of the other party — and if things have gotten to this point, you’ll probably want to cut ties with them anyway. Sometimes, tense situations can bring out a person’s true colors and highlight what a terrible friend (or human being) they actually are. For example, did Jen respond to her fight with Sally by spreading serious, life-ruining rumors about Sally all over social media, or suddenly become verbally abusive towards her? Maybe Jen’s not someone you want in your life. After all, what will happen on the day you inevitably end up on her bad side? Will she do the same to you? And beyond that, is Jen acting in such a unacceptable manner that the right thing to do is to have Sally’s back?

If your friend is acting out during the fight in these types of shitty ways, be sure you’ve witnessed this behavior from that friend yourself, and that you’re not just hearing it from the friend they’re allegedly attacking, who’s already angry with them and has motive to misconstrue their words or actions. Your angry friend may inadvertently blow the other person’s behavior out of proportion because they’re so hurt or because they may want to look like the victim in the situation. If you’re going to take a stand in this fight, make sure you’ve got all the facts first.

3. Set boundaries. As we know, this is extremely difficult for people who hate conflict. It almost seems easier to just smile and nod when one friend trashes the other to you, because telling them to cool it may feel like creating a new conflict all its own. The problem, though, is that not setting any boundaries automatically puts you in the midst of this emotional firestorm and could make you feel somewhat responsible for what happens next. When one friend talks trash about the other, let them know that you’re there to listen to them express their hurt (if you’re even willing to do that), but you absolutely will not take sides, because you care about and would like to remain friends with both of them.

Another “safe” way to be involved in conflict between friends is to act as a sounding board to help each pal determine what they’d like to do next about their hurt or anger. It’s important to let them come to their own conclusions, though, rather than make specific suggestions, because you don’t want to be responsible if they follow your advice and things only get worse. Even the most well-meaning of friends may challenge your boundaries, because they might initially feel betrayed by your refusal to take their side. That’s not your problem, and it doesn’t make you a terrible friend — it makes you a good one. If you stay firm, most true pals will eventually get the picture, and maybe even realize that they’re being unfair to you.

4. Acknowledge the ways in which this conflict is also unfair to you. It’s not necessarily something you need to verbalize to your friends unless they are clearly disrespecting your boundaries, but establish with yourself that being caught in the middle of this argument is not a fair position to be put in. Once you have that set in your mind, you’ll feel justified when it comes time to enforce those boundaries.

5. Don’t be a hero. Unless the conflict was somehow started by you (and even then, it’s iffy) it is not your job to fix this. One could even say that while it’s upsetting to watch your friends argue, what they’re going through is really not about you or your feelings. It’s about them working their disagreement out, which you likely won’t have a role in. If you want to come out of this in one piece, do not try to play mediator unless you’re in a very extreme or specific situation that calls for it. It’s not that mediating never works, but the risk of it going awry is so high that most of the time, it’s just not even worth it. The same goes for playing messenger between them: just don’t do it. These are modern times, they can email or text or even Snapchat if they have something to say.

For one thing, mediating is a heavy emotional burden you don’t deserve to carry. There are so many ways that getting in the middle, even with great intentions, can implicate you as a bad guy or simply make your friends more angry at each other. The fact also remains that people embroiled in feuds are often not in an emotional place to take outside opinions seriously. Sharing your own two cents before they’ve cooled down likely won’t make a difference. They’ll either save their friendship or not on their own, regardless of what you have to say about it.

6. Let things cool off. Sometimes the best thing for a disagreement and for those caught in the crossfire is to give everyone time to cool off. It’s upsetting to watch your dearest friends go days or weeks without speaking – and it can certainly have a crappy impact on your social life but sometimes it’s exactly what they need to find some emotional distance from the conflict. In time, your pals may realize that whatever they were upset about was hardly worth losing a friendship over. And even if their friendship does end for good, some cool-off time may leave them at least feeling civil towards each other, which will be a welcome change from whatever bitter stand-off you’re staring down in the present.

7. Be ready to move forward no matter what happens. Hopefully, your friends are able to work through their differences and become even stronger, but unfortunately, they may stop speaking to each other for good. It’s devastating for you as their mutual bud, but it doesn’t have to ruin your relationships. Be prepared to spend time with each dueling friend separately, both to establish that you care about each of them as individuals despite the fight, and to begin adjusting to your social circle’s new normal. It’s a bummer to see a great friendship fall apart, especially if you’re the type that, once again, shrinks away from conflict, but you can still continue to strengthen your bond with each of them one-on-one. If, at some point, they each separately express regret over the loss of the friendship, suggest they communicate (without getting yourself involved beyond that). Let them do the mending themselves, and who knows — they just might work things out after all!