Why do I have conflict with certain friends?

Understanding the nuances of your friendships can help you properly compartmentalize them

This week on Gridology, I’m going to walk through a grid that’s helped me understand, prioritize, and compartmentalize many of my friendships.

I’d be lying if I wrote that every friendship I’ve ever had has served me for the best. Time, proximity and experiences shape every one of our friendships. That’s why the last 10 friends you texted probably look drastically different than the last 10 friends you texted in 2010. Life changes. People change. Friends change.

Every friendship has moments of joy and conflict. For me, some friendships have left me feeling frustrated or annoyed. Others have always been a delight. Some have been worth maintaining over long distances or worth working through disagreements. Others have not. All of these dynamics got me thinking:

Why do I have conflict with certain friends?

It’s a tricky question, really. Everyone has their own quirks that make them uniquely them. You do, too. The question is what happens when you take two people, place them into a relationship, and then add a major external variable called life? What relationships become additive and foundational? Which cause negativity and restlessness?

Let’s dig in:

What’s been helpful for me is thinking about the friends I care about in two dimensions: how “confused” they are and their emotional intelligence.

“Confused” is a label my close friends and I created to categorize people whose core values are on the opposite side of the spectrum from our own. The beauty of the term is that you decide who’s confused—it means something different to everyone. To me, confused people are selfish, exclusive, fame-obsessed, closed-minded, and unreliable. The more of these traits people have, the more confused they are. The opposite of being confused is “getting it.” What traits and ideals do you live by? Those characteristics are the ones that shine most in these friends. Friends who get it are people who—more often than not—align with your vision for how you see and act in the world.

So on one axis there’s a spectrum of where a friend’s core values lie: somewhere between confused to getting it.

On the other axis, let’s put emotional intelligence (EQ for short). The higher your EQ, the better your ability to handle tough interpersonal situations, the better you are at understanding yourself, and the better you can manage your emotions. This tweet sums it up best:

Now that we understand the two dimensions, let’s take a look at the grid.

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Understanding the Grid

Same Wavelength

These friends “get it” and have high EQ. On average, they have values that most resemble your own. Should these friends ever do anything to cause conflict, you can count on them to be self-aware enough to proactively set up a conversation to clear the air. However, even getting to the point of conflict in these relationships is rare because you have many overlapping core values. These relationships tend to only get stronger with time. If any conflict does arise, it’s usually a very small disagreement and it doesn’t last long or weigh on your mind.

Accidental Friction

These friends “get it,” but have low EQ. Usually any conflict that arises from these friends are oversights or misunderstandings. If these friends upset you, it’s usually because they’re not empathetic enough to understand how you could have been hurt by their actions. These friends aren’t intentionally hurting your feelings, and any restlessness they cause is usually just a mix up. Being open with these friends and explaining your perspective would help them know what adjustments to make moving forward. Without that feedback, it’s doubtful they’d be able to read the subtext of your attitude (your tone over a text thread, your body language, etc.) to adapt and move on.

At Times, Choppy

These friends are confused, but have high EQ. Typically these conflicts stem from fundamental disagreements as to how you both see the world (potential conflict categories include: politics, integrity, authenticity). However, because of their high EQ, they understand when conflict is brewing between you both. Often these conflicts end in statements like “let’s just agree to disagree” or “I’m sorry you feel that way, but you won’t change my mind.” These resolutions are completely fine and healthy—in fact, they are preferred. Not every friend you have should think like you do. As long as you’re able to successfully navigate two differing points of view, conflicts with these friends are additive. You both have the potential to learn and grow from one other.

High Conflict Zone

These friends are confused and have low EQ. With this group, conflict tends to happen frequently and around the same issues. Often the conflict doesn’t bubble to the surface and is left to brew passive aggressively over time. You may end up venting to your “Same Wavelength” friends or family about these people. Feelings of resentment and frustration grow slowly, but powerfully. Your imagination runs rampant to fill the silence between you both with narratives filled with negativity and ill-intent. Because this friend is so confused, you don’t have an urge to try and resolve conflict—it feels like forcing a 3-year-old to eat his vegetables. On top of this, your friend doesn’t know how to start a conversation to address any tension between you both. Confusion and uncertainty around your relationship blossoms until you can either overlook it or bring it up. Usually it’s overlooked, which is why conflict happens regularly (because it never gets addressed).

Ultimately, my hope is if you can better understand and map your friendships, you can dissociate the conflict from the friend. Is it worth being angry at this person, or is the person just hardwired differently from you? Is the conflict actually just a learning moment for you both? Or, do you both just see the world differently and don’t know how to manage that difference? Understanding these dynamics can help you to better compartmentalize your friendships and make you a better friend.

Grid Shortcomings

For this grid there are two key shortcomings that are worth talking about:

  1. The first assumes that you have high EQ. Generally speaking, in order to pick up on all of these dynamics, it’s assumed you have high EQ. Given that you read this far, it suggests to me that you’re open to improving yourself and your relationships—a pretty big indicator that you do, in fact, have high EQ. However, if I’m wrong and you actually are on the lower end of the EQ spectrum, this grid may be flipped. You may prefer friends who also have lower EQ and don’t “overthink” things.

  2. The second assumes the grid can successfully generalize all types relationship challenges into a big bucket called “conflict.” Of course, every relationship has unique obstacles. Assuming I can actually bucket them all together and call them “conflict” is quite a lofty assumption. For this grid, I really am defining conflict as fundamental disagreements in perspectives or purposefully hurtful actions taken.

How does this grid land with you? Do you have a different way of thinking about your friendships? I’d love to hear your thoughts. And, as always, if you have feedback or an idea for a post, please feel free to shoot me a note.

Life’s only as confusing as you let it be,

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