Sometimes, the best way to strengthen a friendship is to argue.
It can feel risky to confront a pal. We’re not used to doing it, and it’s scary to be vulnerable. Friends aren’t tied to us by blood, like family, or an oath, like a spouse. We worry they can easily walk away.
But addressing a hurt or issue in a friendship can strengthen the bond, therapists say. It allows both people to share their feelings, explain their needs and learn about each other. And we feel better when we stand up for ourselves.
We’re also more likely to lose a friendship if we don’t address a problem. Our resentment will grow and we’ll pull away from it.
That’s why it’s important to know how to engage in a healthy conflict. Don’t lash out, blame or judge. Frame the issue in a positive way, be open to your friend’s viewpoint and own up to your own role in the situation. Be honest and look for collaboration.
I call it the Fair Friend Fight.
Think of your feedback as a gift, says Jenny Taitz, a psychologist in Beverly Hills, Calif. “Your friends want to do right by you, but they can’t read your mind.”
When Alli Spotts-De Lazzer was hurt that her friend hadn’t checked in on her more when she was going through a tough time recently, she decided to confront her. She fired off a series of angry texts, which as a therapist herself, she realizes isn’t ideal.
“I decided that if I didn’t tell her I was upset, the distance would keep growing between us,” says Spotts-De Lazzer, 52 years old, who lives in Los Angeles.
Her pal, Robyn Caruso, became defensive. She reminded her friend that she’d checked in on her shortly after she’d shared her troubles, and Spotts-De Lazzer had said that she was OK. Eventually, Caruso, 44, who is also a therapist, decided to take responsibility. “I am sorry I hurt you,” she said.
Caruso asked what her friend needed; Spotts-De Lazzer acknowledged that she couldn’t expect her to read her mind. Both women say the conflict made them closer.
“We got straight down to the love of why it mattered: I was missing you, that’s why it hurt,” Spotts-De Lazzer says.
Here’s advice on how to raise and solve an issue with a friend.
Take a breath
It’s OK to be upset. You can use this feeling to motivate you to address the issue.
But don’t respond while you’re fired up. Assess your feelings first. Is this a friend that you care about and want to keep in your life? If so, you should speak up.
Decide what will make you feel better, recommends Rachel Kazez, a licensed clinical social worker in Chicago. Do you want an acknowledgment, apology, conversation or promise of a change of behavior from your friend? “Be realistic about what is actually possible,” Kazez says.
Practice what to say
Try stating what you want to say several different ways, says Kazez. You can do this out loud or in a letter.
First, say it rudely: “You were a jerk and that pissed me off.” “This shows you that you know what not to do,” Kazez says.
Then say it too politely and passively: “I don’t want to upset you, but there’s something you did that made me feel a little bad.” This also shows you what doesn’t work.
Then try out a few ways to say it more reasonably. This will help you determine what you truly want to convey, Kazez says.
Invite your friend to talk
Finding a time to chat when you’re both in the right frame of mind will help defuse tension, says Paul Hokemeyer, a licensed marriage and family therapist in New York. And, yes, talking in person is best. “You can read your friend’s body language—and see how your information is coming across to them,” he says.
Assume that your friend had good intentions. Typically, a loved one hurts or offends us by accident.
Then present the problem in a positive way, says Mudita Nisker, a communication coach and retired therapist in Oakland, Calif. Reassure your friend that you care. Look for a collaborative solution.
Try something like: “There’s something that’s weighing on me, and I’d like your help figuring it out. Your friendship matters to me.”
Be honest (but not mean)
Explain exactly what upset you, then how it made you feel. If you don’t explain exactly what the problem is, you aren’t going to be able to fix it.
Don’t blame. Use “I” statements, such as: “I expected you to arrive on time to my birthday party, and I was confused.” “You don’t want your friend to get defensive because then they can’t hear or understand what you’re saying,” Nisker says.
Stick to the matter at hand. Don’t throw in past resentments.
Listen well—and take responsibility
Be curious about what happened. Acknowledge what your friend says, to show you get it. Try something like: “I hear you when you say you didn’t mean to hurt my feelings.”
Be empathetic to your pal’s perspective. Ask questions—and tell your friend you really want to understand. If the answers annoy you, remind yourself that this is a person you care about.
And remember, there are two sides to every story.
Even if you have just 10% responsibility for the problem, you should own it, says Ipek Aykol, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Newport Beach, Calif.
“This sets the ground for a more constructive solution,” she says.
Write to Elizabeth Bernstein at Elizabeth.Bernstein@wsj.com