This weekend my husband and I stumbled into a conversation that turned our nice dinner out into a frosty misunderstanding. We were talking about something light and nostalgic, when somehow one of my comments gave my husband the impression that I was trying to “pick a fight” with him. I wasn’t. In my mind, I was recalling a memory. But soon after I experienced what felt like an abrupt response from him, I too felt that he was trying to start a fight me. And things devolved from there.
When we feel that someone is trying to “pick a fight,” whether we recognize it or not, we are experiencing fear. Fear that someone is growing angry with us. Fear they might hurt us in some way. The feeling of fear is always valid. But this scenario also presents a good example of how our boundaries may be able to help us avoid unnecessary conflicts.
If you remember the metaphor of your Mindfulness Bucket, our attention and feelings can act a lot like water. They can spill out of us into the imagined thoughts or feelings of others. This can create a lot of potential stress that may not be necessary if our imaginations are inaccurate. If you feel that someone might be trying to pick a fight (or some other version of concern about another person’s emotional state), you may be right. But you could also be spilling outside of your bucket.
In the example of my husband’s and my exchange, he was afraid I was going into a conversation topic that would anger me. And for my part, I can admit that I am hot-blooded and feisty at times. So I accept that I could have some historical responsibility for his vigilance. But the sad reality in this scenario was that I wasn’t angry – at least not before the misunderstanding. The whole thing was based on inaccurate assumptions on both our parts.
It’s very normal to have a little bit of wondering or attempt to anticipate what might be coming in a conversation. But if you find that you are feeling fear about the expected outcome of what you are guessing might happen, it’s probably time to untip your bucket of self, and check in on how you are feeling. This is the best and most effective place to create your communication.
If you’re afraid a loved one is getting angry – Instead of trying to change the subject or going on the defense – Share how you are feeling and ask questions. Here’s an example:
“Hey…are you okay? …I’m afraid you’re upset about something, but I don’t know what it is…”
This statement shares your feelings and thereby respects the space between you and the other person. Your fear about someone else’s possible anger is not their responsibility. It’s your feeling. By containing your communication to what you know about yourself, and owning your feelings, you fully respect the healthy space between you and the other person. And conveniently, the act of sharing our own authentic feelings with others is one of the most effective tools we have for connecting with, and even influencing them.
**It can’t go without saying that these comments apply to relationships where safety is not an issue. If you are fearful for your safety in a relationship, seek help from trusted supports, mental health professionals and/or the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233.
Jessica is the creator of The VisibleU™ Method. Over the last 19 years she has helped hundreds of busy adults create more balance in their personal and professional relationships.
Jessica received her master’s degree in Applied Psychology from New York University, and completed mediation training at the Columbia University School of Law. She has held numerous clinical roles, managed clinical operations for a national EAP, and advised executives on employee-relations concerns at Fortune 1000 companies.