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Confronting a Liberty Taker

This past week, my client Anna came into my office extremely upset. “I’m feeling really hurt,” she said. “Lucia, one of my best friends, just reamed me out on the phone, and I’m all uptight and confused.” I asked her why her friend was so angry and she told me the following story.

“Lucia has a daughter the same age as my little girl. Since Lucia works days, I have her permission to take her daughter, Tierney, and Tierney’s nanny on playdates with me and my daughter. I’ve been doing this for the past few months and there haven’t been any problems.

“Then, a few days ago, I met her next-door neighbor’s nanny and little girl, Allison, who is also the same age as my daughter. I invited them along and the six of us went to the park for a couple of hours. The three girls played together nicely while I chatted with the two nannies. I particularly enjoyed talking with Maria, the neighbor’s nanny. She’s easy to be with and she taught me several things about child rearing.

“Because we hit it off, I asked her if she and Allison would like to join me and my daughter the following day at the park. She said she would, and the four of us had a great time.

“Today, I got a phone call from Lucia and she was very mad. She told me that I had no right to go to the park with her neighbor’s nanny and child without including her own nanny and daughter. She said I’d better not do it again because it was wrong of me to exclude her daughter in this way. I told her I disagreed and that I hadn’t done anything wrong, particularly since I didn’t schedule the playdate in place of the usually scheduled one with her daughter and nanny. At this point, she began yelling, so I hung up. She called back and continued her rant, accusing me of being mean to her daughter and her nanny. I finally said, ‘Let’s talk about this later. You’re too angry and it’s not good to talk about this now.'”

When I asked Anna how long she and Lucia have known each other, she said they’ve been friends for many years. Then I asked if Lucia had ever acted in this insulting, accusatory manner before. Anna said it happens once or twice a year and added, “I’m always wary of her. She can get very angry for no reason. Sometimes being with her is like walking through a mine field.”

I reassured Anna that from my perspective she had done nothing wrong. I asked her what she thought the chances were of Lucia calming down and “agreeing to disagree.” She said, “Lucia has never ever apologized or changed her mind about problems between us. To keep our friendship together, I’ve always been the one who apologizes. But I don’t want to apologize ever again for something I haven’t done. I feel too resentful when I do it.”

Anna then asked me how she could try to make Lucia see her viewpoint. I suggested writing Lucia a letter. She agreed that would be safer than talking face-to-face or over the phone. I pointed out she was dealing with two issues: the long-term pattern of Lucia’s verbal liberties and the nanny problem. I suggested she try to address both issues in the letter since they were related. With some help from me, she put together the following list of points.

Lucia:

  • It’s unfortunate that you and your nanny felt excluded but, in fact, I scheduled the playdate with your neighbor’s nanny on a different day from the usual one with your daughter for that very reason. I really don’t feel as if I’ve done anything wrong.
  • Since we have such different views about this incident, I believe we need to agree to disagree to put it behind us.
  • I feel very uncomfortable with your belief that you have the right to tell me who to spend time with.
  • I am writing this letter in place of a face-to-face discussion because during our phone call, I felt chastised by you and that is not a good feeling. I’m hoping you will read this letter a couple of times, give it some thought, and consider the points I’m trying to make.
  • I value our friendship but we won’t always agree about things. If we can’t learn to agree to disagree without hard feelings, I’m worried about the eventual effect it will have on our friendship. I would be saddened if our friendship ended.

Since Anna hasn’t sent the letter yet, I don’t know how it will turn out, but this situation offers a number of important lessons about friendship.

Lucia has taken verbal liberties with Anna over the length of their friendship. She apparently is not very good at voicing her concerns in a respectful, “we-are-equals” manner. It seems that when she perceives threat or rejection, instead of talking about her fears, she attacks, raises her voice, and calls Anna names. And even when she calms down, Lucia doesn’t apologize for taking such liberties.

Because Anna hasn’t confronted Lucia about this pattern, it has gone on for too long. As a result, Anna has built up resentment toward Lucia.

Additionally, Lucia believes that she has some sort of “geographical rights” over her neighbor’s daughter and nanny. Her ruling that Anna is not to spend time with them is illogical and high-handed, and is a blatant boundary invasion. Anna must establish clear boundaries to maintain equality and protect herself from further invasions. The points in Anna’s letter to Lucia are designed to do just that.

If we look at this incident from Lucia’s perspective, the best we can say for her is that she’s overprotective of her daughter and is trying to ward off hurt feelings. Lucia’s overreaction is motivated by her love for her daughter, so we can assume she’s simply trying to be a good mom. But, she’s assuming the worst about Anna and acting on that assumption. As already explained, she had a more proactive option available for handling this problem: She could have shared her feelings with Anna, and the blowup might well have been avoided (see this post for an introduction to feeling messages).

For example, Lucia might have opened up a dialogue if she had begun by saying (notice the feeling message in bold),

“Anna, clearly you have the right to spend time with whoever you wish. I worry, though, that my daughter and nanny will feel rejected by your decision to have a playdate with the neighbor’s nanny and daughter instead of with them.”

Anna could have allayed Lucia’s fears by responding, “I did think about that. That’s why I scheduled it on a different day and why I met them at the park rather than meeting them next door, close to your home.”

Such an initial exchange could have led to a fruitful discussion and possibly a reasonable solution. Unfortunately, Lucia’s fears motivated an unreasonable attack on Anna and now they are stuck trying to work through a problem seriously clouded by anger.

Once again, the major lesson here is the importance of learning and using appropriate, respectful communication techniques when resolving troubling issues with your friends.

Do you have a question or comment for me? Feel free to post it by clicking on the comments link below.   

Stuck in the middle

Q:  I have two friends who are dating each other, and often when we’re socializing, they get into an argument. They insist on dragging me into it by asking my opinion about who’s right and who’s wrong. I hate being put in this position. What can I do?

A:  You can use the simple technique called a feeling message. Before explaining the details, let me first make some guesses about your feelings:

  • You like both of your friends and don’t want to appear to be taking sides.
  • You feel awkward about being placed in the role of judge.
  • Their argument is putting you on edge.
  • You’re worred about being able to express all of this without hurting their feelings or seeming to discount their issue.

Assuming my guesses are correct, here is how you can communicate your feelings to them: “Bill and Karen, I know how important this subject is to you, but when you put me in the middle by asking me to choose sides, I feel very uncomfortable. Please understand that I really don’t want you to ask me for an opinion when you’re having a disagreement.”

Notice that the feeling message contains two things: a description of their behavior and its effect on you. The key is to deliver both pieces of information without being judgmental.

If your friends repeat the behavior in the future, use the same statement but modify it slightly: “Bill and Karen, this has come up before, and I need to say it to you again. I know how important this subject is to you, but when you put me in the middle by asking me to choose sides, I feel very uncomfortable. Please understand that I really don’t want you to ask me for an opinion when you’re having a disagreement.”

By adding that their behavior is making you repeat yourself, you are emphasizing your position.

This highly effective technique takes practice, but with time and patience, you can become a master at it.

Do you have a question or comment for me? Feel free to post it by clicking on the comments link below.