Linkety Links + “We need to talk” vs. “Hey, knock it off” conflict management strategies

Image: Cover of Amazons, Abolitionists, and Activists by Mikki Kendall and A. D’Amico

Good news, Mikki Kendall’s beautiful book, Amazons, Abolitionists, and Activists: A Graphic History Of Women’s Fight For Their Rights, is finally out. The IndieBound link is above, Amazon is here, it’s illustrated by the amazing A. D’Amico and just breathtakingly wonderful and gorgeous.

Mr. Awkward is cataloging his year of ambitious projects with his blog/email newsletter, Too Early Old, Too Late Smart. Mental health, fighting perfectionism, the nitty gritty daily work of acquiring a new skill and flexing old ones, it’s good stuff.

Do you wish all the holiday + faaaaaaaamily advice from our site was re-fashioned as satire for Reductress or The Onion instead? Good news, my brain did, too:

“I had never really considered that my mother-in-law might want grandchildren or have anything to say about human reproduction,” explained Lucy*, 38, a graphic designer in Baltimore, Maryland. “But then we were saying the blessing before the meal at Thanksgiving and she locked eyes with me, reached over my plate, patted my stomach, and told me that she had asked God to send me a baby soon, and it was like this lightbulb went off. I grabbed my husband and we went to the guest room right then to get cracking on giving her the Christmas Present she wants most.”

Read on for how (not) to overcome political disagreements, find common ground on “healthy” eating, and get the most up-to-date employment advice from people who haven’t had to look for a job in 30 years. Free to read and share at Patreon.

Fourth! I have promised my therapist I will organize my thoughts in more posts and fewer long Twitter threads, so let’s discuss about a recent column from Ask A Manager: Where do you start when you inherit a bad employee? The Letter Writer’s colleague is about to be promoted and inherit a known problem employee, and wants advice for how to handle that, especially when previous managers have let a lot of things slide and things have festered. Alison advises [bolding mine]:



I heartily agree, and want to re-apply this advice both to work and interpersonal conflicts. Since the beginning of the site, I’ve tried to spell out the difference between “Hey, knock it off”/”Can you please do x?” conversations vs. “We need to talk” conversations and give script recommendations for both kinds so that Letter Writers have a range of options at their disposal.

Many, many people who write to me about a ongoing stressful situation are hoping for a guide to having One Uncomfortable Conversation To Rule Them All. What is the most efficient, honest, kind, direct way to sit down with someone, spell out the range of issues, head off uncomfortable moments and potential problems ahead of time, tell someone news they don’t want to hear “without upsetting them,” say “good talk everyone,” and then never have to worry about the problem behavior or irritating habit again? Why spend all this time with little check-ins and reminders when, surely, there is a way to just address to the root causes and handle the whole thing at once?

This is an admirable impulse and I love it, every time. (((((((((MY PEOPLE)))))))))

It is also incredibly hard to pull off in real life.

When everyone is acting in good faith and there is a lot of trust and goodwill in place, State Of The Relationship talks can be useful, clarifying, and bring everyone closer together with a greater understanding of each other’s needs and preferences.


When something has been allowed to fester, unaddressed over time…

When hints and subtle requests have not worked, when the person is known to ‘not take criticism’ well…

When the other person does not act in good faith and/or is un-self-aware…

When the person is someone you don’t particularly like [like a ‘problem’ coworker or roommate vs. a close friend] and you just want to get what you want and not have to delve into their feelings or reasons…

…Having a “bigger picture” sit-down to lay out some overall things the person could do to make the relationship better is riddled with pitfalls.

I say this especially for the conflict-averse [MY PEOPLE!!!] folks who might be putting off a difficult discussion until they can find the one true perfect way to have it [MY PEOPLE!!!!!]:

One of the biggest constructive conflict-management life skills I have ever learned, after much trial and error, is that it is not in any way easier to wait and talk to people in terms of overall patterns and personality traits that bother you than it is to address very specific actions you want them to take (or stop taking) at the detail level.

It’s the difference between saying “Hey, roommate, did you eat my leftovers? Ok, can you stop?” the first or second time it happens vs. letting it happen for a year without saying anything to them, complaining constantly to your friends and everyone who is not your roommate, getting angrier and angrier until the whole living space is seething with unspoken hostility, and then eventually exploding at the person with a laundry list of stored grievances, which makes them feel (understandably) attacked and defensive.

There’s a fallacy that it’s not “worth” speaking up when a problem is small because we don’t want to appear “difficult” or “make trouble” and I don’t know what put it in so many of our heads that we are supposed to save up the words “no” and “stop” and “don’t” for Special Occasions, but one of my missions in life is to extract this extremely maladaptive training from myself and anyone else who needs it. It’s not helping us. It’s not helping anyone, when you consider that good people who would be happy to give us what we need if they knew what it was tend to be mortified when they find out how long they were secretly upsetting us, and the assholes basically got to buy more assholing time at our expense, now with more plausible deniability!

Plus, it turns out that extrapolating pattens from observing others’ individual behaviors and collapsing a general statement about human behavior and applying it to one’s own behaviors are very, very different activities.

To return to the project of applying good management strategies widely to other kinds of interactions: Annual performance reviews are stressful, high-stakes affairs, right? And sometimes they are written in an alien language, like, “Employee identified and met personal growth goals in line with company values, please rate from 1-5” (What?) Here’s one hard and fast rule I have about performance reviews: If the first time you hear that your manager is unhappy with an aspect of your work happens in a formal, written way that affects your money and your future, your manager has fucked up. Nothing in a performance review should be a surprise, they should have told you when the problem was new and small and easily correctable.

Interpersonal relationships don’t generally come with formal annual performance reviews, and I’m certainly not suggesting that treating everyone like your employee is the magic solution! I bring up performance reviews because nobody likes them at work, they definitely don’t want them at home, and I’m not a brain scientist but in my layperson’s observations, the human amygdala translates the words “We need to talk” roughly as “I know, let’s block out some time to count all the ways you are pissing me off in the past and how I’m worried you’re going to piss me off in the future so we can prevent that!” which automatically adds a level of stress and defensiveness to everyone’s life. Sometimes those Big Talks need to happen, or they start out small but suddenly become big, and I’m a fan of clearing the air whenever possible, but I want to talk about some strategic advantages to 1) addressing one thing at a time, 2) focusing on the most recent instance, even if there is lots of stuff and/or there’s an ongoing problem, and 3) ending with a request for something the person can do differently in the future.

Advantage 1: You’ll get more of what you want and less of what you don’t.

A good person who is generally trying their best will hear feedback like “I noticed _______ and would prefer it if you ________ next time, can I count on you to _________? Thanks!” and then they will do their best to give you ________.

They might feel upset at first because criticism is uncomfortable and it hurts to find out we made a mistake about something we care about doing well at or that we accidentally upset someone. But once feedback and apologies have been delivered, however awkwardly in the moment on both sides, these folks will have the necessary information about how to treat you going forward.

If they want to avoid more awkward talks like that in the future and stop whatever was causing discomfort, they can do the thing/stop doing the thing. Now they know!

If whatever you need is impossible for them to supply, the discussion can be about, well, what would work and y’all can mutually decide on some solutions.

Advantage 2: You’ll give people less room for derailing and other common ways of avoiding accountability.

There are people in the world who will do almost anything to avoid saying the words: “I’m sorry,” “I will fix the problem and I won’t do it again in the future,” and “Thank you for telling me,” even though, when receiving critical feedback of our behavior, these are probably the most useful 21 words in any language.

Bad-faith arguers are experts in shifting the territory of any conversation where they might have to be accountable.

They travel in time:

  • “Why didn’t you tell me before?”
  • “Why are you just telling me now?”
  • “But last time we talked you said it was okay?”
  • (Ever notice it’s never the right time to tell certain people ‘no’?)
  • “This is only happening because of…” [long recitation of past events, bonus points if they are traumatic in a way that has you comforting the person at the end of a conversation that started with you talking to them about something that hurt you]”

When faced with “here’s what you did wrong and what you, personally could do to make it right” they shovel their feelings and justifications at the problem and hope you’ll be overwhelmed enough to go away.

  • This can manifest as excessive, unending shame-spirals and long manipulative apologies that don’t address the behavior or prospect of changing it but do reliably make you feel bad for saying something in the first place and reluctance to poke the bear in the future.
  • They change the conversation away from what they did and what they can do in the future and turn it into a discussion of what kind of person they are/you are/everyone else is. Watch for negging, including self-negging, “I’m a terrible person,” “You probably hate me now,” threats of self-harm, “you’re probably going to abandon me just like everyone else does,” “you probably tell your therapist what a terrible parent I am,” etc.
  • They present diagnoses not as useful information to discuss possible accommodations (“With x diagnosis, sometimes it’s hard for me to do what you need, but if I have access to y, it will help me do it better”) but as excuses for why they can’t possibly be expected to be accountable for anything, which is why we have certain discussion rules about diagnoses.
  • Note: Some people react to criticism or perceived rejection with genuine distress (for example), so not all in the moment “big” emotional reactions to feedback are inherently manipulative or signs of bad faith! However, patterns where the person having a shame/apology meltdown somehow never gets back to to 1) I’m sorry 2) I’ll do my best to fix it and not do it again and 3) Thanks for letting me know, and recurring conversations where you are seemingly never allowed to have upset feelings about the person’s upsetting behavior because the other person’s upset feelings are Just So Big, are worth examining and, where possible, interrupting.

They appeal to authority, especially people outside the room who can’t speak now, because you? You (general you) are much “too sensitive,” “humorless,” inexperienced, uptight, etc. to be able to give them feedback.

  • “But [Person Who Isn’t Here] …told me I could______.”
  • “But [Person Who Isn’t Here] likes it when I _______,”
  • “The old boss said that my way is just fine.”
  • “But everyone else agrees with me that ..”/”Everyone does it my way…”/”Nobody else would ever get upset about…”

The good news in the Ask A Manager letter is that the problem employee is getting a new boss, whose literal job it is to address this stuff. Prediction: He’ll try this shit anyway.

The worst offenders blame everyone but themselves, and shift the conversation so it’s about what other people do, use DARVO tactics, and do anything to change the subject from what they did wrong. DARVO stands for “Deny, Attack, and Reverse Victim and Offender,” a pattern especially prevalent and most studied in cases of sexual and gendered violence, but once you spot the tactics there you’ll start spotting them everywhere.

  • “I don’t remember that. When did that happen. Prove it.” Note: Some people genuinely have trouble remembering their mistakes, so by focusing on a recent, obvious, documentable occurrence at the expense of the past you can sometimes short-circuit the part where their brain automatically resolves every conflict in a way that makes them look good and their mouth automatically starts gaslighting you about whether it really happened. Is it fair to “let them off the hook” for the other occurrences by focusing on the one? No. Is it maddening to deal with people who radically edit the past in their favor? Yes. Is narrowing the focus to the most recent time still, strategically speaking, the best tool in the toolbox for dealing with them? I think so.
  • “Well, I may do _____, but you did it first!”
  • “But you do _______!”
  • “But this is really your fault, because of [insert torrent of naming all of your shortcomings]” (also known as victim-blaming).
  • “Sure, I’ll do what you want, just as soon as you [insert giant list of unreasonable demands]!”
  • “Well, why is no one talking about [what random person who isn’t here] did wrong? Why is everybody picking on me?”

They scale the problem up and down, looking for the point of absurdity that lets them wash their hands of any responsibility for anything. You’ll generally see a lot of this strategy in conversations about Why We, As A Society, Should Never Be Allowed To Have Nice Things, Like Functional Social Safety Nets Or Expectations Around Consent:

  • “Well I guess I’ll just have to do everything myself from now on!”
  • “Getting affirmative, clear consent before sex? What’s next, making everyone sign a written contract? Lol let me get my lawyer.”
  • “Stop demanding strange women on the bus pull their headphones off so I can order them to smile? What, is no one allowed to talk to anyone in public ever again? Fat chance!”
  • “Taxing billionaires as if they were normal people? What next? Taxing people with hundreds of millions of dollars like some goddamn peasants or something?”

Fortunately these straw men can be rolled down the slippery slope and right into the burny, cleansing fire of enthusiastic agreement.

Bad Take Guy: “What, are you going to seriously fire every single rapist and harasser who works in the entertainment industry?”

Me: “That’s a fucking great idea, let’s do it and see what happens!”

Also Me, daydreaming and humming a little song under my breath:


Image: A wicker man from the film The Wicker Man burning proudly, giving its light and warmth, for the land.

So that’s a pretty long list of potentially unfortunate reactions to conflict and attempts to derail negative feedback and avoid accountability, right? Almost like there are conflict styles that punish certain people from even airing grievances in the first place?

But I have what I think is good news about ways to push back on that.

If you can learn to practice giving feedback in way that addresses one specific change, based on the most recent time something happened, with emphasis on what the person can do from here on out, you can set people up well to complete the circuit with Sorry/I’ll Fix It/Thanks and then move on.

Best-case scenario, by doing this you are being clear, direct, kind, and giving people the benefit of the doubt that they didn’t know it was a problem before, but now they do, so they’ll probably do the right thing. Everybody makes mistakes sometimes, but here’s no need to dwell in the past as long as the future is better, so let’s all save face and get on with making/doing/enjoying whatever cool stuff we came here to do.

In not-so-great cases, you are giving yourself a tool to wave soooooooooooooo much bullshit aside. For example:

Them: “Why didn’t you tell me before?”

You: “Don’t know, but I’m telling you now, so can I count on you to do ____ going forward?”

Them: “But my past was really hard so I have a hard time with _____!”

You: “Wow, my sympathies! That’s a lot to unpack, so for now, can I count on you to do _______ from now on? Let’s start there, I’d really appreciate it.”

Them: “But I am a terrible person with too many feelings, hearing this means I need to tell you all of them so we can agree on how much you hate me, because I suck.”

You: “Look, I can see you’re really upset, and I’m not sure what to say. Can we back up for a minute, though? If I can count on you to [do the thing you need them to do in the future], you and I will be good. Can we agree on that for now?”

Them: “But the old boss didn’t have a problem when I did it this way.”

You: “Good to know! Still, I’d like to have it in this format from now on, so I appreciate you making the change.”

Them: “But everyone else laughs at that joke, you just have no sense of humor!”

You: “Probably true! Since they’re completely wasted on me, can you not tell jokes about _____ anymore? Thanks.”

Them: “But why are you talking to me when [absent person] screwed up more?”

You: “I’ll talk to __________directly about that, but right now we’re talking about [what you did][what I specifically need you to do], so can I count on you to [do the right thing] from now on?”

Them: “But this is your fault, you did something worse so you deserve [whatever bad behavior]!”

You: “Huh, we can talk about that once [your bad behavior stops][you correct this specific problem], so, can I count on you to [fix whatever you did][act right from now on]?”

(Especially take note if someone won’t ever let you address their mistakes without flinging accusations about yours or other people’s mistakes. That’s a sign to end the conversation ASAP, and probably do not talk to them without witnesses if you can help it, here be red flags galore!)

Getting better at giving frequent, low-stakes feedback that emphasizes what you want someone to do carries an additional benefit: It forces true “Missing Stairs” out of hiding much sooner and conserves your energy in dealing with difficult conversations with everyone. (I have no idea where I am in numbering, let’s call this Advantage #3 thru Infinity)

When you hone in on one specific action and make a direct ask for change, you give good people the opportunity to do better, and you remove the fog of obfuscation and denial that lets the crappy ones operate.

This approach removes responsibility in that you don’t have to fix everyone’s feelings, history, mental health, attitude, the entire history of a situation, every group dynamic, etc. in order to ask for what you need. What brought you here isn’t as important as changing things for the better. The other person can feel and think however they want about you, but will they do the right thing from now on? If yes, you can probably work with that (sometimes we have to work with that). If this person isn’t capable of doing what you need? If they punish you for even asking for it? Now you know and can make good decisions about how much access (if any) to grant them to your time and attention.

Giving feedback early and often can be a way to sound people out. Someone who makes it easy to hash out small conflicts is going to be easier to approach about higher-stakes decisions. Someone who can’t hear a “hey, can we fix this one specific small thing please” correction without making it incredibly difficult and weird for you probably isn’t going to do better with a big picture “we need to talk about overall patterns” conversation, so you can stop strategizing about what the perfect one might be.

This kind of feedback structure can be learned and practiced. And if assertiveness is hard for you, some people have success starting with compliments and stating positive preferences out loud and working up from that. However you go, please know that you don’t have to be perfect in order to need stuff, and you don’t have to find just the right words before you’re allowed to ask people for things.

Good talk, everyone.