Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Caught in the Middle

Hello Polite Readers!

We've all been there -- two (or more) friends, family members, co-workers or other acquaintances are having a fight and they both want you to take their side. Each gleefully recounts what happened, skewed to make it look like they are the wronged party. They might ask your opinion, they might ask you to serve as a go-between in delivering snide messages, or they might even go so far as to ask you to cut off your relationship with the other. It's one of the most uncomfortable positions to be in.

In my youth, I heard a response to this that has stuck with me for my entire life and served me well: "If I'm not part of the problem, and I'm not part of the solution, I don't want to be involved." Treat this as your mantra whenever someone tries to drag you into their fight. Do they genuinely want you to help mediate a dispute? Great, you're willing to help because you want everyone to get along. But if they want you to just join their anti-the-other-guy posse, you don't want any part of that.

I know it's hard sometimes. Maybe you do feel genuinely closer to one party than the other (for instance, it's your Mom vs a distant cousin), or maybe you so desperately want to give in to the human nature to indulge in a little gossip. There have been times when I've wanted to know all the dirty details about a conflict, but I refrained. The problem is that when you get either or even both sides of the story, it tends to color your perception of each person and damages the friendship -- beyond the initial damage done by them trying to drag you into it.

There are a few polite variations you can use that are a little softer than the mantra:

"I'm sorry, I love you both and I just don't want to get involved."

"If there's anything I can do to help mend fences I'd be happy to, but I don't want to hear all the dirty details."

"It sounds like a really complicated situation. I hope you guys can work it out."

As usual, I advise quickly changing the subject before they can say "But just this one thing..." and tell you what horrible thing so-and-so said to them. If necessary, you may even need to walk away if you can. Let me tell you, there are few things worse than being stuck in a car with someone who wants to get something off of their chest. You may need to turn the radio up really loudly (just kidding, that's kind of rude).

Staying out of it will serve you well in the long-run. Ideally, the warring parties will eventually make up, and you won't be left with any awkwardness about things that you said to them during the fight that was never yours in the first place. If they do never reconcile, you can make your own decision as to whether to maintain the two different relationships, or if not, which one to keep, based solely on your own experience with them and not with having been forced to choose by an ultimatum.

Do you need a graceful way to handle an awkward social situation? E-mail me at and I may publish your letter on this blog.

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