If there were only one skill that we could develop in order to reduce conflict, it would be the ability to empathize. When we empathize with another, we use verbal and non-verbal cues to try to understand what another person is experiencing. Empathy allows us to stand together with the other person, at the level where we’re all fellow human beings who go through rough times and good times.

Once we get a sense of what the other person may be feeling, it gives us a greater ability to relate to them positively. We begin to see them as more like us, with shared life experience. It is easier to care about them.

Empathy is different than pity or feeling sorry for the other person. There is a subtle superiority with pity, which makes us seem to be standing above and magnanimously dispensing pity from our more perfect life.

Responding with empathy and caring diffuses the fear, isolation, and defensiveness that can lead to conflict. One of the best ways to de-escalate a conflict is to listen to and empathize with the other person. When they feel heard, there’s less reason for them to yell to get our attention. Empathy also short-circuits the adrenaline cycle in our own bodies that prevents us from responding well. We have a better chance of saying and doing things we’ll be proud of later. It’s not always easy, though. Empathizing is great when we’re sharing in someone else’s joy. Sharing in the less pleasant emotions is tougher because we have our own reactions to the situation.

How can we respond more empathetically to others during difficult times?

Basically, we need to shift our focus beyond only ourselves. We have to slow down, breathe, and really pay attention to the signals the other person is sending about how they are feeling. It helps to be curious about what’s going on with them. Are they feeling angry? Sad? Disrespected? It’s also okay to ask how they’re doing, as long as we listen to their reply.

We can communicate our respect for what they’re experiencing either verbally (e.g. “That sounds really difficult.”) or non-verbally, with a smile or even a hug. It’s important to be sincere in any responses, since we all have pretty sensitive phony-o-meters and insincerity will only make things worse. It’s also crucial to avoid thinking and saying that we know exactly how they feel. We can guess at another’s feelings, but can’t really know without being told.

For example, if a co-worker is uncharacteristically critical of us after a meeting, we have a choice. We can immediately get caught-up in defending ourselves and conflict escalates. Or we can first take a deep breath and calm ourselves and then focus on our colleague by saying something like: “You seem really upset at what happened in that meeting.” Then we listen as they share their experience. Perhaps the problem had nothing to do with us. It may turn out they’re upset at something our boss said and they’re just taking it out on us. Once we listen to them, they will likely calm down, recognize the real problem, and apologize. Maybe then together we can strategize about how to deal with what our boss said.

We are a social species. In spite of our national self-image as a bunch of ruggedly independent individuals, we have to work together to function and thrive. Not only does empathy make it easier to work together, helping someone with whom we empathize makes us feel better, too. When we allow ourselves to feel what others are going through, it lessens the distance between us and helps us get along.

Trust. It’s a big concept and we notice it most by its absence. But trust makes the world work. Trust means that we can rely on each other. It’s having the confidence to count on others, to believe they are who they say they are, and that they’re telling us the truth. If others know our word is good, both of us can follow-through on our commitments. And there is mutual respect and caring for the well-being of the other, even if we’re not in a close relationship.

If there’s trust in a relationship or group, we can relax. We know that a slip of the tongue or occasional bad moment will be forgiven. And we can more easily forgive those things in others. We give each other the benefit of the doubt. That gives us the confidence in each other to give more of ourselves to the relationship, being more authentic and vulnerable. We share our true thoughts and opinions, deepening the connection between us. At work, trust fosters a valuable increase in innovation:  When we trust that our ideas will be welcomed and evaluated fairly, we’re more likely to share them, even if they might seem strange to others. Mutual trust builds deeper trust.

When trust is lacking, however, every moment is a battle. We’re scrutinizing every word, look, and action for slights and slurs.  Any misstep is noticed and held aloft as evidence of the other’s inadequacy. We assume bad intent. That assumption colors the lens through which we interpret everything they do or say, providing more “proof” that they are bad or incompetent or stupid or worthless or a host of other dehumanizing qualities. When we look for the bad in others, we not only find it, but cultivate it – others know we’re on the lookout for things to support our bad opinion of them, so they get tense and make more blunders. Relationships fall into vicious, downward-spiraling cycles. Mistrust begets mistrust.

But we have the power to change the level of trust in our relationships. This can work at home, at work, or elsewhere. Trust breeds trust, so to increase the number of trustworthy people in our lives, we must become more trustworthy ourselves. Being open about what we’re doing and doing what we say we’ll do increases our credibility. We can choose to overlook the little things that may or may not be slights. And we can give the benefit of the doubt to our co-worker or family member – do we really think they get up in the morning and say to themselves “I wonder how I can best torment my co-worker/spouse/parent/child today”?

Common wisdom has it that trusting is risky – and it can be. Full trust should be earned through experience – there are situations where caution and distance are warranted, and people with whom we should be wary. When we trust, we risk being taken advantage of or finding our trust misplaced. We risk being hurt.

Yet not trusting has perhaps even more risks – by not trusting others we might miss something wonderful and enriching in our interactions and relationships. We risk losing out on the synergy and joy that often happens when we allow ourselves to trust. We also spend a lot of time and energy guarding constantly against hurt.

We tend to fear the effects of too much trust over the risks of not trusting enough, and discount the risk of missed connections and the cost of not deepening relationships. We want to aim for the “sweet” spot of appropriate trust, using both our heads and hearts. Opportunities for trust abound in our daily lives. We can take a little chance on one and see if it helps us get along a little better.

Curiosity is one of the secret tricks of conflict management, hiding in plain sight.

How often, when someone says something that triggers us, do we ask them more about what they said? Not often. Usually, we are busy thinking up snappy comments to what we think we heard. Even if we ask ourselves what they meant, we often answer that they have some character fault or another: They’re just stupid, so we should ignore them. They’re arrogant for saying that. Or we won’t even listen because they are just too angry/resentful/emotional all the time.

Instead of becoming defensive or getting caught up in the drama of the conversation, we can try getting curious about what’s going on with them. For example, say we have a neighbor who makes snide comments about the number of dandelions in our yard. We could get defensive and talk about how we’re too busy at work to pull every little weed, or launch into a speech about how bad for the environment herbicides are. Those reactions would have predictable results: increased tensions.

Practicing being curious, we could ask them how they deal with dandelions in their yard and then listen to their answer. We might be surprised to learn of a quick, environmentally sound method we didn’t know about. More importantly, as we listen and ask more questions, we might learn more about our neighbor and what is important to them about keeping their yard dandelion-free. In the process of learning what they value, we build a bit more trust with them. Listening and learning does not commit us to having our yard look like theirs, even if we want it to. While we still may not see eye-to-eye, we increase the chance of accepting our differences. 

When we’re having a defensive reaction, it’s harder to access our curiosity. Like any skill we want to use more during conflictive situations, we have to practice when things are calm. An easy situation for practicing might be when a friend is expressing an opinion that is slightly different than ours. Because there is already trust and basic agreement, we’re going to be less likely to have a knee-jerk reaction and can therefore remember to ask them more about their opinion. The more we do that in calm situations, the more likely we are to remember to use the skill in more dramatic ones. And once we get in the habit of using it, curiosity can actually distract us a bit from our differences, so we can continue to respond more productively.

It can also be interesting for us to become curious about what’s going on in our own minds when we feel triggered. Exploring why are we having a reaction can help us to understand our own values and show us what we might need at the time. In our example, for instance, why do we care about our neighbor’s comments? Our annoyance at our neighbor’s focus on the state of our yard may indicate to us that we wish we were taking more time to work outside in the yard. Or our reaction may show us that we really want to move forward with our plan to take out all of our lawn and replace it with a low-water alternative where dandelions wouldn’t grow. Whatever we discover, we’ve learned something about ourselves that we can use to create a better quality of life.

Improving our intentional use of curiosity can help us deal more effectively with conflict and help us get along.

Here’s a common conflict scenario: Someone’s talking with us and they say something that we perceive as critical, a slight on our capabilities or character. We immediately start defending ourselves by attacking the other person or their comments, and everyone becomes upset.

When we feel threatened, even if non-physically, our automatic response is fight or flight. We feel defensive. We want to strike back or leave. Perceived verbal attacks can give rise to ongoing bad feelings and make it difficult to get along.

So, how do we lessen our defensiveness? The key is to pause for a moment and assess:  Are we okay? Do we really need to defend ourselves? It’s good to take a moment to determine whether there was ill-intent in the words. Perhaps the way that the other person presented their ideas did not allow the message to come across as they intended. We judge others on what they say and ourselves on what we mean.

It’s possible that there is some important information in the comments. Criticism, real or perceived, can lead to self-improvement, if we are open to looking at things from a different perspective. Not that we should change to adapt to everyone else’s opinion, but it may be wise to consider a tweak or two. We can allow ourselves time to consider whether we could learn something from the comments, without immediately striking out defensively and creating a hard line we then have to continue to defend.

Maybe it’s not what is said that triggers our defenses, but how the remark is made. For example, our spouse may tersely remind us (for the third time this week) that we agreed to put our breakfast dishes into the dishwasher before we go to work, and we lash out in response to the tone. We need to stop and ask ourselves, “Has our spouse threatened us?”. The answer will be no. We just don’t like the idea that we’re being reminded that we are not living up to our own agreements.

Even in a situation where someone really is trying to needle us, becoming defensive may not be our most effective response. At work, our interests may best be served by letting the comments go by uncontested. We sometimes want to react more strongly than necessary because a chance remark hits a nerve or lands in an area where we feel insecure. By not responding, even if we feel threatened inside, we appear more mature than the co-worker who was trying to get a rise out of us.

The issue may be even bigger, where we feel our good character is being called into question. A very current example is talking about racism. Given the history of our country, discussions of race are guaranteed to bring up deep discomfort. Those of us who are white can also get very defensive about exploring our own role in racism, however unintentional. We have been taught that racists are evil people, like the Nazis or slave owners, not someone like us who has good intentions. If someone calls out something we say as racist, we can immediately feel that we are being called a bad person.

But, wait. Let’s take a deep breath. What did they actually say? Maybe it was just that a common phrase we used has its roots in promoting racism. Is there something for us to learn in their comments? By listening, perhaps we can acknowledge that we were unaware of the effect of using a given phrase. We may not have intended harm, but the impact of our words was hurtful. By calming down and reminding ourselves that we are only uncomfortable, not in danger, we can change our language to more closely reflect our intentions. Of course, racism and its presence today is a huge topic for lifelong learning, but a good first step is to relax our defenses a bit and allow the conversation to begin.

Regardless of the issue, massive or small, knee-jerk defensiveness will create more conflict. When we slow down and assess the real level of the threat and change our response accordingly, we will get along better.

How often have you found yourself doing something you’d rather not, having agreed against your better judgment? Saying yes when we want to say no causes resentment and stress.

We may feel guilty saying no to someone else. After all, it would be easier for them if we agreed to their request, and aren’t we supposed to help others? But we all need to decline a request from time to time. The sky won’t fall if we say no – it’s okay for others to adjust to our wants sometimes. Our needs and desires are just as important as those around us.

If we can’t ever say no, it can be confusing to others. Our friends and co-workers may begin to wonder whether our agreements are genuine, or may even start to take our agreement for granted.

Saying no is about setting boundaries – it’s part of expressing what is us and what isn’t. When our days are filled with too many things we don’t want to do, there’s no room for doing enjoyable things that recharge us. And we have more control over where we set our limits than we may think. Others can’t respect our boundaries if they don’t know where they are.

As we begin changing our responses, it’s best to start small. Say we usually go to lunch every day with coworkers and we’d sometimes like to use that time instead to take a walk. We may be hesitant to risk others’ objections, but calmly and confidently saying no to the group once or twice a week won’t harm anyone. We get to decide what we do with our free time.

Once we are comfortable saying no in relatively low-stakes situations, we can take on bigger challenges. For example, perhaps our father, because he no longer drives, wants us to pick him up and help him do his errands daily during our lunch hour. We want to help him, but may find this burdensome and begin to resent him. We need to do something different before the resentment builds and impacts our relationship. Since any changes affect our father, it’s best to involve him in creating the new plan. Perhaps the solution will involve having other family members or friends help. A new plan may actually meet his needs better by bringing more varied interactions into his days.

As we start saying no more often, we should be careful to choose our tone carefully. If we’re not used to saying no, we’ll need to learn how to express ourselves without overdoing it. After all, it wasn’t others’ fault that we didn’t say what we wanted for so long! How were they to know we didn’t want to do something if we didn’t say so? Meeting our needs while also taking into consideration others’ needs and the demands of the situation isn’t bad, it’s just respecting ourselves. So, we don’t need to feel guilty.

What about responding to requests as they come up? A handy trick is to start by asking for more time to decide: “Let me think about this for a bit and get back to you.” Eventually, as we get more comfortable with expressing what we want, we can learn to say no in the moment. When we know we can say no, our yes will be clearer and more satisfying for us.

Getting along requires honesty and flexibility. The goal here is choosing when to say yes and when to say no, based on our overall preference after considering our needs, the needs of others, and the likely consequences.

Is there a conversation you’ve been putting off because it feels too difficult?

There are several ways to make the conversation easier and more likely to be successful. Preparation and listening attentively greatly improve the chances of having a positive exchange.

Let’s look at an example of a conversation none of us really want to have – talking with an elderly parent about stopping driving because their sensory impairment has made it too dangerous for them to continue. How do we start it and have it end well?

To help increase our chances of success, we need to prepare ourselves. First, we determine our goal – how would we like the situation to look after the conversation? A realistic goal in our example may be to keep the relationship on positive footing while also addressing safety.

Next, we should decide what we want to say and how best to say it. It can even be helpful to write a script for our opening comments, as well as determine the points we want to include later in the conversation. Just as important may be deciding what we won’t bring up – we’ll be less likely to reach our goal of maintaining a good relationship if we insist on bringing up our parent’s fender bender from ten years ago! Practice saying the prepared comments in a calm, non-confrontational way.

It’s very important to empathize with the other person, both as we’re preparing and during the exchange. Empathy is basically taking an educated guess about how the other person might feel about the issue. In our example, if we want to understand the impact of this issue on our parent, we can imagine not driving for one whole week. How would this affect our life and how would we feel about it?

Remember, though, that our guess is just a guess. During the actual conversation, we may be surprised at what is expressed. In our case, our parent may actually agree that driving isn’t for them anymore, but may want to save face with others or retain some degree of control.

Once we’ve prepared, it’s time to bring up the issue. Choose a comfortable, private place to talk. Pick a time when everyone is relaxed and has plenty of time to focus. Then, take a deep breath and begin with the prepared comments.

After starting the conversation, we need to listen much more than we talk. Listening carefully is crucial to a positive outcome. Fully acknowledge any difficulties that the other person expresses, making sure not to discount their concerns. We can restate what we heard them say, asking questions to clarify. If they keep repeating their objections, they are probably not feeling heard, so we need to redouble our efforts at listening for their feelings and what they need.

Don’t force a quick resolution in any difficult conversation. It may be best to discuss a big issue several times. Be careful not to hurry the process just because it’s uncomfortable.

It can be challenging to listen without getting upset. The issue no doubt brings up strong feelings in us, too, or it wouldn’t feel difficult. We need to do our best to stay calm and listen, taking deep breaths to relax ourselves. The other person will become more receptive to hearing our perspective when we’ve focused on theirs first. Once we’ve heard each other out, the conversation becomes easier and we can begin to fashion a solution together.

No one likes bringing up touchy subjects, but careful preparation and listening can help us successfully navigate difficult conversations.

The ability to receive gracefully and fully may not seem to be a likely issue in conflict resolution. When we think of the conflicts that arise from imbalances in giving and receiving, we usually think of too much taking and not enough giving. After all, aren’t we told it’s better to give than receive?

It’s great to give. Many of us give regularly of our time and money. We want to be givers, to be better. But, if givers are “better”, wouldn’t that make receivers somehow “less than”?

This is where conflicts can occur in the dance of giving and receiving. We may want to be the biggest giver, but gaining a reputation as a really kind person can become over-emphasized. It can become our habit only to give, never letting others give to us.

We’ve all seen a small manifestation of this:  Two diners in a restaurant arguing over who will pick-up the tab. We joke about this situation, but there’s a subtle and real dance going on here about who gets to be the nicest, the most giving – and claim the moral high ground of generosity.

Moral high ground may sound overblown for such mundane incidents, but let’s think back to the last discussion over who would pick up the tab for a meal. How did the interaction feel?

If things are generally in balance between us and the other diner, we probably came to agreement fairly rapidly. “Okay, you can get it this time & I’ll get it next time” or “Let’s split it”. If a significant imbalance develops over time, though, it may begin to impact the relationship negatively.

What if others never let us pay? Sure, that sounds great financially, but it can be limiting to the relationship. If we know they’re always going to pay, we may feel we have to order the cheapest thing, no matter what we would like to eat. More significantly, if one person always pays, it binds the relationship into one pattern that hinders growth and change.

For example, in a family, as children grow older, the day eventually comes when the adult child offers to pay for a shared meal with their parents. This is an indication of the child wanting to show that they have reached adulthood, that they are moving into a different phase of life in which they no longer need to be supported by their parents. It is the mature parent indeed who can accept the offer and be “treated” to the meal by their grown offspring!

Between friends, paying for a meal says “I value you; I want to be your friend.” If the same person always pays, there’s no opportunity for the other friend to reciprocate, to say, “I want to be your friend, too.” When one person makes a point to always pay, the other person incurs a debt with no opportunity to repay the “favor”, and the relationship becomes unbalanced.

We get such a lovely, glowing feeling when we give a gift, physical or emotional, that is appreciated by the receiver. Giver and receiver are roles that need to fluctuate over time – neither is healthy as a person’s sole defining characteristic. To get along well, we must allow ourselves to receive sometimes in order to allow those around us to enjoy the gift of giving.

Wherever two or more are gathered, there are politics. And conflict. Exchanging views with others can be fun and interesting – it can expand our thinking. But troubles can arise at holiday get-togethers when political discussion is not the purpose of the gathering.

Someone bringing up politics doesn’t have to ruin the party. Say we’re at a gathering and Uncle Richard loudly makes a comment implying the natural role of women really is to stay home and out of government. There’s that sudden tense silence while everyone waits to see what happens next. If we strongly disagree with what he said, we’re in a bit of a bind. Silence is generally taken as agreement and we don’t want others to think we agree; but we also don’t want things to escalate into an argument.

We can learn to step into that silence and express our disagreement without making personal attacks or discussing it further.

First, we take a breath, and then calmly state that we disagree with the opinion just expressed. Point out that discussions of the issues raised could be valuable, but this is not the place or time. Be nonconfrontational, but firm. Using humor can be an especially effective way to address the situation. Just be careful that it doesn’t attack others. We must then refuse to engage further. Change the subject and move on.

It is important to our self-worth to stand up for our own values. We have a need to live in alignment with our beliefs as much as we can. Some of our dread of mixed-politics gatherings has to do with the unfairness of only one “side” getting to express themselves. Having to swallow our opinions too often just to avoid making waves leads to resentment and, often, we no longer want to go to gatherings we used to enjoy.

Of course, we don’t have to speak up about every comment that strikes us the wrong way – we need to let minor remarks pass. Which we consider minor is up to each of us to determine. A good way to tell is to ask ourselves, if, when the party is over, we’d regret not saying something in response.

All this said, there are definitely people who make inflammatory remarks not to express a true belief, but to stir the pot. We can generally tell who they are and we don’t have to play that game.

If we choose to confront statements we find highly objectionable, we will need to increase our tolerance of the discomfort that comes from calling out those comments. We can become more comfortable with allowing open disagreement. And that includes listening to others expressing disagreement with us. In spite of our best intentions, we all make mistaken assumptions about who agrees with us.

If we usually love the hoopla of the holidays, we don’t have to dread them because of political differences. We can still love our Uncle Richard, strongly disagree with his political views, and continue to enjoy family gatherings. This is not necessarily easy. But in these times of very visible political divisions, this is necessary work for getting along during the holidays and beyond.

We don’t usually think much about power, unless it’s being blatantly abused. But power dynamics are always in play in relationships. Today, let’s focus on power issues at work.

We’re most often aware of power when someone has power over us, for example, a boss. How our workday goes depends a fair amount on how our boss uses their power. A few wield their power lightly, providing leadership and support while we do our jobs. These bosses are as wonderful as they are rare!

Bosses who lord their power over us can make our workplace miserable by micromanaging, demanding impossible schedules, berating our efforts, and showing disrespect in other ways. When we have an overbearing boss, we need to concentrate on the power we do have to our best advantage. Most importantly, we need to keep our own center, remembering that our self-worth is not dependent on our boss’ opinion. If we keep our cool, we can be strategic in our choices, choosing what to say and when. We might brainstorm with colleagues we trust to improve the situation. Updating our resumés will give us a head start in case another job with a better work environment becomes available.

When the situation is reversed and we are the boss, we have a lot of choice about how we wield our power. Of course, we can spend our time strutting around importantly and telling those under us what to do. But remember how it felt when others did that to us. We can bet that the ones on the receiving end of our heavy-handedness will feel the same things and will be doing everything they can to undermine us or get away from the situation.

So how do we use our power wisely? Right use of power for a boss rests on compassion and awareness of our impact on others. Yes, we can get away with more when we have more power, but taking advantage of those below us on the ladder diminishes us. Think about it – those who use power over others for their own gain are called bullies. Instead of being a bully, we can take the needs of others into account, listen to their concerns or feedback, and make the choices that benefit most.

When we are subject to the power of others at work, it’s important to be aware of and make use of the power we do hold. It may take time, energy, and the help of others to make improvements. It may even mean changing jobs. But even as we do this for ourselves, we are acting as role models, showing others what is possible in a difficult situation. Using power well earns respect, bringing more power to us.

We must keep in mind that there are cultural aspects of power, too, regardless of the organizational hierarchy. Our experience at work and the options available to us are affected by the amount of money we have, our race, our level of education, our gender, etc.

We don’t want to focus on power relationships all the time, but it’s good to check in periodically with how we’re using our own power at work. Regardless of whether we have a lot of power or not much, are we using what we have effectively and responsibly? The more respectfully we use our power, the better people we become, the more power we earn, and the more easily we’ll get along at work.

We have all done things we wish we hadn’t. We say something mean, yell at the kids, eat or drink too much, don’t tell the truth, etc. That’s just part of being human. How we deal with those things greatly affects how we get along.

Once we acknowledge that we did something wrong, we can react by feeling guilty or by feeling ashamed. Guilt and shame are not the same. With guilt, we feel bad that we’ve made a mistake; the focus is on our behavior. We can admit our mistake and seek to make amends. When we feel shame after doing something, we think we’re a bad person. We focus on our personal unworthiness. The only way to make it better is to “fix” ourselves. When we think we are defective, we feel vaguely unhappy a lot of the time. When we feel that way, we tend to treat others badly. This just heightens our sense of shame and the spiral continues.

According to Brené Brown, the leading researcher into such things, we can break this cycle of shame. First, we need to start talking to ourselves the way we would talk to someone we love. That may sound corny, but think about it: we can be incredibly mean to ourselves. For example, we may say to ourselves “I’m such a stupid idiot to lose my temper!” or “What an undisciplined failure I am to still be overweight!”. How many of us would say the same to someone we love – our kids, spouse, or best friend? Such nasty self-criticism undermines our happiness and our ability to respond to others in a positive way. Instead, we need to catch ourselves saying mean things to ourselves and change our focus from who we are to what we have done.

Shame thrives in secrecy and silence. We need to reach out to someone we trust and tell them the story of what we did that brings us feelings of shame. Of course, we need to pick that person very carefully. They need to be empathetic and worthy of our trust. Our shame stories are incredibly personal and we become vulnerable when we share them. If the listener dismisses our story or judges us, that only reinforces the shame.

Often, we feel shame about something over which we have only partial control at best: body size or shape, the amount of money we have (usually shame for not having any), whether we have a job or what kind it is, how we were raised, etc. Knowing what triggers shame for us can help us begin recognize what’s going on and catch the shaming thoughts when they happen. Having another person empathize and validate our inherent goodness after hearing our story can help us rein-in negative self-talk.

Apparently, feeling shame is very closely connected with addiction, depression, violence, aggression, bullying, suicide, and eating disorders. It’s easy to understand that we would likely feel shameful when we’re addicted, depressed, and all. But it also goes the other way: when we feel shame, we’re more likely to become addicted, depressed, violent, aggressive, suicidal, eat too much, and bully others. When we think of our behavior, rather than ourselves, as bad, we are less at risk for those dangers. So, it seems that changing our thinking from being a bad person to having done bad things actually helps us be better people.

Also, we need to be careful not to foster shame in others. When we have issues with someone, we should focus on their behaviors rather than judging who they are. This can be difficult to remember in the midst of a disagreement, but it is one more way we can each work toward getting along better.