So much conflict arises simply because we each bring our own expectations to life’s various situations. Expectations are comprised of our desires and assumptions that a given behavior, goal, communication, etc. will be accomplished in a certain way and within a given timeframe. Expectations usually include implicit rules about what needs to be done and how it’s done.

Most expectations we have for others are unspoken. We don’t tell our spouse that doing the dinner dishes means doing them immediately after dinner instead of the next morning. We don’t mention to our coworkers that we assume they will get back to us when they have made the client contacts we agreed upon. We aren’t clear with our kids that cleaning their rooms means more than stuffing everything under the bed. It’s not that we forget to mention these particulars; it’s just that we assume they would know – after all, why wouldn’t they?

Expectations generally lurk within those things we think “should” happen.  “Should” implies an “if” that refers to a desired outcome. For example, “You should finish the dishes right after the meal, if you don’t want the food to dry on them.” Or, “If you want to be on the top sales team next week, you should make the client calls this morning.” In common practice, though, the “if” is assumed to be understood, leaving “You should finish the dishes this evening.” and “You should make the client calls this morning.”

And therein lies the problem.

When we just assume an outcome is mutually understood and agreed upon, we run into difficulties. We might feel safe in assuming that the person washing the dishes must prefer to wash fresh food off now, rather than having to scrub harder tomorrow, since that would be our own preference. But maybe they don’t mind the extra work of scrubbing in the morning, preferring instead to unwind now in front of the TV. The same with co-workers – maybe they care less about being on the top sales team than about having a reasonable amount of work to get done in a morning.

When you find yourself bickering with others over what should or should not be done, take a minute to clarify your assumptions: Experiment with adding the “if” and its related goal to the beginning or end of the should phrase. For coworkers, “You should call your contacts this morning” just sounds bossy; but adding the goal clarifies things: “If we’re going to have that information for discussion at the meeting this afternoon, you should call your contacts this morning.” Then you can decide together if the goal of bringing the information to the meeting is important enough to bump whatever other tasks might be on their list.

Birthdays, anniversaries, and particularly the upcoming holidays, can give rise to situations in which expectations cause conflict. We carry very specific ideas in our minds about how these occasions should look. There’s also the added burden of not wanting to have to tell others what we want – if they care, shouldn’t they just know? Well, not necessarily, though they may guess right sometimes. If expressing your holiday expectations would ruin them, try sharing them several months in advance. Then they know and you can more fully enjoy the dates when they come around.

There’s nothing wrong with having expectations, we just can’t expect people to know what they are. While it’s not possible to avoid all unspoken or unrealistic expectations, we should be on the lookout for the ways our unexplored assumptions create conflict in our lives, if we want to get along better with others.

Most of us have a lot of stress in our lives – too many demands and not enough time or energy for the things we want to do. Realistically, a significant number of these stressors are out of our control. But we often make it worse, resisting or even denying the reality of some situations.

We can reduce the added stress of resistance by accepting the current reality. That’s not to say that the situation shouldn’t change, or can’t be changed, only that this is just the way it is now. That includes acknowledging the magnitude of the problem and any tension it brings.

It’s very possible the situation “shouldn’t” be the way it is: that elderly parents shouldn’t resist getting help, teenagers shouldn’t break rules, coworkers shouldn’t make our work harder, partners shouldn’t take their stress out on us, etc. The situation may not be fair.

However, the best way to go about changing a difficult situation is not to deny what is, but to accept it and consider our options. Paradoxically, acceptance of a difficulty relaxes us. We no longer have that constant tension of butting-up against what we think shouldn’t be. When we stop resisting, the situation feels a bit less consuming.

Acceptance does not mean minimizing the impacts or importance of difficulties. We need to give ourselves credit for tough things we’re dealing with as we earn a living, raise kids, care for a family member, go to school, or all of the above.

Often, we equate acceptance with giving up, settling for less than what we need or want. In fact, we can’t effectively make positive change until we see clearly the way it is right now. Acceptance is a very powerful step and creates the foundation for a realistic plan of action. The action we choose may be as simple as finding ways to adjust how we react to the situation. While not easy, changing ourselves is much more likely to happen than making someone else change.

For example, maybe we are having trouble with a coworker who is causing lots of bickering in the group. Since we cannot magically change them, we must accept them for who they are being at the moment. From this non-resistant mindset, we have more mental (and emotional) energy for creative problem-solving. Now we can consider the options, decide what we need to do in response, and then do it.

It also helps for us to remember the things that are not difficult in our lives, the things that support us. Most of us have a tendency to focus on the bits that aren’t going well. However, we can choose to change our focus, at least for short periods, to those things that are positive. Concentrating our attention on positive aspects of our lives helps put our troubles into perspective. From our new perspective, we may decide either to take more active steps to address the problems or simply reduce the attention we give them.

Acceptance brings choice and empowerment back into life.  Once we accept the way things are now, we regain access to all of that energy we had been using to resist what just is. It’s tough to accept reality when we’re in the thick of things, especially if the situation doesn’t seem fair, but making the effort will pay off for us. We will be better able to see ways to change the situation and have more energy to make those changes. This will not only improve our experience of life, but our lowered stress levels will help us get along better with those around us.

Most of us prefer harmony in our relationships with each other. We want to get along. Conflict feels unpleasant, and addressing it can be a lot of work. But is it good to make constant harmony our goal?

Being in sync with others feels great, yet given our differing perspectives, disagreements are inevitable. We can choose to “keep the peace” by not expressing our dispute with what others have said or done. It doesn’t inwardly change our differences, just keeps the waters calm on the surface.

Creating harmony is a balancing act of choosing when to acknowledge strain and when to let things slide for a bit. There are advantages to avoiding outward conflict. It certainly ensures the appearance of getting along. For example, it may be important to keep our feelings to ourselves at work if openly expressing tension is frowned upon. And ignoring a snarky remark from our spouse when they’re under stress can help prevent a small thing from morphing into something big.

A less admirable benefit to pretending not to notice underlying conflict is that we can convince ourselves that everything is fine. Then we can blame any clashes on whoever finally expresses the tension that actually exists. This saves us from having to address our part in the conflict.

However, denying obvious tension gets in the way of creating genuine closeness. When we engage respectfully with our differences with others, it strengthens relationships. When conflict is not acknowledged, we can’t work through it. We aren’t able to express what we each need and create solutions that work for everyone.

Demanding constant harmony or pretending it exists when we know it doesn’t also has a repressive effect on others. If they feel that they can’t express dissatisfaction or other uncomfortable emotions with us, they’ll tend to distance themselves. They will feel they can’t be themselves around us. Frustration builds, resentment takes hold, and there is an erosion of trust. Eventually, the relationship will weaken to the point that it dissolves.

We honestly may not be aware of existing tensions. Not all of us are sensitive to clues others are giving and not everyone expresses their dissatisfaction clearly. It is important to acknowledge the reality of conflict once someone expresses it, though. By definition, if one person feels conflict in a relationship, harmony is missing.

It takes courage to acknowledge and tackle disharmony with those who are important in our lives. It requires going through the hard work of addressing differences and coming to a shared understanding of each other. That may mean agreeing to disagree on some things. We will still have learned more about each other in the process and can appreciate why they feel the way they do. And then we can get along.

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.