With the primary election only a few weeks away, people are more likely to be speaking up about their preferred issue or candidate. And that’s good – in a democracy, we all need to make our voices heard in order to create an effective and positive government. There are many other places, however, where we also need to speak our minds to make life better, even if it’s sometimes uncomfortable in the moment.

Just because there is no explicit conflict doesn’t mean all is well. Sometimes we need to make the issue visible by addressing it directly. We’re not creating the conflict, simply bringing it to light so we can deal with it. This usually means some difficult conversations. However, in some cases, intervention, political action, or even law enforcement involvement is necessary.

Lots of situations happen at work and home where the need for intervention is obvious, but unacknowledged. We don’t give voice to what we see or feel. We tell ourselves that if we ignore it, the conflict isn’t there or will go away on its own. A too-common example is hearing a neighbor yelling and swearing at their spouse night after night – we don’t want to get involved, so we say nothing, and the verbal abuse continues.

Rightly or wrongly, silence is construed as agreement with whatever is going on. When we remain silent, it reinforces the fear others feel about saying anything. Others who see the same problem feel isolated and question whether their concerns are real. We’re social animals. We look to others for cues about behavior. Silence begets silence, and conflict grows.

In the workplace, derogatory talk is a big issue. Individuals are ridiculed for the way they dress or talk, or simply because they are different. Being bullied tends to make the targets feel less power to stick up for themselves. It’s easiest for those of us on the sidelines, those not under attack, to help stop the bullying. But precisely because we are not directly involved, it requires more effort to choose to act.

Of course, speaking up is not a justification for an unfiltered spewing out of whatever we think. Not all thoughts should be spoken and not all desires should be acted upon. Nor is it an excuse to tell others how to live their lives. They are not going to welcome our unsolicited opinions on their choice of clothing, hair, parenting, career, etc. It’s also not helpful to make our comments into a personal attack on who they are. For example, “You need to stop yelling now.”, is much more effective than “You are a loud idiot!”. We need to interrupt injustice without mirroring the injustice.

Speaking up is about setting limits and defining acceptable behavior. We must be frank about behavior that is not acceptable at home or work, or even beyond – at the county, national, and international levels. Passivity by those of us for whom action is least risky escalates situations until we’re all at risk. Think how much suffering we can prevent if we can only find the courage to speak up. Bullies will be thwarted and fewer people will be harmed.

Many of us carry grudges. Over time, the burden can get heavy, using lots of our mental and emotional energy. Our lives can become so wrapped up in the perceived wrongs done to us that we can no longer enjoy the present.

The weight can also create the impression that life is completely out of our control and unjust because the past pain is still alive in us, skewing our sense of balance. Eventually, this focus can lead to bitterness and distance from those we love.

The decision to drop our burden is within our control. We can’t change the offender or the past; the reality of the situation cannot be undone. Letting go is a decision we can make; we can gain some control over our thoughts and feelings. Like trying to collect long-overdue bills, continuing to carry our grudges often costs us more than just writing them off.

So, how do we lay down our load?

As usual, we start with taking several slow, deep breaths. As we do this, the body begins to relax. Our relaxation allows more blood flow to the reasoning parts of the brain. From this calmer place, we can revisit the incident(s) that felt hurtful. Our natural tendency is to run from facing the memories directly and dispassionately. But if we’re still carrying grudges, we haven’t really gotten away, anyway. It’s important to allow ourselves to acknowledge the impact the past bad behavior of others has had on our lives.

Now it’s time to make a choice: Are we willing to continue feeling hurt and angry toward family and friends? Is our resentment helping us? Or should we bite the bullet and do the work of accepting difficult past incidents?

It may be difficult to let go of our anger, of the comforting feeling of being the blameless victim of the thoughtless person. It can help to imagine what we’d rather be doing with the energy and time we now use in replaying our hurt. Picturing how we’d like our days to flow, being well-rested and focused on our own life, for example, can pull us through the change we’re making.

Dropping our resentment is not excusing any harm done to us. Our pain is valid. And certainly, we should not stay in situations that are currently hurtful. Letting go of our grudge burden is about reducing the ongoing impact on our lives of past hurts. This actually reduces the negative power the offending person has in our lives. The hurt no longer defines us and our relationship with them.

Now we can create a phrase that sums up our current feelings and our decision to make peace with the situation. An example might be, “I can’t change the past and I’m moving forward with my life”. We can then use this phrase as a reminder whenever the familiar thoughts start, until the old hurt no longer has such power over us.

Might we still wish things had turned out differently? Absolutely.  But releasing resentment is not about letting the offender off the hook, it is about giving ourselves the gift of putting the situation into perspective and moving on with our lives.

To ward off the creation of future grudges, expect a certain amount of imperfection in those we love. Expect some social clumsiness and inexpert communication, even with family and friends.

Part of getting along with others is being willing to let go of the grudges we hold for past behavior. Dropping our burden of resentments can change our relationships to bring us more peace and happiness. Summer’s a great time to off-load unnecessary resentment baggage, leaving us free for playing.

Handling conflict at work can be a challenge. We spend a large portion of our days at work, putting in more waking hours there during the week than at home. This guarantees that tensions will arise periodically. The stakes are high at work – our job is our livelihood, so conflict there taps into our survival mode. Unfortunately, survival mode is not the best place for making good decisions about how to react to conflict. Though it may feel good in the moment to yell or stomp out of a meeting, that will seldom improve our career prospects.

We can manage workplace conflict, however, regardless of our position in the organization. First, it’s important to manage our expectations. We often have the expectation that our lives should be conflict-free, but that’s just not realistic. We don’t have much control over who we work with, so there can be a mixture of personalities that aren’t very compatible. Even at the best jobs, conflict happens. We’re all unique individuals with different perspectives and approaches to life. Tension arises as those differences butt up against each other.

We also need time and space to refocus on things other than the conflict. During breaks, it helps to get away from your work space, preferably even going outside – nature has a wonderful way of widening our perspectives. In addition, sometimes try to steer the subject of conversations away from any tensions. Avoid recounting stories of disputes over and over, with others or within your own mind. The less we focus on the conflict, the more likely we’ll be able to imagine creative ways to minimize any negative impacts of differences.

We need to separate opinions from the person expressing them. Don’t make disagreements personal –others are not worthless idiots just because they have a different opinion that we do.

Treating others with respect goes a long way toward easing battles over differing ideas or opinions. Unless open disagreement shows us otherwise, we all tend to assume that everyone else sees the world the way we do. The value of conflict, when handled well, is to help us understand one another better. Coming from a foundation of respect, we will be more likely to actually listen to what the other person has to say. With more information about the issue, we may even find ourselves adjusting our opinions.

And don’t worry too much if tensions develop at times between other people – it’s not your job to keep everyone happy.

If tensions are continually interrupting productive work flow for you, however, take the lead in addressing the problem effectively. Find a time when the situation is relatively relaxed to talk with the other person and explore their perspective. When we become curious about how others view the situation, it’s not uncommon to find that apparent disagreements are actually due to misunderstanding each other. For example, introverts and extroverts can see the same behavior differently – spending time chatting in the doorway may signal friendliness to an extrovert, while an introvert may feel frustrated at what they feel is an intrusion.

Occasionally, after direct approaches have failed, it may be necessary to call for help from a trained neutral third-party, either from within the organization or outside of it.

We all benefit from learning to handle conflict in the workplace. Besides improving our working experience, it will increase our job security – getting along pays.

We seldom think about grief when we think about getting along better but paying a bit of attention to our own grief and that of others is an important part of having a healthy community. Shared sadness can be just as bonding as shared happiness.

We all experience losses, large and small. Many of us have experienced the death of someone we were close to. We have had disappointments and other setbacks. Each new loss reminds us of all the others we’ve had and can trigger a stronger response than we might expect.

When we don’t allow ourselves and others to grieve, we create barriers. Unacknowledged sadness comes out in unpredictable ways. We may function okay for a while, then have a meltdown. We may withdraw in our pain. Others may avoid us because they don’t know how to be around us and are uncomfortable with our pain. Often, they feel guilty about this, which leads to more separation. Our grief can come out as anger, impatience, heightened sensitivity to perceived slights, and all sorts of other behaviors that push others away. 

Our grief may be very personal, such as the loss of a family member or a close friend. Or, it may be on a large scale, like the deaths due to massive wildfires, floods, acts of terror, and so on. The losses may be somewhat amorphous, too: some feel a loss of safety, of cohesion, of community. This is complicated by events that seem to cause sadness for part of the population and celebration by others.

Reach out to those who are grieving, regardless of how different they seem to be.  It does not lessen the validity of our faith to reach out to those of another faith who are heartbroken. It does not compromise our values to support the mourning of those who do not appear to share our values. We don’t have to like country music to share in the grief when there is a shooting at a country music festival. In fact, opening our hearts to others as we grieve is a powerful way of connecting as human beings.

We also don’t have to agree on potential solutions in order to acknowledge and share in the shock and grief that follows an act of violence. No one is unaffected when someone shoots children in school and everyone wants those shootings to stop. If we continue to connect to that common thread, we can have more effective conversations about how to solve the ongoing problem.

We don’t even have to know the cause of another’s grief to acknowledge it. We may not understand why a friend would mourn the death of an ex-spouse, but we can acknowledge their pain and be with them. Lots of us mourn the loss of a sense of national unity, though perhaps for opposite reasons. Talking about our shared sorrow can help build relationships across political lines that will allow us to find jointly acceptable improvements. If we can get over our discomfort with acknowledging that we all hurt, much good can actually result.

The more we can be with each other’s sorrow, the more we will also be able to share joy, and the stronger we’ll all be. It takes effort to get along, but the result is the only real option.

There’s lots of anger out there right now. Perhaps more people are feeling angry or maybe folks are just expressing it more freely. Either way, anger is blooming all around us. When we don’t use anger constructively, it’s hard to get along together.

Most of us don’t like anger – our own or others’. Anger is uncomfortable and physically stressful. It takes a great deal of energy. Because of that, we might pretend we aren’t upset or, worse, blow off steam by lashing out at someone who is not the real cause of our anger. It’s the nature of anger to dominate our attention and perpetuate itself, keeping us revved-up and thinking obsessively about the triggering event.

But anger can also be an ally, showing us when there’s something not quite right in our lives. If we learn to recognize it, anger indicates that a boundary has been crossed, a fear has been awakened, or an injustice has been done. For example, we can get angry when our kids run noisily through our office, when they know better. Or a child angrily shouts, “That’s not fair!”, when his sister gets a bigger bowl of ice cream. If we are afraid that we aren’t good enough to do our job, we can get angry if anyone tries to give us feedback about our work.

All of that angry energy can give us the courage to do what needs to be done. We can stand up to defend our limits against intrusions, or work to ensure that justice is done. Fear converted to anger helps us make the changes needed to be safe.

Sometimes we can have a large reaction to a seemingly small trigger – that’s a good sign that there’s another issue making us upset and we need to address that issue. For example, maybe a driver delays the smooth flow of traffic by not paying attention at the four-way stop, and we lay on the horn and make a rude gesture. That may even trigger other drivers and begin a wave of anger.

It’s important to understand why we’re angry, so we can determine what needs to change. That sounds easy enough, right? Unfortunately, when we’re upset, we’re not thinking clearly. Our nervous system goes on high alert, so it’s almost impossible to think things through in the moment. As usual, pausing and breathing deeply is a good first step. That helps our system calm so we can access our reasoning powers.

Once we’re calmer, we can ask ourselves why we’re feeling angry. Often, when we take the time to listen, we know the answer. If not, talking things through with a good friend or spouse helps clarify things. When we understand what’s not working, we can begin to come up with possible changes that will improve things.

All of us get angry, and that can be a good thing. We don’t want to get rid of our anger completely, because it carries important messages. We do, however, need to learn how to recognize what’s really going on and use that angry energy to make positive changes in our lives and the lives of others.

There are lots of things to worry about – everything from paying the bills, to a big presentation at work, to government dysfunction, can cause us to worry. We lose sleep thinking about all of the bad things that could happen.

But here’s the deal about worrying: While we’re freaking out about the horrible scenarios in our heads, our mind is in the future, not paying attention to those around us. We can’t fully experience connection, joy, love, friendship, beauty, or other yummy things.

So how do we dial down the worrying?

BREATHE! Take a few good, deep breaths. That’s the first step anytime we want to start getting a grip. Once we do that, we can begin to focus on other steps.

One trick is to create a Worry Time. If your mind keeps wanting to worry, schedule that into your day. No, really. Set a reminder for the time you’ve set aside. If you start to worry at other times, gently remind yourself that you have worry scheduled at, say, 7:00 that evening. Decide how long you’re willing to worry and set your alarm to let you know when Worry Time is up. Make sure you keep your appointment and allow the worry to come out, but then shift your attention to something else when the time is over.

Sounds pretty silly, but it really can help. We’re so used to letting worry take over at any time of day (or night), it feels very artificial to schedule time for it. That’s part of the point – we become aware how much time we spend on free-floating worry and begin to rein that in.

Once we’ve done our Worry Time, it’s helpful to take a few minutes to see if there is anything we need to harvest from our imaginings. Is there a kernel within the worry that needs to be attended to? Maybe we worried about finances and need to create a budget to make sure we have enough money to pay bills when they’re due. If we worried about our presentation at work, we can schedule time to practice it in front of a supportive colleague. Worry about kids or grand-kids may translate into getting more involved with their schooling, or buying life insurance.

Sometimes, our worries can feel overwhelming. If so, it’s time to do a reality check. A concept introduced by Steven Covey can help: Draw two circles, one within the other. The larger circle represents all of those things, large and small, that we care about. This circle of concern may include things like a healthy family, safety, enough money to live on, a world without hunger, freedom, a large snowpack, and so on. Within all of those categories, what are the things we, ourselves, could actually do to make a difference? That’s our circle of influence, the smaller circle (it’s always smaller, so no worries).

Anything outside our circle of influence is, by definition, outside our control to affect, so worrying about it is a waste of time. We can take the time and energy we’ve used in worrying and redirect it into doing more where we can actually make a difference.

It’s a funny thing – when we’re taking action on things that are important to us, we’re less inclined to worry about all the rest. When we know we’ve done all we reasonably can for now, we can be more available and relaxed with those we love. And this will certainly help us get along better.

‘Tis the season to make lists and resolutions. Let’s go with the flow and explore seven ways to help us improve our connections with each other.

  1. Don’t make it personal. By definition, we’re the center of our own worlds, so we tend to assume things are about us. When we don’t like what someone has said to us, we might think that they meant to hurt us. Most of the time, though, it’s about them – they were in a bad mood, they didn’t think a comment would be hurtful, or things just came out wrong. Any of those things could describe us, too. It makes life so much easier if we cut others some slack and assume basic goodwill while we determine what they meant.
  2. Be respectful. All of us deserve respect, regardless of occupation, social status, political leaning, net-worth, gender, etc. Being respected is a universal human need. It takes a truly strong person to listen to a different opinion with the intent to learn and to find common ground. Firing the f-word at others or slandering their parentage may give us a nice little “got-ya” hit in the moment, but will ultimately make things worse. No one listens well to our point of view after we attack them, just as we stop listening when they attack us.
  3. Check your facts. Much of communication is open to interpretation. It can be hard to separate what happened from what we think about it, but it’s crucial for getting along well. A good way to start is to consider what a camera or microphone would record – what specific actions occurred or words were said. Separating out the concrete, we can then consider several possible interpretations of the facts, not just the one that triggered us.
  4. Pause. Our first response is not always the most helpful long-term. Taking a moment before reacting will help us choose how best to respond. Only a few seconds can make a big difference in whether we’ll regret our response later.
  5. Set and keep good boundaries. Where are those lines that we don’t want crossed? If we don’t know, express, and consistently keep good boundaries, others will unknowingly cross them. When they do, we feel angry or hurt. Others can’t honor our limits if they don’t know them or if we are inconsistent in setting them. (If others don’t respect our clearly expressed boundaries, however, we need to take steps to distance ourselves from those folks.)
  6. Take action. If we don’t like the way we and/or others are being treated, we need to step up to help change things. The action can be as consuming as running for office, as concrete as helping deliver food to those who are hungry, or as simple as speaking up about bad behavior. As Martin Luther King, Jr. said so well, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
  7. Breathe. When we get triggered and our body goes into freeze/fight/flight mode, our breathing becomes quick and shallow. Taking a moment for a deep breath tells our body “It’s okay, we’ve got this, no need to panic.” By calming down, we will be much more likely to handle things well, because we’ll be able to think more clearly.

It’s too much to include all of these things in our resolutions for the new year. But they are all interconnected, and improving one tends to help with the others. If we each choose one of these to focus on this year, we can’t help but get along better.

We love telling stories. We’re captivated by dramatic tales of danger faced, love won and lost, good guys and bad guys.

Our brains are hard-wired for story-telling, and for listening to stories. We love stories so much that it’s normal for us to make them up all day long.

And stories that give meaning to our experience are the most compelling. No one likes not knowing why something happened or how things fit together. It turns out that every time we find a storyline that makes sense to us, we get a hit of dopamine (happy-juice for our brains) as a reward for solving a puzzle to our liking.

Unfortunately, that same chemistry is not tied to accuracy. We get the happy-juice reward, whether the story is true or false, as long as it provides an explanation that is plausible to us. We just need to believe that our explanation is the most logical one. In order to minimize uncertainty in the face of incomplete information, we guess about whatever is missing.

Once we have created a story that makes sense to us, we usually stop looking for alternatives. We’ve got our answer, we’ve been rewarded with dopamine, and now we can get on with our day. Almost immediately, we forget that we made up the story and come to think of the imagined motivations of the other person as true. The next time we talk to, or about, that person, this new “truth” about them will influence that conversation. If we share our story with others, that will influence how they see that person. This is an excellent recipe for conflict.

For example, if we discover that our great-aunt has given our older brother a larger gift than she gave us, we can create a number of stories to explain that reality. One version is that our aunt plays favorites and isn’t fair. Another is that she’s not paying attention and doesn’t even realize that the amounts were different. Maybe we even worry that our brother is pressuring her for more money. Those stories naturally affect our relationships with our brother and our great-aunt.

Not surprisingly, of the stories that would explain the behavior we see, we tend to favor the one that puts us in the best light. Whether we are the Innocent Victim (a perennial favorite) or the Brave Carrier of the Light, we lean toward stories that cast us as a basically good person.

What if the truth is something we didn’t think of? Returning to our example, our sister tells us our great-aunt may have given a larger gift to our brother because he calls her regularly to check-in. She naturally feels inclined to give him more because he shows that he cares for her. Hmmm. It’s clear why we might not have considered that possibility – it puts us in a less favorable light.

What can we do to compensate for these tendencies? As usual, a good starting point is to begin with ourselves. Begin to pay attention to the stories we tell ourselves about others. Do we know they’re true or do we just think they are? Try embracing the most positive interpretation of their motives. Give other people the benefit of the doubt. Then reality-test – check out other sources of information. Ask yourself what makes you think this version is true. A straightforward step is to check with the person and ask them what was on their mind. This has to be done respectfully, but they may welcome the chance to have the conversation and clear-up any misunderstandings.

So, as we go into the thick of the holiday season, let’s experiment with questioning the stories we tell ourselves about other people. We may find that it’s just a bit easier to get along if we do.

We work hard. We navigate the challenges of parenting, work, relationships, and everything else. We do our best to put forth effort to improve our lives. But so much of what our lives look like is due to pure fortune, good or bad.

There is no such thing as a self-made man or woman. Besides the myriad unseen ways we’re helped by others’ efforts, we’ve all had unearned advantages that have propelled us forward. By appreciating the many ways we have been lucky, we can increase our compassion and reduce our judgment of others.

Our advantages can range from gifts of birth to simply being in the right place at the right time. Some of us were able to get a college education back in the day without incurring huge debt. Many of us were born into families who had enough food every day. We got an encouraging word or a gift at just the right time. Those of us born with lighter skin have reaped all the subtle benefits of having the deck stacked our way, without even recognizing it. Living in this beautiful, free country has allowed us to say, do, and be so much more than we could in a more repressive society.

Luck can also be what didn’t happen to us. For example, most of us have not had our house burn to the ground, as some did in the Taylor Bridge Fire and the recent infernos in California. Consider what that means: We did not have to rebuild from the bottom up and we do not have nightmare memories of our material lives going up in flames. While having insurance is critically important, anyone who has lost even a few insured belongings knows the incredible amount of time and hassle involved in replacing those things. Not to mention the toll of losing irreplaceable items like grandma’s quilt or old photos. Just think – we didn’t have to go through that; our lives have not been pushed back to that extent.

Why celebrate something over which we have no control? When we acknowledge that we have received advantages that we have not earned, it helps us have compassion for those who, through no fault of their own, have had a more difficult time. It’s human nature to give ourselves perhaps more personal credit for how our lives have turned out. Likewise, we often blame others for things over which they actually had no control – it was just their bad luck. Recognizing our good fortune fosters humility and helps us dodge smugness, as we realize how much we’ve gotten “for free”.

We can certainly make bad choices that have large ongoing impacts. Perhaps we stupidly start drinking alcohol when we’re young. But if we’re one of the people who carry the genetic susceptibility for alcoholism, that mistake can be life-changing. Our genetics are outside our control, as are the genetics of everyone else. Does it help anyone to judge the difficult lives of others or to judge ourselves against those who had different good luck than we did?

Of course, we can’t keep this awareness in mind all the time, nor can we make a complete list all of our good fortune. But every once in a while, it’s good to remember our unearned blessings.

Let’s celebrate all that is right in our lives. Let’s be grateful that we are alive in this world. Let’s remember all the good luck that has gotten us where we are. If we reach out, perhaps we can be part of the good luck of others.

“Commit random kindness and senseless acts of beauty.” Anyone remember that phrase from the ‘90’s? It’s still a wonderful sentiment a couple of decades later. Let’s go retro and show more kindness.

Take a moment and ask yourself: Where can I be more kind? At work is a good guess – many workplaces are so busy that the “niceties” get lost in the quest for productivity. So, pay a compliment to a co-worker (extra credit if you don’t usually get along well with them or don’t like them). If a compliment is too much of a stretch, at least refrain from a criticism. Kindness can be as much what we don’t say as what we say.

Home is prime territory for increasing kindness. It’s easy in the rush of life to take our family members for granted and become short with them. To counteract that, we can make the effort to notice and acknowledge the everyday things that family members do right, rather than the things they don’t do to our liking. The more good we look for, the more we’ll see.

Don’t forget to be kind to yourself. Most of us say mean stuff to ourselves that we would never say to others; things like “you’re so fat”, “that was stupid”, or “what an idiot”. When we’re mean to ourselves, it’s harder to be kind to others. We’re happier if we try to only say things to ourselves that we would say to someone we love very much.

What about when we’re out and about? At first it may seem difficult to meet the outer world with kindness – there is a lot of nastiness being expressed in public spaces both physical and electronic. We can start by cutting others a bit of slack. We don’t know what is going on in their lives. They’re likely stressed – maybe they are sandwiched between raising children and caring for aging parents. Maybe they or someone close to them is battling cancer. Or maybe they just didn’t get enough sleep the night before.

If we cultivate kindness as our first response, it will leave that little opening for compassion to slip in. Our small act of kindness could make their day. Kindness is contagious, so receiving it will encourage others to respond likewise and pass it along.

Kindness can begin to displace fear as the filter through which we see the world. It helps us knit back together the rips in our social fabric. Kindness is apolitical and not dependent on religion or skin color – it’s an across-humanity thing. And kindness can be a balm after unpleasantness.

Kindness does not necessarily have to be quiet and calm, either. Sometimes, it’s kind to make someone laugh uproariously or take them out for a night on the town.

Our kindness to another could make our day, as well – being kind feels good. There’s a glow we carry with us after we’re especially considerate with others. Yes, occasionally being snarky in our thoughts lets off steam, but, on balance, we feel better after kind thoughts and acts. Research shows that kindness is one of the things that contributes to our own happiness. Given the obvious benefits to others, being kind is both selfless and selfish, a lovely combination.

We can focus on quick acts of kindness or go all-in, spending an entire day volunteering on a worthy project. Or maybe setting up a regular volunteer gig would work best. The possibilities are delightfully numerous. Let’s all model kindness for each other. We could certainly use it.