Conflicts are emotional. They arise out of emotionally loaded issues and fuel strong emotion. Getting along well requires skill in handling emotions, but there hasn’t been much educational emphasis put on emotional proficiency. Many fields of study still actually shun any consideration of emotion, deeming it a distraction from important work, or worse, intellectual weakness.

A few decades ago, however, two social scientists described a type of knowing that was complementary to the more familiar IQ, and called it Emotional Intelligence (EI). Rather than the purely nuts and bolts intelligence of IQ, emotional intelligence can be described as a form of social acumen involving the ability to monitor our own and others’ feelings, and to use this information to guide our thoughts and actions.

Many studies since then have indicated that people who know and manage their own feelings well, and who comprehend and deal effectively with other people’s feelings are at an advantage in any sphere of life. Those with high levels of EI tend to be more successful in relationships both at home and in the workplace, regardless of the type of work. And unlike IQ, EI can be improved – there are specific skills that can be learned and practiced.

So how do we improve our EI? It starts, as is so often the case, with self-awareness. The foundation of becoming emotionally adept is to become familiar with our own emotions and be able to recognize and identify what we’re feeling, while we’re feeling it. This involves monitoring our thoughts and body for reactions. For example, if I notice my jaw is clenching, blood is flowing to my face, and I’m thinking how stupid that person is, I know I am getting angry. Or, if my thoughts are cloudy, my throat feels constricted, and my eyes are prickling with tears, I recognize I’m feeling sad.

Part of this fundamental cornerstone of emotional intelligence is the ability to have part of our attention aware of what we’re feeling even as emotion floods our mind and body. Being unable to notice our true feelings in the moment leaves us at their mercy and we’re pulled this way and that as our emotions shift. We can all remember times when unbridled emotions swamped our ability to think rationally or creatively until we calmed down – that’s what goes on when we think of the perfect thing we wish we had said during the heated argument that happened an hour ago!

Managing feelings so our response is appropriate to the situation is a skill that builds on our awareness of our emotions. First we notice how we are feeling, and then we can choose our expression of that feeling. We may be feeling strong frustration with a supervisor’s decision, for example, but it is important to our careers to be able to resist throwing a tantrum in her office.

In addition to knowing and controlling our own feelings, we need to be able to gauge how other people are feeling, based on a variety of readily observable or subtle clues. Empathy, the ability to attune emotionally or know how another feels, is critical to successful interactions with others.

When we can interact successfully with others, we are able to establish and nurture relationships, build alliances, influence others, problem-solve, and collaborate. This is an essential skill for finding and maintaining our place in the social network.

Knowing our own emotions, regulating them, recognizing emotions in others, and handling relationships are key aspects of emotional intelligence. We can improve our skill levels and thus build our emotional intelligence. This, in turn will allow us to have greater success in getting along with others.

People occasionally ask me about coworkers or family members who don’t respond to the usually effective tools and techniques of promoting clear communication for dealing with a conflict situation. There are some people who always seem to be in the middle of big, dramatic disagreements, and are resistant to resolving them.

In the world of conflict studies, people with these tendencies are referred to as “high conflict people”. They focus on blaming others for everything, take no personal responsibility for their role in conflicts, think in all-or-nothing terms, and have over-the-top emotions and emotional behavior. For example, a high conflict coworker would consider it acceptable behavior to go stomping out of a meeting because of a perceived slight by someone, yelling that the whole team is against them.

True high conflict people generally have underlying psychological disorders that are beyond our untrained ability to chart and change. But the point is not to make a diagnosis. We just want to recognize characteristics enough to deal with these dramatic personalities and avoid escalating the situation. Fortunately, there are some guidelines for what we can do, and not do.

When interacting with someone whose emotional behavior seems way out of line with the situation, the single most important thing to remember is to manage your own emotions. High conflict personalities live in a world of intense, easily escalated emotions over which they feel little control. Anger, in particular, is a common emotion. Emotions and conflict are contagious. Our natural response is to get angry and become embroiled in defending ourselves and attacking or belittling the other person. Unfortunately, that is a certain way for the interaction to spiral out of control.

So, do not argue with the person. Instead, take a deep breath (or several). Acknowledge your emotions and allow yourself to choose not to be taken over by your feelings. Keep calm – peacefulness can also be contagious.

Once you’ve found some semblance of calm in yourself, you can engage the highly emotional person in a specific way. Bill Eddy, a therapist, attorney, and researcher in high conflict behavior uses the acronym EAR to represent the components to remember: Empathy, Attention, & Respect. Let the person know that you can relate to the pain they’re experiencing – “Wow, I can see that you’re really upset.” Express your willingness to listen to them – “Tell me what’s going on” – and then listen. Find something about them you can respect and share it with them – “I respect the effort that you’ve made on this project.”

Taking these steps will generally calm the highly emotional person enough to either try some problem-solving or allow you to leave without bad feelings. Granted, these three things are the last things we feel like giving someone who’s ranting near or at us. It takes practice and a willingness to override our knee-jerk reactions, but it works. Remember that empathizing, listening, and showing respect do not mean you agree with the person or condone their behavior.

Avoid getting hooked into rescuing them, too. High conflict people like to have others solve their problems, so they can blame others if things go wrong, which they eventually will. Be careful to set clear boundaries with them. They can be exhausting to be around and you’ll generally want to minimize contact. Of course, if you think there is any danger of imminent physical harm, just get out of the situation immediately.

We don’t often find ourselves having to interact with high conflict personalities, but when we do, it’s important to know that getting riled ourselves will be counterproductive. Embodying calm, however, at least on the outside, can de-escalate the high emotions.

This column often deals with how to prevent unhealthy conflict – but what do we do if things have already gotten uncomfortable?

Having an ongoing, tense relationship in our lives can be very draining. We’re always on the lookout for that person, tensed against the possibility of running into them at the store or an event. Since we tend to regard conflict as a threat, we scan our environment for that person the way we would scan on a hike for bears or rattlesnakes. It’s worth our while to look more closely at those conflicts in our lives, to consider how we can address them.

First, we need to look at the importance of the relationship to us. Is the person a family member or a close colleague at work? Maybe they’re just someone we see a lot in our usual haunts around town. It definitely takes energy to address conflict, so we want to make sure the relationship is worth the effort. If the relationship isn’t that important and we only see this person infrequently, it may be best to just let things be. We don’t need to be on perfect terms with everyone in our lives. Each of us will have a different take on the trade-offs involved, depending on our level of comfort with conflict and addressing it.

If, however, the relationship is important to us, personally or professionally, it’s worth spending some time and energy to see if we can restore things to a more enjoyable level. The problem can be where to begin. If we want to improve the relationship, we should make the first move. We often get stuck when there’s been a rift – nursing wounds and waiting for the other person to approach. Both people begin to harden in their respective positions and the conflict deepens. If you decide you want things to change, the next step is to let go of who was wrong and reach out to the other person.

We also need to get a sense of what lies at the heart of the conflict. Was there a clash of political or religious opinions? If so, the conflict may not be resolvable by discussing it and the best course might be to just avoid particular subjects when talking with that person.

Other times the conflict may be rooted in the way a particular incident was perceived. Maybe one or both parties felt a slight, or went away from a gathering with hurt feelings. Sometimes peace offerings like buying them a coffee or another small gesture is all that is needed to put things right.

If you decide to start the conversation, it’s important take a little time to consider what you want to say and how you need to say it. A carefully planned approach will increase the likelihood that your overture will bridge the gap rather than widening it. Be very careful not to stick any zingers in there – though it can be hard to resist. Avoid acting superior or magnanimous for being the one reaching out.

Don’t expect all the walls to come tumbling down – you may not even get a response. If so, keep focusing on the positive aspects of the other person. It takes two sides to have a fight, so if you can truly let it go, that’s the end of it for you. You have the relief of knowing you did your utmost and don’t have to dread seeing the other person.

If they respond well, also reaching out to help bridge the gap, great! Keep things positive and honest. Feel free to express your relief about getting along better.

Humans are built to watch for threats. We’re descended from people who were very good at watching for – and therefore surviving – attacks from dangerous predators or warring clans.

Then there was the issue of tribal pecking order – our rank in the small, social clans sometimes meant the difference between getting the resources our family needed to survive, and perishing. This made us very sensitive to perceived slights to our status. The ability to determine someone else’s intent could mean the difference between life and death. It was safest to assume the worst.

Nowadays, we live in much different conditions than our forebears. We are no longer in danger of mortal attacks from enemy clans. Status is still important, but no longer critical. We still have that wiring, however – our senses are still always monitoring our interactions for danger, even in mundane situations. When any conflict arises, we immediately become wary of the other’s intent.

For example, where do our thoughts go when we receive an email or voice mail that is blunt or curt? If we assume the worst, things can quickly spiral out of control and we end up with a lot of drama and stress. We make up stories about others’ intentions and then forget we made them up, treating them as true and causing all sorts of confusion. We try to figure out why they are after us and plan how we will get back at them. It takes a lot of time and energy.

But what if we give others the benefit of the doubt and assume, initially at least, that they have good intentions? If we ignore the apparent slight and assume the other person was just having a bad day, which is the most likely situation, we are choosing to trust them until we find out more. We can then ask what they meant by their words or actions. Asking questions for clarification will lead to understanding and help improve relationships.

Extending trust pays dividends and increases the trust others extend to us, which in turn makes it easier for everyone to trust each other’s intentions next time. The negative spiral becomes a positive one.

If we can’t ask, or don’t feel comfortable asking why the other person did or said something, we can explore other interpretations of an incident than just a negative one. Maybe they were just in a hurry, or feeling stressed or crabby over something that had nothing to do with us at all. Most people are as wrapped up in their own lives as we are in ours – it is highly unlikely that anyone wakes up every morning looking forward to tormenting us today.

Of course, we can’t pretend that there aren’t people who wish us ill. There are people who take advantage of others to enhance their own standing. We need to temper how much we trust, based on past behavior, though one bad incident doesn’t guarantee continued harm.

What if the other person sees us as the problem? Sometimes we’re wrong and have to take responsibility for how our actions have affected others. We intended to help, but may have unintentionally offended or hurt the other person. If so, we need to acknowledge that and apologize. There’s nothing wrong with the other person if they take something we say or do in a different way than we meant it, just as there’s nothing inherently wrong with us if we do the same thing.

Mistakes and miscommunication will occur. When we assume good intentions and offer the benefit of the doubt, we allow others the space to be in a bad mood, or distracted, or stressed. In other words, allow them to be human.

For many of us, the idea of getting our way implies someone else doesn’t get theirs. Getting our way has a bad reputation – we hesitate to push for what we really want, for fear of harming someone else.

In some situations, it’s true that one wins and the other loses – in sports, one team must lose for the other team to win. In others, though, this perspective can derail our efforts to find better alternatives.

When considering how to avoid win/lose outcomes, we often jump first to compromises. For example, a parent may be faced with the dilemma of two children who, in their excitement to play dress-up, both want the same tiara. One solution would be to have the two children trade-off wearing the tiara every ten minutes. That seems fair. Unfortunately, the children rarely see it that way and start to fight about who gets it first, and when that gets settled, the one who doesn’t have it pouts unhappily until it’s their turn.

Compromises may indeed be necessary at some point. First, though, let’s explore ways to handle the situation without anyone having to give up what they really want. The trick is to explore fully what each one wants and why. With the tiara example, we can begin by asking each child why they want the tiara. Maybe one wants to pretend they’re a queen or king. Maybe the other wants to dress up “fancy”. In that case, the second child may be even more delighted to wear a big hat, sparkly jewelry, and those old high heels in the back of the closet.

Shifting to an example of adults in the workplace, say there is only one available office on an outer wall and two employees want it. Again, asking why they want it may indicate an expanded range of possible solutions. One may want the office because it’s quiet, out of the way, and has a door. The other may want a window that brings a sense of the bigger picture to her work space. Knowing that information, possible solutions may include moving supplies from a large storeroom and putting the first person there, or giving the second person a cubicle by a window.

We can learn to get our way more often by considering what each party wants. Just because we’re successful doesn’t mean that we’re manipulating anyone. Looking at why each of us wants a given solution can do as much for the other person as it does for us. We are recognizing that we aren’t the only people with valid needs or concerns, and that it’s important to take the needs of others into account as we work to meet our own.

Before you begin to negotiate solutions based on joint consideration of needs, know your bottom line. Once you know what you really need to get out of the solution, then you can relax and be more flexible above that line. Don’t settle for less, but make sure your bottom line is reasonable. Remember that you can’t change another person, so if you expect an introvert to become the life of the party, you need to shift your expectations. The same caveat would apply if you want an extrovert to stay in every night quietly reading.

Just winning and losing are narrow ways of looking at conflict. We can get our way in life, and those around us can get theirs, and we can still get along. Finding a solution doesn’t have to mean sacrifice and giving up important things. If we communicate and collaborate, we can usually create answers that meet everyone’s most important needs.

Racism is conflict in one of its most nasty forms. I hate that it exists and fervently wish it didn’t. As recent news stories have made all too clear, however, racism is real and it remains a very potent factor in not getting along.

Whether you are white or a person of color, it is impossible to ignore skin coloration. Research has shown that we determine race within milliseconds of seeing someone and it can affect our day-to-day interactions more than our perceptions of financial status, social standing, and even gender. Racism doesn’t have to be loud and ugly, it can be silent and insidious.

So what can we do to reduce racism in our community? As always, since we can’t make other people change, we must start with ourselves. If we are successful in changing, people around us may note our example and decide to follow.

One of the first things we can do is to acknowledge how subtly our perceptions of race exert their influence, even if we don’t intend them to. For example, those of us who are white take many things for granted, like being able to go about our daily business free of the suspicions and fears that often cast a shadow over the actions of our neighbors who are African American, Native American, Latino/a, Middle-Eastern American, etc. Nobody questions our presence or good intentions in a supermarket. European Americans are rarely challenged about their citizenship.

We can also reach out to get to know community members of differing racial backgrounds. Our natural human tendency is to stick with those who are most like us. But if we want to take action to overcome the lingering weight of racism, another thing we can do is to seek out friends in new places.

If you are white and have friends or colleagues of color, you can invite them to tell you about racism in their lives and then listen to what they have to say. These conversations can be uncomfortable at first, just like anything new. Let your desire to have racism truly eradicated give you the gumption to move through the discomfort. As you begin to explore, however, remember that the playing field is not level. Take it upon yourself to be the one who issues the invitation and starts the conversation.

Often, when white people begin to learn about racism and the privileges of being part of the “normal” group, it brings up feelings of shame over how this could be happening right under our noses. That’s natural. So take your time. Think about it, reach out and talk about it with someone you trust, and then let it percolate for a bit. Decide what you can do and then do it. Don’t let shame hold you back – acknowledge the reality of what was and what is, and commit to doing all you can to create positive changes.

It’s up to each of us to raise these issues and act to make our society more equitable. It’s not about politics, red or blue. It’s about our common humanity. It takes courage, but working together we can do this. We will make mistakes and yet we will eventually get along so much better because of the effort.

Much of healthy conflict management involves refraining from saying things we’ll regret, calming ourselves, and listening to others. However, conflict can also worsen if we don’t speak up enough and address our concerns about important conflicts that we’re experiencing.

Most of us hope discord will go away if we just ignore it long enough – even though we know it doesn’t usually work that way. If we wait too long to attend to conflict, it will only get messier and harder to tackle. Maybe recurring blow-ups will die down, but procrastinating about addressing the root conflict creates a whole history of unresolved tensions in the relationship. Every time there is a new incident, it brings up all the resentment from the previous negative interactions, burdening them with the weight of historic frustration and responses to a small, new transgression can seem out of proportion.

The longer we wait, the more divisive the situation can become, including the unwanted possibility that we’ll be so frustrated and upset that we’ll blurt out things that will escalate the conflict.

Dealing with conflict directly will help create positive results as well as avoid negative ones. If conflict is handled properly, all the players can learn from it. Relationships can deepen through the process, as both people learn what is important to themselves and the other person. In some cases, others don’t realize that their behavior is causing tension. They’re just going about their business, while you’re over in the corner seething. Or perhaps they know something is bothering you, but won’t know what it is until you tell them.

Few people welcome conflict. External tensions create internal conflict as we try to decide whether it’s worth it to say something about the situation. We have things we know we need to say, but our stomach clenches at the very thought of bringing it up. When the disagreement crops up, our survival instincts kick in. We tense up and begin to respond as if it is a life or death situation. Of course, it seldom is. Are we really in mortal danger if our spouse refuses to load the dishwasher the way we do it? Probably not.

Sometimes we fear we’ll damage the relationship if we do speak up, but rarely consider that the relationship likely will be weakened if we don’t.

Pausing is okay; there’s no need to rush in. When we find ourselves in conflict, it’s a good idea to stand back and assess the situation. Is it an ongoing concern and really important to us? If so, what’s the worst that can happen if we address this? What’s the worst that can happen if we don’t? Very often, ignoring it would create the worst scenario. Take into account the circumstances of the conflict – is our livelihood at risk? Our family’s happiness? Our health? Take the time to place the conflict into the context of your life and, from that viewpoint, make a decision on whether or not to bring up the issue.

None of this is to say that, even after discussing how their past behavior affected you, the other person will stop annoying us in the future – that is unlikely. But once we’ve learned the other’s perspective and talked through past tensions, those old events can more readily stay in the past, creating a positive cycle of decreasing tension. If a situation is tense and we want it to change, we have to be willing to speak up and address the problem.

Do you remember the last time someone was kind to you? When a friend or family member went out of their way to be considerate, understanding, or simply showed you they care? We all remember and cherish these times because they remind us we belong, are loved, and are not alone in the world.

How would our days be different if we created more kindness at home, work, and out in the world? What if, instead of trying to correct what’s wrong with a situation or another person, we took the opportunity to respond with kindness instead of criticism?

There are so many ways to contribute a bit of kindness to the lives of others. Close relationships, such as within families, are prime places to do so. It’s so easy for us to take for granted the presence of these people in our lives, and to assume they know we care about them. An unexpected act of kindness can go a long way toward highlighting our love for them. With lots of deposits in your “kindness account”, occasional crabbiness will be overlooked more readily. Acts of kindness indicate that you can be trusted to nurture the relationship, leading to deepening the relationship.

There are many ways to be kind outside your family as well. You can volunteer in a community organization, help a neighbor or friend, donate to a worthy cause, reach out to someone who seems lonely, etc. It can be particularly fun to plan kindness in tandem with others to multiply the effects.

There is no hard and fast rule about what is kind. We often think of kindness as doing something, but it may also mean exercising restraint. It might be kind to let someone else “win” an argument you don’t feel strongly about, or in some way concede they might be right. Sometimes asking for help can be a kindness, allowing another to feel the joy of helping. Kindness flows both ways.

Spreading kindness feels good and is also good for you. According to the latest research I’ve seen, intentionally increasing the kindness you show can also increase how positive you feel. To maximize this benefit, try scheduling several acts of kindness for one day of the week or month. Structuring or clustering them in this way draws your own attention to the kindness you share and amps up your positive outlook, improving your overall experience of happiness. Research also shows that those who help others tend to live longer.

Kindness can also be done anonymously. For example, someone planted flower bulbs in a highway meridian and the resulting flowers made me smile when I was traveling that road. I have no idea who planted them, and they didn’t know of my enjoyment, but it felt like a kindness to me and raised my spirits. Donating blood to an unknown recipient is very kind, too.

Kindness does require a bit of thought. Though we’ve all heard of the Golden Rule, doing something for someone else that you would like will not always work. Bringing flowers to a friend who’s feeling down would not be kind if they were allergic to them.

Finally, take time to notice how good you feel after performing an act of kindness, the positive connection to the person you helped, and the sense of pride for making a contribution. To prolong this benefit, make it a regular part of your life.

So look around for opportunities to perform acts of kindness for others – they can change your world.

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.

A good way to reduce the added stress of resistance is to accept the current reality. Admit that this is just the way it is. That’s not to say that the situation shouldn’t change, or can’t be changed, only that this is the way it is now. Acknowledge the magnitude of the problem and the 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, housemates shouldn’t leave their messes in the kitchen, etc. The situation may not be fair.

But the best way to go about changing a 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 railing against what we think shouldn’t be. When we stop resisting, the situation feels a bit less consuming and life can feel more manageable. Our creativity is more readily available for problem-solving.

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

Often, we equate acceptance as giving up, settling for less than we want or need. 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. That action may be as simple as finding ways to adjust our reaction to the situation. While not necessarily easy, changing ourselves is much more likely to happen than getting someone else to change.

For example, maybe you are having trouble with a family member who is causing lots of discord in the family. Remember that you cannot change them; you can only change your response to them. Accept them for who they are being at the moment. Decide what you need to do in response to them and then do it. Your changed response will change the relationship. (Caveat: If violence is part of any of your relationships, please contact ASPEN or another organization that can help you remove yourself safely from that relationship.)

It also helps to remember the things that are not difficult in our lives, the things that support us. We 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. Each time we do so, it makes it easier to do the next time. Concentrating our attention on positive aspects of our lives helps put our troubles into perspective, reducing the impact of difficulties.

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 clearly 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 in the long run. We will be better able to see ways to change the situation to improve our experience of life.

You say the little efforts that I

make will do no good: They

never will prevail to tip the

hovering scale where justice

hangs in balance.

I don’t think I ever thought they

would. But I am prejudiced

beyond debate in favor of my

right to choose which side shall

feel the stubborn ounces of my

– Banaro W. Overstreet

(To One Who Doubts the Worth

of Doing Anything if You Can’t

Do Everything)

That is the short poem my mother carried in her wallet as a reminder that there was always something she could do to make bad things better, and that she needed to do her part.

Wanting to keep our distance and remain passive in the face of large and difficult issues is understandable. Our lives are already complex and busy. The big issues of this world have the weight of complicated history behind them. They’re more than one person can change. We’re just individuals living in a rural area, after all, across the country from the seat of power, the “other” Washington, right?

But consider the impact our inaction has; by saying we can’t do anything to affect large problems, we give all of our ability to influence those issues to others. If those people don’t do what we thought would have been best, we feel even more powerless and frustrated. This often leads to anger, and we lash out at our neighbors who agreed with the action, creating more conflict here in our little corner of the world.

Each of us can make a difference by taking some action, however small and seemingly insignificant, to mitigate the large conflicts around us, from the upwelling of racial tensions in Ferguson, to paralyzing polarization in government, to regulation of guns. Small acts count.

So what can we realistically do about big issues? A good place to start is with ourselves. If there is someone you know who has a different view than you on an important issue, you can start a conversation with them about it. For example, those of us in favor of fewer gun regulations could ask our neighbors with differing views to share their thinking. Those of us in favor of strong gun control could do the same.

The crucial next step is to just listen. Try to understand their perspectives, their feelings, and what social needs they feel would be met by increasing or lessening regulation. Look for seeds of agreement between you, however small, and build communication from there. If we recognize we agree on some things, it will open possibilities for new solutions to be created. They will be compromises, but give and take is part of being alive.

Neither of you is likely to convince the other of the errors of their ways. The more we understand those with opinions different than our own, the less polarized our political conversations will be. And if you’ve done something to reduce polarization and increase understanding, you’ve just had a positive impact!

We may not ultimately change action at the national or global level this way, but we’re doing our small part at the local level and that’s a start. Many, many of these small actions, taken together, can make big changes.

As my mother’s favorite poem says so well, we should never deprive the world of feeling the stubborn ounces of our weight. If we are willing to move outside our comfort zones and change our behavior, we hold the potential to make a difference in our own communities and reduce destructive conflict locally and in the larger world.