Is there a conversation that 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 a parent about stopping driving because their sensory impairment has made it too dangerous for them to continue. How to start it and have it end well?

First of all, prepare yourself. Determine your goal – how would you 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.

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

Empathize with the other person, both as you’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 you want to understand the impact of this issue on your parent, imagine not driving for one whole week. How would this affect your life and how would you feel about it?

Remember, though, that your guess is just a guess. During the actual conversation, you may be surprised at what is expressed. In our case, your parent may actually agree that driving isn’t for them anymore, but may want to save face with others, retain some degree of control, or get your help finding solutions to the inevitable problems that will arise when driving is no longer an option.

Once you’ve prepared, it’s time to bring up the issue. Choose a comfortable place where you can talk privately. Start when you know you’ll both have plenty of time to focus. If possible, pick a time when you are both rested and relaxed. Then, take a deep breath and begin with the opening comments that you practiced.

After starting the conversation, listen much more than you 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. Restate what you heard them say, asking questions to clarify. If they keep repeating their objections, they are probably not feeling heard, so redouble your efforts at listening for their feelings and what they need.

Don’t force a quick decision. It may be best to have several conversations on the same topic when it’s a big issue. Don’t hurry the process just because it’s uncomfortable.

It can be a challenge to listen without getting upset. The issue no doubt brings up strong feelings in you, too. In our example, you may feel angry if your parent resists giving up their license, and afraid they could harm themselves or others. Do your best to stay calm and listen, taking deep breaths to relax yourself. Attempt to fully understand before trying to make yourself understood. The other person will become more receptive to hearing your perspective when you’ve focused on theirs first. Once you’ve heard each other out, the conversation becomes easier and you can begin to fashion a solution together.

No one likes bringing up touchy subjects, but careful preparation and listening can help you successfully navigate a difficult conversation.

The ability to receive gracefully and fully may not seem like 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. Most of us give regularly of our time and money. But is giving always better than receiving? If all of us always wanted to be givers rather than receivers, who would we all give to? And doesn’t that make receivers somehow “less than”?

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

We’ve all seen a common manifestation of this: 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.

That may sound overblown for such mundane incidents, but think back to the last time you discussed who would pick up the tab for a meal. How did the interaction feel?

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

What if they never let you pay? This may sound great financially, but it can be limiting to the relationship. If you know they’re always going to pay, you may feel you have to order the cheapest thing, no matter what you 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”.

It’s such a lovely, glowing feeling you get when you give a gift, physical or emotional, that is well-received and appreciated by the receiver. If you’re always striving to be the giver, you never allow those around you the opportunity to experience that wonderful warm feeling.

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.

How often have you found yourself doing something you’d rather not, having agreed against your better judgment? Saying yes when you want to say no, and vice versa, 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 you say no – it’s okay for others to adjust to your wants sometimes. Your opinions and feelings are just as important as those around you.

If you habitually can’t say no, it can be confusing to others. Your friends and co-workers may begin to take your agreement for granted, or wonder whether your agreements are genuine.

Saying no is about setting boundaries – it’s part of expressing what is you and what isn’t. And you have a great deal of control over where you set your limits.

When you begin changing your typical affirmative response, start small: get comfortable saying no in relatively low-stakes situations before taking-on bigger challenges. For example, perhaps you have a father who, because he no longer drives, asks you to do his daily errands as soon as you get off work. You find this burdensome, but dread turning down his requests because you want to help him.

For practice, you might work up to it in a less emotionally charged setting: If you usually go to lunch with a bunch of coworkers, and you’d like to make a change, you could calmly decline their invitation by telling them you’d rather sit quietly and recharge. Practice saying no to the group once or twice a week. After doing this for several weeks, you will be better prepared for making a change with your father. Once you decide to take on your father, again start small: Perhaps delay running his errands sometimes until after dinner. Then skip a day and begin to cluster the errands into a timeframe that is more convenient for you and sufficient for him.

As you start flexing your assertiveness muscles, be sure to choose your tone carefully. If you’re out of the habit of saying no when you mean it, you’ll need to learn how to express yourself without overdoing it. After all, it wasn’t their fault that you didn’t say what you meant for so long! Remember the difference between aggressive and assertive behavior: People being aggressive ignore others’ rights in meeting their own needs. People being assertive meet their needs while taking into consideration others’ needs, along with the demands of the situation.

It’s a big change – it’s not easy and you’re almost certain to make some mistakes as you learn. If you fall back into old habits of always saying yes, or find yourself being more abrupt in declining requests than you’d like, it can be helpful to practice with a trusted friend by role-playing. Visualize how you would like to feel, and what you would like to say – get very clear about what you would like to happen. Start by practicing asking for more time to decide: “I’d like to think about this for a bit and get back to you about it.”

Eventually, as you get more comfortable with determining what you would like to say and saying it, you will learn to say no directly in response to a question, rather than waiting until the situation looms larger than it is.

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

Part of getting along with others is being willing to let go of grudges we hold against them for past behavior. Maybe someone acted badly years ago and we’re still carrying that around.

It’s easy to create a grudge: someone says or does something that hurts us in some way. We start a repetitive cycle of thinking things should have been different, that what happened was wrong.

A client of mine (let’s call her Aimee) had a grudge story she was willing to share. Her brother, Jesse, and their aging father lived in a town several states away from her. Jesse talked their father into loaning him a large sum of money to help buy a house. Their father didn’t really want to do it, but felt pressured into it. By the time their father complained to Aimee about it

over the phone, the house had been bought, and there was nothing she could do.

When Jesse never made payments on the “loan,” their father expressed concern and resentment for a few months, but his cognition was declining and he soon forgot about it. Aimee tried repeatedly to find out the particulars of the loan, but it turned out no papers had been signed, though she finally got Jesse to admit to the loan. Jesse lost his job, fell behind on his house payments (he’d also taken out a bank loan), and didn’t tell anyone. Jesse lost the house, and with it their father’s money.

Aimee was furious. How could her brother have done this?

She spent hours and hours during this process, trying to correct the situation and worrying about it. It continued consuming her thoughts, affecting her work and marriage, and causing her to lose sleep, even though the reality of the situation could not be undone. It was time to let it go, but how could she?

We discussed whether she was willing to continue feeling hurt and angry. It was not helping her because she couldn’t change Jesse or the past. Letting go was a decision she could make; she could gain some control over her thoughts and feelings, but it was a difficult step. My job was to remind her that all we can control is our response to what someone else did, and give her tools for doing so.

In one session, I taught her a process to release the grudge, starting with her taking three slow, deep breaths, focusing her attention on the air filling her belly. As she did so, her body, which tightened whenever she thought of this grudge, began to relax, allowing more oxygen to her brain, especially the reasoning parts. It also distracted her repetitive thoughts for a few seconds. She affirmed her willingness to let go and accept that she couldn’t control the past. Now she visualized how she’d like her day to flow — being well-rested and focused on her own life. From this more centered place, I had her create and then repeat a phrase that summed up her current feelings and decision to make peace with the situation. Aimee chose “I’ve done all I can about Jesse and I’m moving forward with my life.” She could then use this phrase as a reminder throughout the day.

She repeated this process on her own until thoughts of Jesse no longer triggered intense pain; it took a lot of repetitions at first, but now she seldom has to use it.

Does she still wish it had turned out differently? Absolutely. Did she think it was fair? Not at all. But letting go was not about letting Jesse off the hook, it was about giving herself the gift of putting the situation into perspective and moving on with her life.

Conflict can be good. No, really. Here’s an example from my own life that illustrates how. (This is shared with the permission of all involved, of course.)

My husband and I have very different ways of dealing with the flood of papers that come into our lives. He’s fine with letting them pile up on the kitchen table. I greatly prefer to have the table clear and uncluttered. For years I tried everything I could think of to get him to change how he dealt with his papers, all of which usually involved unpleasant nagging, to no avail. One day it occurred to me to ask if he would mind if I sorted his papers for him. Amazingly enough (to me), he had no problem with that! Suddenly new solutions became possible and we quickly found a system that works most of the time for us – I sort the mail every day and put the few papers that he needs to deal with in a specific place, off the table.

So how in the world was this conflict good?

It was helpful for me because I learned something I didn’t know about my husband. I’d always assumed he wouldn’t want me to touch his papers, because I wouldn’t want anyone to mess with mine. It’s clear now that assumption was wrong, but until I questioned it, I didn’t understand my husband’s feelings. In other words, as a result of our struggles over paper placement, I learned something new about him. Conflict can teach us things we didn’t know about ourselves and each other, if we’re open to it.

For most of us during arguments, we are so busy reinforcing our own opinions, we barely hear other views, let alone allow ourselves to consider other options. In my example, this took the form of me badgering and my husband resisting my efforts to change him. Once we created the solution, my husband learned that my objections to his piles of paper were not the pestering of a neat freak, but were born in a simple desire for order.

Our relationship was strengthened by constructively sticking with the conflict. Because my husband and I kept exploring, we eventually found a solution that surprised us for its simplicity. Once we understood each other better, it deepened our mutual respect.

The opportunities in the above example are not unique to my husband and me. All of us can learn from the disputes in our everyday lives. By questioning our assumptions, admitting our part in the conflict (at least to ourselves), and listening to other views, we change and grow.

Discord can be a great teacher. We are no longer the same after a conflict. Paradoxically, the more we see conflict as an opportunity for learning, the less we resist it. As we feel calmer, we can more readily envision creative solutions that relieve tensions and resolve conflict.

There are usually several issues in the community at any one time that produce high emotions and strong opinions. The middle school bond election in Ellensburg, the discussions over who will provide tourist-attracting activities in Upper County, and contracts for nurses within KVH facilities are a few that come readily to mind. I’m sure you can rattle-off several more.

Discussion and weighing of different perspectives is crucial for making informed choices. That idea is the basis of our democratic system. But how can we have these conversations without creating lingering divisiveness?

There are two parts to every conversation, of course – speaking and listening. We can each regulate our participation in both parts.

How you express your opinions makes a significant difference in how they will be heard. Tone of voice is essential: “Okay, clean up your room” can be expressed as a loud, angry, frustrated demand. The demand may be carried-out, but resentment and resistance likely will follow. It can also be expressed with a tone of amusement, implying a shared knowledge that the room needs to be cleaned, that the cleaner doesn’t really want to do it, and that everybody’s in on the joke. This has a better chance of yielding positive long-term results.

Whatever the situation, a respectful tone will garner more consideration of the information being shared.

It is also fundamental to separate the opinion being expressed from the person expressing it, and to avoid making it personal. For example, take one of the current topics heating-up in Ellensburg, the bond to finance a new middle school: Just because someone is in favor of the bond doesn’t mean s/he is mindlessly following the pack toward higher taxes. Likewise, just because someone opposes the bond doesn’t mean s/he is a stubborn old curmudgeon who doesn’t care about educating our tweens. How well do you think the relevant issues will be considered if the listener is accused of being mindless or uncaring?

People on both sides of the bond question could highly value education and thrift. And yet each one, after careful thought, endorses a different strategy as the best for the kids and the community. Only respectful conversation and careful listening have any hope of bringing the sides together in an acceptable agreement.

Listening is fundamental to constructive conversations. Try to understand what the other person is telling you. Curiosity and open-mindedness are conducive to learning. Most of us listen impatiently at best, using the time the other person is talking to prepare our rebuttal (or sometimes for planning what we’ll have for dinner tonight). We miss most of what is being said, verbally and non-verbally.

Here’s an interesting experiment to try: When it’s your turn to talk in a conversation, before you express your opinion, provide your partner with a short summary of what you heard them say. Knowing you’ll have to repeat what you heard means that you’ll listen better and really try to understand. It also serves the important function of checking that what you heard is what they intended to say.

We assume we already know exactly what the other person meant, without ever actually confirming it with them. This quotation attributed to G. B. Shaw says it so well: “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”

On contentious issues, it is tempting for us to believe the world would be a better place if everyone thought like we do. But, really, if everyone thought exactly the same, the world would miss the creative solutions that arise from blending differing perspectives.

We all have needs, such as adequate food & shelter, connection with others, love, autonomy, and security, to name a few. Much of our lives are spent finding ways to meet those needs. Conflict often arises when we choose unsuitable ways of meeting our needs.

For example, you may crave friendship, but you’re feeling that your usual lunch buddy does not listen to you well enough. So you could ask yourself: Is this the appropriate person to meet my need for friendship? Is this the best setting? Is this the right time? Consider that maybe this friend would love to listen to you, but is uncomfortable with the public setting and limited amount of time for a deep conversation. Or maybe she would rather stay focused on work issues during lunch and getting together after work would be better.

If you find yourself in a situation in which your needs are not being met, one way to avoid further tension is to ask yourself: What do I need?

The answer may surprise you, particularly when you feel an argument about to begin. You may find you don’t even care that much about the issue being debated – you’ve just gotten swept-up in it. It is very easy to get caught-up in a disagreement over an issue that really isn’t all that important to you. Yes, your opinions may differ, but that may be less important than maintaining the relationship or limiting the amount of time spent arguing. If you discover that is the case, several options are available to you: you can stop arguing, change the subject, or leave.

But there may be times when you have a strong need that isn’t getting met in the situation and the underlying issue is important to you. That calls for exploring whether your initial response is the best way to meet that need. Our first responses often involve what we think other people should do, rather than how we could adjust.

“I need him/her to (fill-in the blank), that’s what I need!!” We’ve all heard or thought (or said) those words, usually when feeling conflict.

But trying to get someone else to conform to our expectations is only one approach for meeting our needs, and a pretty unsuccessful one, at that. We’re confusing what we need with how we go about getting it. This is a difficult distinction, because we often use the word “need” in place of “want”. The need is what we’re trying to get out of a given approach. For example, I may say, “I need her to pick up her socks off the floor”. What I’m really saying is I need order. Having her pick up her socks is my chosen strategy for meeting that need for order.

Once you’ve identified what you’re really looking for, you can ask what other ways there are of getting what you need. In the above example, other strategies for meeting my need for order would be for me to pick up the socks myself or for me to go into another, more orderly, room. If you are having trouble thinking of other options in a tense situation, enlist the help of a friend or two – they’ll have a different perspective and may be able to give you some ideas. The point is not to deny our true needs, but to seek effective ways of meeting them.

Getting along with people at work can be a challenge.

Most of us spend a large portion of our day at work, sometimes putting in more waking hours there than at home. The sheer amount of time at work practically guarantees that tensions will arise periodically. Also, we generally don’t have much control over who we work with, so there can be a mixture of personalities that aren’t very compatible. Cubicles or open areas strewn with desks allow for little privacy or control over the work environment and increase the likelihood of contention. Combine these realities with the usual stresses from downsizing and you have fertile ground for workplace conflict.

There are several things you can do to manage workplace conflict, regardless of your position in the organization. The good news is that getting along at work uses the same skills and habits that you can use for getting along anywhere. The same strategies can serve you at work and at home.

• Manage your expectations. We often have the expectation that our lives should be conflict free, and we know life would be harmonious if the other person would just catch a clue. For some situations, it may be best to let the tension go and accept conflict as a given. Each of us is a unique individual with a different perspective and way of dealing with life. Tension arises from the edges where those individualities touch. And don’t worry too much if tensions develop at times between other people — it’s not your job to keep everyone happy.

• Take a break. Give yourself time and space to refocus on things other than the conflict. Use mid-shift breaks to get away from your work space. Go outside. Purposely change the subject of your thoughts and conversations.

Avoid recounting stories of disputes over and over. The less you focus on the conflict, the more likely you’ll be able to imagine creative ways to minimize the impact of differences.

• Treat others with respect. Mutual respect goes a long way toward easing battles over differing ideas or opinions. Separate opinions from the person expressing them. Unless something (often 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 you both understand each other better. Coming from a foundation of respect, you will be more likely to actually listen to what the other person has to say. With more information about the issue, you may even find yourself adjusting your opinion.

• Be proactive. If tensions are continually interrupting productive work flow, 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. Be curious about how they view what’s going on. It’s not uncommon to find that apparent disagreements are actually due to misunderstanding.

One difference between tensions at work and tensions elsewhere is that the stakes are higher — a falling out with your supervisor could have dire consequences for your livelihood. Though it may feel good in the moment to yell or stomp out of a meeting in disgust, don’t burn bridges. Honing your healthy conflict resolution skills can give you a reputation as the person with solutions, someone who works well with others, a team player. These are the workers employers want to keep and promote.can be tough

Here we are in early January, with the sparkle and excitement of the holidays behind us. The days may be getting a tiny bit longer, but short, cold, foggy days create perfect conditions for restlessness and frustration. The days seem bleak, with a long wait to spring. We tend to get a bit crabby and argumentative. Fuses get short and tempers flare. Sometimes disagreements escalate so quickly that much damage is done without intending to do so.

What if a conversation is heating-up and you don’t want things to get out of hand? The best thing you can do when you feel tension rising is to pause and breathe. Yes, there really is something to the old rule of counting to ten before responding when you’re upset.

Stopping to take a breath helps in several ways. Most basically, it gives your body the oxygen it needs, since we tend to hold our breath when we tense-up, either in anger or fear of a clash. Continuing to provide oxygen lets the cells of our body know that everything is still okay, there’s no need to panic, you can handle this.

Pausing also gives you the necessary seconds to shift your thinking from the defensive part of your brain to the more rational part. Research into the human brain has discovered that we actually use a different, older part of our brains to process information when we get angry. That part works very fast, faster than the portions that can consider choices and options. The Angry Brain is focused only on defense, not on the long-term consequences of how you’re fighting.

So, once you’ve taken a breather, what should you do with the time you’ve given yourself to respond? You could check to make sure you correctly heard what the other person said. A simple, “Could you please repeat that, I’m not sure I understood?” would work. A very effective technique is to repeat what you thought you heard and check whether that’s what they actually said. (Given the hilarious results of the childhood Telephone Game, it’s a wonder we ever get anything right!)

Once you understand the words, you could explore what they meant by what they said. Maybe it was nothing personal to you; they are just feeling bad about something else and unintentionally took it out on you because you were there.

You may decide to stay and talk with the other person, continuing the conversation by listening to them and sharing how you feel. On the other hand, you may decide you need to get some distance from the other person by going to a different part of the building or immersing yourself in a project. Or you could decide you really want to stay and keep up the fight, dealing with the consequences later. The point is to give yourself the time to consider if there’s something you’d rather do than have an argument.

Remembering to pause can be a challenge. After all, you’re retraining a strong habitual response. But the more you practice pausing, the easier it will become – you will be creating a new pattern in your brain. You will be taking some small, but positive control of your life.

The pause to breathe gives you just enough time to help you choose a response you can be proud of, rather than stomping out the door in a huff, blurting out something hurtful that will make the conflict much worse, or agreeing to something ridiculous just to end the dispute. In addition to being effective, taking a few seconds is very efficient: it would take more than the count of ten to undo the harm of those angry responses.

With Thanksgiving just around the corner, our minds have begun to fill with visions of delicious food, shared laughter, and loving reunions. But at some point less-happy memories of past gatherings also return, reminding us of past conflicts.

How can you minimize the effect of conflict this holiday season?

It helps to acknowledge that conflict happens. It is natural. Each of us is a unique individual with different perspectives and ways of dealing with life. Tension arises from the edges where those individualities touch.

When clashes occur, the first thing we tend to do is make other people wrong. They become the villains, the Bad Ones. We, of course, are the Good Ones. We are innocent, helpless to move forward because those nasty folks are in our way. If THEY would just change, everything would be fine! As long as we see the issue as a battle of good (us) vs. bad (them), there’s no way out. They see us in the same way and the conflict begins to spin out of control. Does that sound familiar?

Fortunately, we can take some simple steps to stop the escalation. We can choose to look at the conflict differently.

A constructive way of approaching disputes is to separate the people from the problem. Step back from focusing on the personalities involved. Shift your focus to the difficulties caused by their behaviors rather than by their characters.

By distinguishing what people do from who they are, you can look at what’s going on instead of who’s right and who’s wrong. You can solve the problem without having to wait for the other person to have a personality make-over.

So how might this look in a holiday gathering?

Using a very simplistic example, let’s say your brother always does the same thing every Thanksgiving: he hangs around in the kitchen as you’re carving the turkey and grabs little pieces from the cutting-board. You hate that! Besides getting in the way during the most hectic time, it’s unsanitary to have him snacking off the platter, and you have to watch that you don’t cut him. What an annoying pain he is! Just thinking of this adds a little feeling of dread to your enthusiasm for Thanksgiving and you may wonder if you want him to visit at all.

How do you separate personalities from the problem? The problem is having someone hovering and darting their hands into the turkey during the last minute preparations. That’s the behavior you want to prevent. Anyone could do that; it just happens to be your brother.

Getting clear on the problem allows you to consider options to fix the problem. Yes, you could ask your brother not to visit, but that seems a bit extreme. Have you ever told your brother you don’t want him filching turkey? He may have no idea it’s a real problem for you, thinking it’s your little shared ritual. If you tell him it bothers you, he may happily and apologetically stop.

Or not. If you think he may just tell you to lighten-up, or if you’re uncomfortable asking him to stop, think of a way to avoid the situation without confronting him. Maybe you could enlist the help of someone else to keep your brother out of the kitchen during the crucial time. There are many options once you shift your focus from changing your brother to solving the problem.

You can begin to address other family disputes in the same way. Separating the problem from the person and choosing not to insist that the other person is wrong can add more holiday cheer to your holiday gatherings.