Is it time to apologize?
Our relationships can get stuck in impasse when there’s been a difficult incident and neither of us is willing to apologize for our part in it. A sincere apology can go a long way in patching a strained relationship and making it more fulfilling. Let’s focus on relationships with those involving ongoing non-work relationships; apologizing at work has some different dynamics that we’ll deal with in a later column.
When looking at a situation that didn’t go well, it’s important to sort out our part in the problem first. We may have made mistakes, communicated unskillfully, or just been crabby. It can be hard to admit to ourselves that we messed-up, but we must do so before we can apologize to another.
Don’t take responsibility for things that are not your fault out of guilt or appeasement. A strong apology expresses regret for our inappropriate behavior, but does not denigrate us. Allow the other person to take responsibility for their part in the situation.
Once you have identified and admitted to yourself how you were at fault, why not be the first to apologize for your part in the problem? We often fear that apologizing is a sign of weakness, but it takes courage to admit shortcomings. Just because we accept responsibility for our faults doesn’t automatically excuse the other person’s mistakes, but they will be much more likely to admit to their part if you admit yours first.
Admit the fault simply and directly. Take responsibility for mistakes you made, unkind things you said, or nasty tones you used. A good start might be: “I’m sorry for the tension between us, and I’m sorry for my part in it.” Then go ahead and detail what you feel your part in it was.
As much as you can, acknowledge the consequences to the other person for your fault, and perhaps even offer to do something to help make up for the harm you may have caused. Back up your apology with positive change. Sincerely commit to doing your best to avoid the same mistake in the future. If you continue behaving the same way, even if you apologize each time, people will begin to doubt your word or believe that you’re not sincere in your regret.
Avoid the “I’m sorry, but…” trap of switching from apology to justification. Expressing regret is not about defending our mistakes. If admitting fault is tough, it’s even tougher to say we’re sorry, then simply shut up and listen! Allow the other person time to bring up their own fault, or, if they’re not forthcoming, you might gently bring up what you see as their part.
Accept the other person’s apology explicitly. Saying “Thank you, I accept your apology”, rather than just “That’s okay” signals that you’re ready to accept what happened.
Then let it go. Just let it go. Shift to more enjoyable or productive ways of interacting with this person.
What a relief it can be to apologize and receive an apology! When someone apologizes to us, that tight little block of anger and hurt can all of a sudden begin to melt and drain away. We feel more trust and connection with them, and that helps the hurt drain away, leading to an upward spiral of closeness. Admitting mistakes gets easier the more we do it, too.
Apologizing and moving on is helpful at any time, but especially during the holiday season, when friction with others often increases. Gather your courage, say you’re sorry, and enjoy the holidays more.

How much conflict arises simply because we all bring different expectations to life’s many situations? Expectations are comprised of our desires and assumptions that a given behavior, goal, communication, etc. will be accomplished in a certain way and within a given timeframe. Expectations usually include implicit rules about what needs to be done and how it’s done.
Most expectations we have for others are unspoken. We don’t tell our spouse that doing the dinner dishes means doing them right after dinner instead of the next morning. We don’t mention to our coworkers that we assume they will get back to us when they have made the client contacts we agreed upon. We aren’t clear with our kids that cleaning their rooms means more than stuffing everything under the bed. It’s not that we forget to mention these particulars; it’s just that we assume they would know – after all, it’s what we expect!
Expectations generally lurk within those things we think “should” happen. Often, “shoulds” imply an “if”, followed by a goal. For example, “You should finish the dishes right after the meal, if you don’t want the food to dry on them.” Or, “If you want to be on the top sales team next week, you should make the client calls this morning.” In common practice, though, the “if” and its related goal are assumed to be understood, leaving “You should finish the dishes this evening.” and “You should make the client calls this morning.”
And therein lies the problem.
When we assume a goal is mutually understood, without clarifying and coming to agreement on it, we run into difficulties. Using the examples above, we might feel safe in assuming that the person washing the dishes surely would prefer to rinse fresh food off now, rather than having to scrub them tomorrow, since that would be our own preference. But maybe they don’t mind the extra work of scrubbing in the morning, preferring instead to unwind now in front of the TV. The same with co-workers – maybe they care less about being on the top sales team than about having a reasonable amount of work to get done in a morning.
When you find yourself bickering with others over what should or should not be done, take a minute to clarify your assumptions: Experiment with adding the “if” and its related goal to the beginning or end of the should phrase. For coworkers, “You should call your contacts this morning” just sounds bossy; but adding the goal clarifies things: “If we’re going to have that information for discussion at the meeting this afternoon, you should call your contacts this morning.” Then you can decide together if the goal of bringing the information to the meeting is important enough to trump whatever other tasks might be on their list.
Birthdays, anniversaries, and particularly the upcoming holidays, can give rise to situations in which expectations cause conflict. We carry very specific ideas in our minds about how these occasions should look and there’s the added burden here of not wanting to have to tell others what we want – if they care, shouldn’t they just know? Well, not necessarily, though they may guess right sometimes. If expressing your holiday expectations would ruin them, try sharing them several months in advance. Then they know and you can more fully enjoy the dates when they come around.
There’s nothing wrong with having expectations, we just can’t expect people to know what they are. While it’s not possible to avoid all unspoken or unrealistic expectations, we should be on the lookout for the ways our unexplored assumptions create conflict in our lives, if we want to get along better with others.

The news in the last couple of months has been pretty stark – roiling racial tensions in Missouri, invasions and horrific acts of violence in the Middle East, armies on the move in Ukraine, and increasingly massive wildfires here in the West. All of these things have made it a challenge to remain hopeful.

Hope is a critically important human motivator. If we don’t have hope that our efforts will make a difference, we won’t even bother to try. We don’t like the feeling of being subject to things outside our control; it tends to make us anxious. When we’re anxious, we’re more likely to get crabby, and the crabbier we are, the more likely we’ll create conflict with each other. So, one way of reducing conflict is to increase hope.

Surprisingly, encouraging hope for ourselves and others isn’t all that difficult, though there are a few tricks to it. When we are feeling overwhelmed and hopeless, it helps to read or tell stories about people in similar situations who have overcome hardship. Stories engage our imaginations, and true stories with positive conclusions can inspire us to emulate those stories. Just knowing that others faced similar challenges and found a way through can give us that leg-up, that extra oomph needed to try again in our own lives.

By staying in the race, we increase our chances of things working out for us. We can’t win if we don’t play. And think about it: hope is only necessary when things are not going our way or if we’re not sure they will – if everything were going swimmingly, what need would there be for hope? Hope is our antidote to our unique ability as human beings to foresee all sorts of possible calamities.

We can make agreements with friends and family to help each other identify and focus on the positive steps that have been taken so far, or the positive aspects of the situation. Focusing on the positive aspects of situations is not the same thing as denying the reality of bad things happening. Fostering hope is not sticking our heads in the sand; it is the opposite, in fact. We are acknowledging the reality of bad stuff, but choosing to concentrate on the good. The more time we can spend thinking about the good stuff, the more we stimulate the creativity needed to solve problems and deal with the difficult stuff. Research is showing that when we feel a sense of hope or positivity in a situation, it actually widens the span of possibilities that we see.

Remind yourself and others that focusing on what we want in life can help create those things in our lives. By consistently seeing the good in situations, we’re actually programing our brains to make it our default approach. Underlying hope is the belief that things can change for the better.

Yes, hardships are inevitable, but it’s our response to difficulties that defines our experience. We can sink into despair and isolation or we can seek comfort in the experience of those who have faced these situations before, and find reason for hope. Hope is contagious, too. When we carry hope for moving through conflict and adversity, we show others that they can find a way through, too. When we share hope, it helps us recover from hardships more quickly, and creates bonds of shared experience that strengthen relationships.

With hope, we become energized to do what’s needed to make a good life for ourselves and others, reducing the likelihood of major conflict. Of course, reduced conflict makes more fertile soil for hope, as well, creating a self-sustaining cycle of motivation and success.

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

 

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

 

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

 

We have the power to change the level of trust in our relationships. This can work at home, at work, or in other relationships. Trust breeds trust, so to increase the number of trustworthy people in your life, become more trustworthy yourself. Increase your credibility – be open about what you’re doing and do what you say you will. Overlook the little things that may or may not be slights. Give the benefit of the doubt to your co-worker or family member – do you really think they get up in the morning and say to themselves “I wonder how I can best torment my co-worker/spouse/parent/child today”?

 

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

 

But not trusting has risks at least as great – by not trusting others we might miss something wonderful and enriching in our interactions and relationships. We risk losing out on the synergy that often happens when we allow ourselves to be open to trust, resulting in a lot of time and energy spent maintaining constant vigilance.

 

We tend to fear the effects of too much trust over the risks of not trusting enough and discount the risk of missed connections, the cost of not deepening relationships. Aim for the “sweet” spot for appropriate trust, using both your head and heart. Opportunities to trust abound in our daily lives. Take a little chance on one, and see what happens.

Seems it’s time again to explore the value of civility in discussions of “hot” topics. Several local issues are emerging, or re-emerging, stirring strong feelings and provoking strong words. This can exacerbate differences within our community and make it more difficult for us all to get along. But there are some simple things we can do to minimize ongoing contention.

If you disagree with someone, don’t make it personal. Even if you disagree with them very strongly, there’s no need to be mean. Mean comments tend to come back to bite you. Verbal attacks are unlikely to convince the other person that they are wrong and you are right. On the contrary, the most likely outcomes are that they will hold more strongly to their opinion, completely tune-out anything further you have to say, and begin to think equally mean thoughts about you. When their mean thoughts become mean words in retaliation, they can hurt.

The nasty, uncomfortable truth is that others see us much more realistically than we might prefer. They see us when we’re too involved with what we’re doing to remember to say please or thank-you. They notice the fleeting facial expressions that we’re not even aware we’re making, but which can reveal a tremendous amount about what we’re thinking. They may hear the polite words we say, but register much more strongly the angry or snarky tone of voice we use.

Estimates of the portion of communication that is non-verbal used to hover around 80%. But the latest figures I’ve seen increase that to an astonishing 93%. That means only about 7% of communication is the words we use. (You can see why so many conflicts are created and made worse through email, relying entirely on words, but that’s for another column.)

Even if comments are not mean, we tend to go on high-alert when we hear opinions that differ strongly from ours. Justifiably or not, we perceive a threat to our well-being. When we feel threatened, our bodies go into facing-a-tiger mode, preparing to fight, flee, or freeze. Our attention and blood-flow become centered on the systems that will best help us do one of those three. Unfortunately, higher brain function is not one of those systems. We do not think things out fully when we feel threatened.

But someone expressing a different opinion is not a tiger; there is no need to attack.

We can train ourselves to counteract the automatic response of our bodies. Breathing deeply three times always helps. The challenge is remembering to do it. Because of the way our bodies are wired, remembering to take deep breaths is particularly difficult when we feel threatened, because it requires using the very parts of our brains that are harder to access.

Practicing will make remembering easier. The next time you start feeling a little bit upset about someone expressing a viewpoint you don’t agree with, breathe deeply, pause, and exhale fully. Repeat twice. Now notice how much more clearly you can think.

Start small, when the defensive response is mild, perhaps when you’re alone and just remembering earlier comments that you found obnoxious. The more we practice, the easier it becomes to remember to calm ourselves. When we’re calmer, we can take the time to listen to the views of others. We can also choose our verbal and non-verbal communication so that our own opinions are more likely to be heard by others. That’s when productive dialogue can occur.

Much has been said lately about the increasing level of polarization in international, national, and local issues. True dialogue between groups representing different opinions is becoming rare. Sweeping generalizations, instant stereotyping, unchecked assumptions, and general closed-mindedness are commonplace. Issues are presented as black or white, right or wrong; either you’re with me or against me. There is no middle ground. High conflict is the norm, and that’s uncomfortable. Criticisms are becoming increasingly personal.
When we disagree with someone, it’s easy to equate our feelings about their opinion with the person expressing them – if we don’t like what they say, we don’t like them. Or, even worse, we think they’re a bad person. The tendency to confuse people’s worth with what they are saying is a large part of the current radical divisiveness on so many issues.
It’s a vicious cycle: we don’t like someone’s opinion, so we decide we don’t like them. If we don’t like them, it’s much easier to disrespect them. If we disrespect them, we’ll discount their opinions even more and like them even less. And so it goes, until we’ve decided that those with differing opinions are stupid, amoral, bad, etc. At its worst, this cycle can lead to dehumanizing others and pave the way to condoning violence against them.
So, how do we reduce this conflict and get along better? While most of us have limited influence at the state and national level, we can definitely improve the quality of discourse in our workplaces and communities. It requires distinguishing the messenger from the message, and always respecting the messenger. We have to recognize that if we have a problem with a perspective, it doesn’t immediately follow that there must be a problem with the person holding that view. Or, said another way, we need to think “I do not like that opinion”, rather than “I cannot like that person because they hold that opinion”.
People are much more than their opinions. They all have concerns, joys, hobbies, loves, passions, aspirations, and all the rest. They may not have come to their opinions in the same way we have. But there is some validity to each perspective, validity that, if considered, can lead to more robust solutions.
Likewise, when we hitch our sense of self to the opinions we hold, we can no longer listen. If we are our opinions, any disagreement with our opinions becomes a threat to our very being. And when we feel threatened, it is physically impossible to listen fully and make considered choices.
We can still disagree without vilifying those who think differently. We can make the choice to respect each other as fellow human beings.
So when talking about hot-button issues like the county water bank, the middle school, or the decoration of graduation caps, debate the problem with respect for the individuals involved. Argue passionately for solutions – emotion is fine. Just remember the respect you’ve decided to have for this person. Respect doesn’t necessarily mean like, but it’s an important ingredient in creating a stronger community.
We’re all in this together.

Today I’m going to talk about how to break through the barrier of competing opinions by separating issues from the underlying interests, a step that is basic to getting along well.

The first thing to do is clarify the issues. Issues are usually tangible, measurable, concrete, and overt. They are the substance of the debate. They are strategies to meet needs or fulfill values. Issues are also often divisive, because they usually require one side to win and the other to lose.

Interests, on the other hand, are intangible and based on universal human needs, though they are usually unstated and assumed. They are the essence of the conversation. Interests are why we do what we do, why we hold opinions so strongly. They are the needs underlying our behavior and the values we hold dear. Interests often evoke strong emotions. (This, by the way, is not a bad thing – emotions are strong indicators that a need is either being met or not.)

One way to think of the difference is to consider issues as our plan to satisfy our interests.

So, let’s use the current example of providing education for our middle-school age children.

One of the issues is whether to renovate the old Morgan building as a school or to build a new one. Another is, if building new, should we build on the current site or on a different location? Which other location? The answers to these questions are specific, tangible, and mutually exclusive: if we renovate Morgan as a school, we won’t build a new middle school. If we build a new middle school near Valley View Elementary, we won’t build a new one on the Morgan site. It’s one or the other, so if you’re in favor of one strategy and I’m in favor of another, we argue over which way is better. Convincing the other, or at least 60% of voters, is the only way forward. One of us “wins” and the other “loses”. This can, and does, create lingering animosity within the community.

The interests behind these issues, however, are not necessarily mutually exclusive. This is where we can step back from either/or, my-way-or-the-highway contentiousness. Continuing to use the example of the middle school, what are some of the underlying interests? Well, an obvious one is providing a good education for our children. And making sure the kids are safe. There is the desire to keep costs, and therefore property taxes, low. Aesthetics might be involved, with some liking the historic lines of the old Morgan building that link it to the downtown business district, and others preferring a more modern look. A group of people may value having a performance space available to kids and adults. Or maybe there’s the desire for easy parking and handy student drop-off.

The list of interests can go on and on. Notice, however, that one person may consider many of the above things important. There might, therefore, be many possible ways to meet the needs or interests of almost everyone involved in the situation. We can creatively come up with plans that honor the range of community interests. When focusing on interests, we can come up with solutions that increase the size of the pie, not just cut the same pie different ways. This doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game, where someone must lose if someone else wins.

Currently, we can see the middle school conversation beginning to change as people focus on addressing broad community interests and bring new ideas to the table. Regardless of the final solution, backing-off from narrow arguments about issues and instead focusing on the underlying interests or values, allows us to find commonalities and meet the needs of a much larger segment of the community. If everyone is interested in educating our children, we can focus on that commonality. Regardless of the issue, that puts all of us on the same “side”.

We are a diverse nation. As the last presidential election illustrated, the need to include people from diverse cultural backgrounds is a hot topic. Valuing diversity means we have the potential to get the best from many cultures. But it’s difficult. We tend to stick with those who are most like us. How do we remember to reap the benefits of diversity while acknowledging our differences? I got a chance to look at this issue again during a conference I attended last weekend.

Some have considered the idea of creating a “colorblind” society, that is, a society that simply doesn’t see the variation in skin colors and cultural styles. The idea was that if we didn’t see the differences, we couldn’t attack each other based on them. That seemed as good an answer as any, and it was worth a try. But recent research has shown that we identify whether or not someone is of the same race or culture or sex within milliseconds of seeing them. That’s long before we could consciously think “That person is different from me”.

So we automatically see differences. We can’t become “colorblind”. That doesn’t mean, however, that our decisions and behavior must be ruled by our differences, or that we must let them define us. We still have to take them into account, because if we’re unaware of our assumptions, stereotypes, and biases, they can block our ability to see value in others. But we don’t need to let them be the only things we act on. How do we reconcile these ideas?

Here is a simple and powerful tool to use for getting along with others: After the initial perception of differences, choose to recall that each person is a human being, with qualifiers coming after that. So, there is a human who is female, tall, and rich. There is a human who is Latino, male, and older. Yet another is a human who is young, white, and poor. And so on for all the people on our street, in our town, and in our world.

There is dignity and honor in our shared humanity. We are all human under everything else. Keeping in mind such commonality as a foundation, we can better appreciate the value of our differences. It takes practice to unlearn our tendency to focus on our differences. Once we remember our commonality, we can be more open about and celebrate our differences with respect, ask questions instead of making assumptions, and develop friendships across cultural divides. Our communities will be stronger for it.

Has this happened to you lately? You’re talking with someone and they say something that you perceive as critical, a slight on your capabilities or character. You immediately start defending yourself by attacking the other person or their comments, and you both become upset.

When we feel threatened, even if non-physically, our automatic response is fight or flight. We want to strike back or even leave. Perceived verbal attacks can give rise to ongoing bad feelings, and often lead to conflict that can spiral out of control.

As is so often the case, the key is to pause for a moment and assess: Are you okay? Do you really need to defend yourself? Is there truly a threat? Sometimes we react more strongly than necessary because a chance remark hits a nerve or lands in an area where we feel insecure. It’s good to take a moment to determine whether there was ill-intent in the words, inept communication on the part of the other, or perhaps you just took it wrong. The best response would be different in each case.

It’s possible that there is some important information in the comments. Criticism, real or perceived, can lead to self-improvement, if we are open to looking at things from a different perspective. Not that we should change to adapt to everyone else’s opinion, but it may be wise to consider a tweak or two. Perhaps the way that we presented our ideas did not allow them to come across as we intended. To paraphrase the saying, we judge others on what they say and ourselves on what we intended to say. Allow yourself time to consider that you could learn something from the comments, without immediately striking out defensively and creating a hard line you have to continue to defend.

Sometimes it’s not what was said that triggers our defenses, but how or when the remark was made. For example, your partner or spouse may frequently remind you to put your breakfast dishes into the dishwasher before you go to work, rather than leaving them in the sink. You have no problem with that, but they tell you first thing in the morning, before your brain is functioning well, so you growl back or ignore them. Instead, later in the day, try asking them to wait to request changes to your behavior until after you’ve had your coffee and a shower.

Even in a situation where someone really is trying to needle you or get the upper hand, becoming defensive may not be your most effective response. For one thing, it depends on how much you care what this person thinks. If very little, it’s usually best to just let it go. Even at work, where the stakes can be high, the need to come out “on top” may best be served by letting the comments go by uncontested. By not responding, you stand a better chance of looking more mature than the co-worker who was only trying to get a rise out of you.

Whatever the setting, a knee-jerk reaction of being argumentative may not be the best way to respond. Try not rising to the bait. Meeting vaguely inflammatory remarks with poised silence or a polite comment can take the wind out of the sails of anyone trying to attack you.

As always when looking to avoid unnecessary conflict, it generally pays to take a moment and assess the situation before responding in a way that will escalate things. And don’t worry if you do over-react at times – do your best, pay attention to what happens, and remember what you learn for the next time.

Part of getting along well with others involves choosing when to engage in discussions and when to hold your tongue.

For instance, you’ve probably been in the situation of being in the dentist’s waiting room when another patient is sitting nearby, reading a magazine. They snort, look up at you, and launch into a tirade about the sorry state of the world today. You don’t agree, finding much reason around you for hope.

So what do you do? Should you get involved and try to convince this person that things aren’t that bad? Or should you just ignore them or make non-committal noises? You could even interrupt the tirade and say that you’re not really interested in discussing it and ask them to keep their comments to themselves.

There are pluses and minuses to each response: Engaging in a debate will allow you to voice your opinion, but it’s unlikely you’ll change the other person’s mind and the encounter may leave you all riled-up. Ignoring them could be difficult and uncomfortable, but might make getting into the dentist’s chair more welcome. Clearly expressing your disinterest in talking could be great practice, but it’s certainly no guarantee that the other person will stop their harangue and may even lead to an argument about whether you should be having the discussion!

Of course, there’s no “right” way to respond and your choice will depend on the type of relationship you have with the other person. You can’t respond in-depth to every potential conflict, seeing it through to a mutual understanding, because some relationships just don’t warrant the time and energy required to do that.

But how does the situation change when the other person is your spouse? A disagreement over how the world works may not be at the top of your list of romantic activities, but the discussion may lead to a deeper understanding of each other’s perspective and strengthen the emotional bonds. These discussions can strengthen other long term relationships as well, including those with close friends and family.

Your response could also be a matter of temperament: you may be someone who enjoys interaction in any form. Then again, you might be someone who is less outgoing and resents intrusion into your inner world. Whichever way you usually act, consider expanding your options the next time an unsolicited conversation comes your way. If you typically argue when faced with disagreement, see how it feels to let things go and ignore the bait. You’ll have saved energy for other things. If you generally don’t engage, try speaking-up for your position. You may feel more empowered and less impinged-upon.

There is no one response that fits all situations and the one that works best for you will likely involve your temperament, the nature of the relationship, and how you’re feeling at the moment. Allow yourself to experiment. (As for the Seahawks, the very best response was to trounce the Broncos last week!)