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!)

In my line of work, “change management” is the current phrase for a big topic that’s been with us for a long time. With the beginning of the new year, resolutions to change are abundant. But change, though often needed and desired, can increase conflict. As you’ve probably guessed, communication can help minimize the disruptions that come from change.

Change can contribute to conflict no matter how well the transition is initiated. We get comfortable with the way things are and changes to an established routine can be difficult to adopt. Few people like to move away from tried and true methods, especially when it can take a while for the benefits to become apparent. Change can feel overwhelming. It can add stress to our lives, and sometimes lead us to be impatient and short-tempered.

Clear and timely communication helps ease the pain of change, both with groups and individuals. As an individual, for example, perhaps you’ve made a commitment to lose ten pounds this year. Many studies have shown that sharing your goal with those around you increases the chance of reaching your goal weight. Not only might you get help from friends and family to keep tempting items out of sight, those who care about you can celebrate your interim successes and act as cheerleaders when the going gets tough.

In work groups, too, communication through all aspects of change can help bring the group together. Change at work often comes about through edicts from higher up the ladder of authority. Supervisors can help ease the disruptive aspects of imposed change through sharing all they can, as soon as they can, to help everyone in the group feel “in the know” rather than in the dark. If everyone is aware of what changes to expect, they can work together to help the process go more smoothly, coordinating efforts and ideas to address how to minimize the length and depth of disruption. And when one work group accomplishes an important change, it can set an example for others to follow.

Community groups can also benefit from good communication to promote smooth, inclusive transitions. For example, civic organizations regularly welcome new members to their ranks. During the transition, constructive and comprehensive sharing of information can cement the commitment of the new member. The process of getting new members up to speed may also provide the opportunity to cultivate cooperation among disagreeing factions of established members and strengthen relationships within the organization.

At this time of year many of us are trying to change our lives in some way. Work groups and organizations strive for renewal at many times throughout the year. Welcome the urge to improve, but build stronger relationships and foster success through effective communication as you go through the process.

It’s not news that the holiday season can be very stressful. We add expectations for perfect Norman Rockwell family holidays onto our already demanding schedule. We over-extend our budgets as we are influenced by advertisements promising happiness if we just snatch up that 70-inch LED TV on sale. At work, we expect ourselves to bring home-made treats and find the perfect little gifts for folks we may not feel close to. The list goes on.

Why am I talking about stress in a column on conflict resolution?

Stress greatly increases the chance for misunderstandings, so it affects our ability to get along. When we’re stressed, we do and say things that we will often later regret, when we’re calm. We’re also more likely to be offended by things others say to us, things we’d just let roll off our backs during more relaxed times.

Stress and conflict can cause an unpleasant cycle – as we snap out at those around us, it increases conflict, which increases our level of stress. The pattern can continue to spiral, with conflict increasing stress and stress exacerbating conflict. So getting along requires that we manage our stress level.

Before we can address stress, we must become aware of it. Indeed, one cue that we’re getting ahead of ourselves may be that we’re being snippy with family, friends, or co-workers. We discover that our neck and shoulders are tense, maybe our whole bodies. We want to chuck our to-do lists and retreat to a warm beach somewhere far away.

A growing body of research indicates that we are physically unable to access the full range of our higher brain function when we are under stress – our brains are too busy trying to decide whether to fight, flee, or freeze in response to the perceived threat to our survival. The part of our brains that kicks-in when we’re under pressure doesn’t distinguish between seeing a crouching tiger and contemplating how we’re going to prepare the big presentation at work, as well as get all the presents purchased and wrapped before Christmas.

One of the most effective and simple things you can do when you realize you’re tense is to take a nice, deep breath. Let your belly expand as the air comes in, and pause for just a moment before you exhale. Take another “belly breath”. And another. Feel how your shoulders drop and the tangle of your thoughts clears a bit.

Now that you have enough oxygen in your system, and your body is relaxing, you can begin to make new choices about how to approach your schedule: Do you still want to make homemade fudge for the holiday party at work, or could you pick-up a couple dozen brownies at the store? Do you have to put that new toy together before Christmas, or could you gather the tools and leave time on Christmas day to enjoy putting it together with your kids? Scale back your expectations for how much you will do and how it will turn out.

May your holidays be wonderfully low-stress and enjoyable!