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!

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.