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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So how might this look in a holiday gathering?

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

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

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

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

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