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

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

So how in the world was this conflict good?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Getting along with people at work can be a challenge.

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

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

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

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

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

• Treat others with respect. Mutual respect goes a long way toward easing battles over differing ideas or opinions. Separate opinions from the person expressing them. Unless something (often disagreement) shows us otherwise, we all tend to assume that everyone else sees the world the way we do. The value of conflict, when handled well, is to help you both understand each other better. Coming from a foundation of respect, you will be more likely to actually listen to what the other person has to say. With more information about the issue, you may even find yourself adjusting your opinion.

• Be proactive. If tensions are continually interrupting productive work flow, take the lead in addressing the problem effectively. Find a time when the situation is relatively relaxed to talk with the other person and explore their perspective. Be curious about how they view what’s going on. It’s not uncommon to find that apparent disagreements are actually due to misunderstanding.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So how might this look in a holiday gathering?

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

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

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

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

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