How Can We All Get Along?: Resolving conflict benefits mind and body.
Jan 31, 2012 10:05AM
By Lisa Shumate
A significant amount of wearand-tear on the body comes from prolonged unresolved conflict—from not letting go, holding grudges and reliving situations over and over in your head,” says Raj Dhasi, a Toronto-based conflict management consultant who specializes in the physiological impacts of conflict. “But if conflict happens and my mindset is: ‘I can handle this. We can work through this,’ that is phenomenally beneficial for the brain and body.”
Dhasi explains that when faced with any conflict—whether it’s an angry boss, disgruntled neighbor, political opponent or untidy teen in the house—our limbic system responds swiftly by igniting a cascade of stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol and spiking our heart rate and blood pressure. Meanwhile, our prefrontal cortex—the part of the brain responsible for thinking things through and putting the brakes on emotional, irrational behaviors—begins to slowly light up. The fundamental problem is that in the race to mount a response, the limbic system often wins, prompting us to greet conflict impulsively by raising our voice and saying things we later regret before our rational brain has time to step in.
On the flip side, many of us avoid conflict altogether, harboring discontent in such a way that we feel powerless or even threatened. Making matters worse, our fight-or-flight response never quite goes away, says Gary Harper, author of The Joy of Conflict Resolution: Transforming Victims, Villains and Heroes in the Workplace and at Home. “More people are stressed out by not dealing with a conflict than with dealing with it,” Harper observes. “If you deal with it in the moment, it allows you to let it go.”
Pause, Breathe, Consider
Harper advises that one way to deal with conflict on the spot is to pause and give our more rational side a chance to arrive at a solution. “Before you react, slow down, take a deep breath and listen to your inner dialogue,” he says. “In that deep breath, you might realize that you need five minutes [to consider a response].” If you still remain in attack mode, it might not be the best time to respond.
He adds that while no conflict should be avoided altogether, careful consideration might lead us to conclude that some battles aren’t worth fighting. Ask yourself: How important is this person to me? How important is this issue to me? “If neither is vital to you, save your energy for a better use. If the issue is not important, but the relationship is, it’s okay to accommodate or give in sometimes,” he says.
Be Direct and Follow-Up
Some conflicts are worth confronting. Then, Barbara Pachter, a business communications consultant and author of The Power of Positive Confrontation, offers what she calls the WAC approach for dealing with most cases of work and family conflict.
W: Ask yourself: What is really bothering me? “A lot of times, people don’t do this. They just say, ‘This person is a jerk,’ rather than specifying the problem.”
A: Ask them for a solution. “We often complain, but we don’t identify a solution,” she says. “Determine what is going to solve the problem for you and ask for it.”
C: Check in. “Turn it over to the other person and ask for their response. Inquire: ‘Is this possible? What do you think?’”
All the while, stay curious about the other person’s perspective, suggests Harper. “We tend to see ourselves as the innocent victim, or we go into hero mode and tend to see the other person as the villain,” he says. “Of course, the other person is doing the same thing, and that makes collaboration tough.” Instead, ask sincere questions—and really listen.
Agree to Disagree
Terrie McCants, coordinator of the conflict resolution program at Kansas State University, notes that in some cases, especially when deeply held values such as politics or faith are involved, resolving conflict isn’t necessarily about reaching an agreement. “You cannot negotiate people’s values. Sometimes, these are things that people are will-
ing to lie down and die for,” she says. “Instead, sometimes you might need to agree to disagree.”
In the end, whether the conflict is a minor disagreement at home, a workplace quarrel or a complicated political dispute, the process of properly working through it can leave both parties feeling stronger and improve their communities. “Conflict forces you to problem-solve collaboratively and come up with options and elegant solutions,” she explains. “If handled well, it can add brilliant things to your life.”
Lisa Shumate is a freelance writer in Boulder, CO.