Before I get to this week’s post, I want to say that my prayers and thoughts are with the families of the Newtown tragedy. The following post is about conflict resolution and while not related whatsoever to the Newtown tragedy, any good ideas to help us get along with one another are always a good thing, and more so in trying times such as these. — David

This is a guest post by Melissa Russell.

During the holidays, I enjoy hosting big family dinners and appreciate it when people offer to help. But invariably, everyone just hangs out in kitchen, having fun, but also getting in my way. Sometimes the stress builds until an innocent question or comment on the food turns an otherwise happy occasion into a minor crisis.

When time is short and demands are many, little things can become big issues. Conflict can strike out of the blue, affecting relationships between friends, co-workers, spouses, siblings, parents and children (of any age). The trick is to understand and manage conflict before it builds and affects our health, along with our relationships.

Conflict Basics

Conflict is a normal part of nearly every relationship. It occurs because everyone has different needs – for safety, respect, understanding or intimacy. When something threatens our needs, strong emotions are triggered, which can cloud our ability to tune into our own feelings, or connect with and understand others.

Unresolved conflict doesn’t just go away; it can turn into bitterness and ruin a relationship. Fortunately, we can learn to face conflict and handle it in a healthy way. Done well, conflict resolution can have positive outcomes, like improved trust and security, and a healthier mind and body.

How Conflict Affects Our Health

Our bodies are designed to respond to conflict by releasing hormones, increasing heart rate and raising blood pressure. Muscles contract and respiration speeds up. After these physiological changes, the brain gets involved. So, in stressful situations, we often act before we’ve had the chance to think things through.

Under stress, the body works harder and the immune system is drained. To make matters worse, if conflict is not resolved, the biological changes don’t completely disappear. Avoiding conflict can intensify our stress.

Ways to Reduce the Effects of Stress

Everyone reacts differently to stress. Christopher might become angry, while Michelle tenses up and withdraws. Lisa, on the other hand, freezes up and is unable to act at all. No matter how you react, you can reduce the effects stress has on your mind and body. Try these tips:

  1. Recognize the warning signs. Muscle tightness, accelerated breathing and clenched or shaking hands are all indicators that your body is experiencing stress.
  2. Breathe. Don’t react until you’ve had a chance to take a deep breath.
  3. Practice using your senses to calm yourself down:
  • Look at things that make you feel good: a beautiful tree outside your window, a favorite photograph or a piece of artwork.
  • Hum or sing a favorite tune, or listen to happy music. Hear the rustle of wind through the trees.
  • Harness the therapeutic effects of herb scents like lavender. Keep some dried lavender in your home or light scented candles.
  • Feel the warmth: wrap up in a blanket, take a warm bath or pet your cat or dog.

It’s also beneficial to exercise. Do some jumping jacks, dance in your kitchen or just stand up and stretch. Get your heart pumping and clean out the toxins that stress leaves behind. Going for a walk will help to accomplish all of the above: moving and breathing, seeing trees, wildlife and people, and smelling and hearing a variety of scents and sounds.

Another way to reduce stress is to become more assertive (not aggressive). Figure out what you need, express those needs and be your own advocate. You’ll reduce your stress while getting your needs met.

How to Resolve Conflict

Reducing the effects of stress is a good first step toward effective conflict resolution. Then, strive to understand your own emotions. This will help you understand not only what others say, but also what they need.

From there, try these tips for solving conflict:

  • Stay calm and strive for mutual respect. Remain courteous and constructive.
  • Separate the person from the problem.
  • Find out what feelings are hidden beneath the behavior.
  • Listen carefully before defending your own position.
  • Pay attention to nonverbal signals to discover what the other person is really saying.
  • Agree on the facts, objectives and observations.
  • Be open to all options for resolution.
  • Negotiate the solution.
  • Make the relationship the priority.

Throughout the process, listen to yourself. Ask, “What do I need that I’m not getting?” and “How important is this person (or issue) to me?” You may find that you’re not willing to expend the energy required to respond.

If you can’t come to an agreement, you may need to forgive, forget and let go.

The Don’ts of Conflict Resolution

Now that you know what to do, here are a few reminders of what not to do when attempting to resolve a conflict:

  • Don’t avoid conflict. You can’t! Remember, it’s a normal part of every relationship. You may think you’re avoiding stress by not responding to conflict, but the opposite is true.
  • Don’t generalize. The person who ate your yogurt at work is not a horrible thief. Your partner doesn’t always or never _______(fill in the blank). Before you say such a thing, think about whether or not it is actually true.
  • Don’t insist on being “right.” There is usually more than one way to see a situation, and everyone is entitled to his or her needs and feelings. Look for compromise.
  • Don’t assume. You don’t really know what someone is thinking, so give the benefit of the doubt. Listen and allow others to explain how they feel.
  • Don’t be defensive. Denying responsibility is counterproductive. Take a breath and be objective.
  • Don’t place blame. This, too, is counterproductive. Listen, analyze the conflict and focus on a solution.
  • Don’t attack. Calling names, bringing up old conflicts or raising your voice are all big no-nos. You don’t have to like a person’s behavior, but you do have to respect him or her.

Explore Conflict Resolution for Lower Stress and Better Health

Whether it happens at home or on the job, conflict doesn’t have to mean animosity, hurt feelings or ruined relationships. Learning and practicing the steps to conflict resolution takes a little time, but it’s a great investment. Effectively resolving conflict can be beneficial to your relationships, and will leave you healthier and happier, too.

Melissa Russell writes on topics such as business administration and corporate sustainability for a number of universities through the University Alliance.

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