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Conflict Resolution

Conflicts and confrontations - especially with those close to you - can be particularly stressful. It is not an unusual thing to disagree with others. After all, we are all different people with different opinions, wants, and needs. But disagreements do not have to swell into something more unpleasant. Actually, one of the best ways to resolve a conflict is not to let it develop into a large problem in the first place. This requires, first of all, that you do some thinking about situations where you have had problems with others in the past. Chances are, you may find one or more themes running through these situations. Broadly speaking, conflicts occur when our needs and expectations for others are not being met, or our limits are being pushed too far.

At times, for example, you may require sympathy or understanding from a close friend or loved one, and when it is not received, you may become upset. You might expect someone to remain quiet while you are reading or trying to find the right word in a conversation, only to be frustrated when they do not remain quiet. Or you may expect someone to help you complete a certain task, and you become angry when they do not. You might also feel resentful when others make too many demands of you. These are some common examples of things that can lead to conflict.

Most of these situations can be avoided if you clearly communicate your needs, expectations, and limits to others. This should be done up front - especially when you encounter a situation where you expect that your needs will not be met or your limits and expectations will be violated. If you are feeling an unpleasant emotion such as agitation, frustration, anger, impatience, resentment, sadness, etc., rather strongly, that is usually a good sign that it is time to clearly express to the person you are with what you might need or expect from them. If a particular person you are with has a habit of not noticing specific needs and expectations that are likely to come up, it may also be time to let that person know what you need from him or her.

For example, if you are feeling very frustrated, and have noticed that you do not respond to questions very well when you are frustrated, you might say something like, "I'm very frustrated right now, and I get very impatient with people when I'm like that. Could you just ask me those questions later?" Or, if you are in a conversation and struggling to find the right thing to say - and talking to a person who tends to interrupt - you might simply say, "Let me think about this quietly for a second" or "Give me a minute to think about this and then I will respond".

When you do decide to clearly communicate what you want from someone, it is very important that you do so kindly, directly, factually, and non-aggressively. Saying something nice, or complimentary, is generally a good way to begin this process. It 'softens' the request you are about to deliver and makes it sound less critical and more casual. Being indirect, or "hinting" ("beating around the bush" is another way to say it) at what you expect, may not communicate your message effectively, and can leave you frustrated or otherwise upset when the other person does not do as you have asked. To communicate factually, in this case, means simply to state specifically what you would like the person to do or not do, and (optionally) how you are feeling.

Do not try to interpret or guess the other person's motives or feelings or thoughts. For example, imagine you were having a friend over for dinner who has, in the past, made some unpleasant remarks such as swearing or telling an inappropriate story around your wife and children. When inviting him, you might say something like, "I'm glad you're coming over for dinner. I just wanted to ask that you not swear. I'd rather that my wife and kids not hear that, and I get anxious whenever someone starts swearing around them." If you state it this way, you have started the conversation by saying something nice to the person, you have 'just stated the facts' regarding what you would like to happen and how you are feeling, and you have avoided insulting him or accusing him of wrongdoing. This would likely cause much less trouble than saying something like, "If you pull the same stunt you pulled last time you came over, I'm never having you over again." In this case, you may have managed to insult him, accuse him of having negative intentions, threaten him, and still not clearly state how it is you want him to behave!

As a second example, imagine that you are feeling very distressed and need to talk with a close friend. You've noticed in the past that this friend does not listen very well and tends to offer lame advice, which makes you frustrated and angry. You might simply tell him, before you start explaining how you feel, something like, "I need your help with this, but I really just need someone to listen closely to me right now, without any advice. Can you help me out?" Stated this way, you have avoided accusing the person of being a bad listener, indicated that you appreciate his being there, and clearly stated what it is you want him to do.

Sometimes your needs and expectations will only become apparent to you after you have gotten into an argument or conflict with someone. In such cases, it may be a good idea to express what you need and want from the other person at a later time so that, should a situation like that arise again, the other person will better understand you. Of course, you will want to wait until you and the other person are feeling calm and agreeable before doing so.

Finally, you would not want to communicate all of your needs, expectations, and limits at once, nor would you want to communicate such things to just anyone. To do so would likely be perceived as too controlling, too rigid, or just plain strange.

  • You should determine what specific needs, expectations, and personal limits cause the most problems for you when they are not respected by others, and focus first on expressing those.
  • You should choose people who you are close to and who have more than just casual conversations with you. You should also recognize specific people and specific situations where your particular needs, expectations, and limits are not addressed or observed by others, and thus express them clearly as the need arises.
  • Remember, no one can read your mind, and things that seem obvious to you may not be so obvious to others. After all, we are in much closer contact with what we want than others are....what we dislike, and what we expect are well known to us personally.
  • The best way to make others know what we are feeling and thinking is to tell them.

Adapted from Positive Coping Skills Toolbox
VA Mental Illness Research, Education, and Clinical Centers (MIRECC)

Page last modified/reviewed by on February 2, 2014