4 Psychotherapist-Approved Tactics To Tackle Conflict

Here's how two professional psychologists suggest stopping a small conflict from becoming a big battle: a step-by-step process to keep the peace and keep your cool.
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As a general rule, we prefer camaraderie to conflict. However, perfectly peaceful accordance within a diverse group of people is rarely a sustainable reality. The rough side to human difference is disagreement, which is uncomfortable at its best and truly destructive at its worst.

We're now entering a season of unusually high expectations and tensions as we approach our holiday celebrations with extended family, and discord might be more widespread than usual. What's the best way to prevent inevitable friction from becoming a full-powered feud? Is it possible to mitigate a controversy before divisiveness spoils everyone's spirits? Can we all, somehow, just get along?

Associate Editor Leah Pellegrini grew up with two professional therapists as parents — and how does that make her feel, you might ask? As a kid, the psychologically-informed approach to recess squabbles wasn't always easy to swallow, but those wise lessons disseminated from mom and dad over the years prove particularly useful in adulthood. 

Below, we've compiled four particular insights on PhD-approved tactics for tackling conflict. Whether you catch yourself in a dispute with a coworker or arguing with a contrarian relative at Thanksgiving, we hope you'll find them helpful.

1. Consider your opponent's invisible struggles.

If there's one sentence I'll never forget hearing countless times throughout elementary school, it's this one: "S/he is probably just insecure." Whether I returned home whining about a friend who had copied my art class illustration or upset with a bullying classmate, this was always my parents' first response. Though it seemed too simple to make sense at the time, I now understand the point: if another person is acting in an unkind, unfair or otherwise unsavory way, it helps to realize that they're probably enduring their own worries and struggles that you can't see. With this truth perpetually kept in mind, empathy comes more easily, and you're more able to consider alternate perspectives to the debate.   

2. Talk it out.

Stewing in silence might seem easier than enduring the unpredictability and vulnerability of an open conversation, but that attempted shortcut to square one represents a missed chance at true resolution. When I fought with my parents as a little kid (though the fights were rare), I always found it hard to express what was bugging me — in fact, I distinctly recall sitting with my brow furrowed and arms crossed in the backseat of the car, insisting, "Just because you guys like to talk about feelings, doesn't mean I do." But mom and dad were right: if you don't speak up about your emotions, every person's inner dialogue remains a mystery, which only breeds more conflicting confusion. You really can't solve what you won't share.

3. Reflect your perspective, rather than accusing.

When I found myself hurt, annoyed or angry as a child, my parents taught me to present the problem to the offender in a particular way: "It makes me feel [insert emotion] when you feel [insert action]." This approach invokes personal responsibility for your response to whatever's going on, rather than blaming the other person, which only incites defensiveness and makes it more difficult to understand one another's points of view. Even if you loosen the sentence structure so it feels more natural to you, this can be a helpful way to reframe the situation that's getting on your nerves, so you can recognize your own bias. 

4. Apologize and admit your piece.

Whether or not the conversation goes smoothly, it's never too late to deescalate the tension with an honest, upfront statement: "I'm sorry." You don't have to express regret for your opinion, which is your personal prerogative, but you are responsible for your speech and behavior. If you've engaged unjustly, shouted unnecessarily or otherwise acted uncool, own up to it, even if it takes a day or two. This way, you'll be able to resolve at least the lingering heat of the argument, if not the entire disagreement. This was something I respected most about my mom and dad: no matter how unpleasant the dispute, they always came knocking on my bedroom door a few hours later to apologize for their part in the conflict and to offer a hug. If you can get to that final hug, everything will ultimately work out just fine. 

p.s. If there's one fight you really can prevent altogether, it's the one about who gets to use the car.