NEW YORK — I was on an airplane recently when a person behind me put her bare foot on my armrest. My heart started to pound. I knew I would have to say something. Before I could, a man next to me lightly stabbed the foot with his pen and it slid away.
For some of us, the thought of confrontation triggers a stress response, said Dr Karen Osilla, an associate professor in psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford Medicine. This causes people to avoid it, she said, “because we associate it with danger.”
But not only are disagreements inevitable, they can have benefits, said Mr Bo Seo, author of “Good Arguments: How Debate Teaches Us to Listen and Be Heard.”
Research suggests that resolving conflict in healthy ways increases your well-being, lowers stress and improves self-esteem.
So how should conflict-averse people deal with tense situations? Experts offered some tips.
START WITH PEOPLE YOU TRUST. If confrontation puts you on edge, practice disagreeing with people you trust, said Mr Seo, “because honest, open-minded disagreement requires psychological safety.”
Try getting comfortable saying “I actually disagree with that,” he said. Think of healthy dissent as a muscle you can build over time.
EASE INTO THE DISCUSSION. First, take a deep breath, which reduces anxiety and helps you stay calm. Next, in a polite tone, concede that you don’t know the other person’s intentions, said Ms Sheila Heen, a co-author of “Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most.”
People often waste time imagining the other person’s motivations, but these are impossible to know for sure, she said: “Either way, the impact of their action is the problem you want to solve.” Then, share your concern, focusing on how the situation has affected you.
DESCRIBE YOUR EMOTIONS. After you express the effects of their actions or words, communicate your emotions, Ms Heen said, and invite the other person to share theirs. An example would be, “I’m frustrated” or “That comment you made stung.” Don’t bottle up your feelings.
SHIFT TO A “LEARNING CONVERSATION.” Once you’ve shared your feelings, have a “learning conversation” to trade perspectives and solve the problem together.
Ms Heen suggested asking, “What worries or concerns you most about this?” and “What do you think I’m missing?” Listen, ask follow-up questions and suggest possible solutions.
REMEMBER THAT YOU CAN ONLY CONTROL YOUR ACTIONS. Even if we say everything right, we don’t have any control over how the other person will react.
“In those moments, be compassionate with yourself,” Dr Osilla said. “Tell yourself: ‘I’ve done what I can.’ ”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.