ColumnsSmart Health

Handling Conflict with Kindness

You can learn to express differences of opinion effectively.


As uncomfortable as it might be, conflict is a normal part of human relationships. When two or more people are involved, differences of opinion or perspective are bound to occur. Whenever a tense discussion is getting out of control, thinking through some communication basics can help us de-escalate the situation.

Why Is This So Hard?

To say communication can be complicated is an understatement. Styles of communication vary widely from person to person. While some prefer a direct approach when describing ideas, others may tell stories to explain their thinking.

Vocabulary also impacts how well we are able to describe our thoughts and feelings. We’ve all had the experience of an auto mechanic using complicated technical jargon to describe the service they are providing. We should remember to choose our words carefully, since speaking beyond someone’s level of understanding is a surefire path to a breakdown in communication.

Our tone of voice and facial expressions help us infuse greater meaning into what we say, and can also evoke emotional responses in listeners. Unfortunately, they are also subject to significant misunderstanding. How many times have your words gone unappreciated, not because of what you said, but because of how you said it?

We all bring our own personal histories to the hearing of words. Because language is open to interpretation, it can be heard as empathic and understanding, or condescending and hostile. Certain words may trigger unpleasant memories or past trauma. We also have different sensitivities to tone and facial expression. If you were raised in a home where people did not yell, for example, a raised voice during an argument can seem like screaming, and feel threatening.

Frankly, these elements of face-to-face encounters are only the tip of the iceberg. When communicating via email or text, or across languages and cultures, additional nuance and complexity is introduced. And people who are deaf and/or hearing impaired have even more communication challenges to overcome.

Un-Complicating Communications

One strategy to improve communication is to first understand your own communication style. How do you best explain your perspective to others? What helps you the most when you are trying to receive information? Knowing your communication style can help you guide others to communicate in a way that you can receive it.

Knowing your audience can also be helpful, since understanding your listener’s communication style provides clues on how best to deliver information in the moment. Moving toward the middle and using a flexible combination of styles can help get your message across to a broader audience.

Emotional Expression

While explaining ideas can be tough, expressing emotions can be even more challenging. When it comes to certain things—health and safety, finances, and matters of the heart—the stakes feel very high. Several factors impact our ability to convey our emotional experience of the world.

Sometimes simply finding the emotional language to express our feelings is the issue. If we have not had many opportunities to practice using emotional language with others, it can feel strange to describe how you’re feeling.

A new skill to try is “the honest answer.” The next time a friend asks “How are you?” try answering with something more than a simple “I’m alright.” Take a moment to actually describe how you’re feeling. Is there a word or feeling that accurately describes your emotional state? Communicating in this manner can not only deepen relationships with others, but also allow you to perform an emotional self-check throughout your day.

Being vulnerable with others, and even with those we trust, can feel insurmountable. Sometimes it’s hard to admit you’re feeling sad or nervous or stressed. Perhaps you were taught that this was a sign of weakness, or you were judged and ridiculed for your honest expressions of emotion. Practicing self-compassion, and allowing yourself to feel whatever it is that you’re feeling, is a great place to start silencing those old messages. Once you’re able to accept how you feel, regardless of others’ opinions, it becomes easier to share and be vulnerable with others.

In other circumstances, we may not have time to stop and consider what we are feeling when we are under stress or feeling attacked. In these situations, it’s important to allow yourself time to calm down and respond after time has passed.

Make a Plan

There are a number of strategies you can apply in the moment to prevent conflicts from escalating.

Ask questions and don’t make assumptions.  One skill to practice is to rephrase the statement you heard and say it in your own words. You may try something like, “I want to be sure I understand your meaning. Did you mean ____?” Or perhaps you might say, “I heard you say *blank*, is that right?” Checking in regarding meaning provides opportunities for greater clarity and understanding so that you know better how to respond.

Stick to your side of the street.  It’s easy to tell people about themselves and their behavior. It’s much harder to stop in the moment and describe our own experiences of things. The classic approach of using “I” statements is really helpful in reducing defensiveness in others. “Right now, I am feeling ____” is a great way to improve communication.

Fight fair.  When we’re angry, it’s easy to say things we may not really mean. As best you can, stay away from saying something truly hurtful that you cannot take back. A good rule of thumb is that if it would feel really good to say it, then you probably shouldn’t.

When all else fails, take a break.  If you find yourself feeling angry and on the verge of saying something you don’t mean, remember that it is okay to take a break. Grabbing a sip of water or taking a time-out can help to reduce the heightened emotion, and create space for clearer communication down the line. The brief time you take to calm down can save you from future heartache.

Given the stress we’ve all been under, it seems all too easy to allow our communications to devolve. But by carefully considering some of these techniques, we can create greater ease in our relationships with others, and for ourselves.

This article appears in the March 2021 edition of OutSmart magazine.


Daryl Shorter, MD

Daryl Shorter, MD, is a Diplomate of the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology and is board certified in both general and addiction psychiatry. His clinical practice focuses on veteran care, and he lectures widely on LGBTQ mental health. Dr. Shorter can be reached at [email protected]
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