College was a stressful time for Lynn Levine. Her father was ill, her schedule tight and she just couldn’t stop butting heads with friends. Verbal blowups were common, often for even minor reasons.
"A lot of times it appeared that someone I knew was not living up to my expectations. It could be as innocuous as arriving late or not knowing directions somewhere. I would just go off the handle, like ‘Why can’t you be on time? Why couldn’t you turn right?’” says Levine, now 38.
Her former roommate, Suzanne Epstein, had opposite issues. She waited 15 years to discuss childhood resentments with her older sister. “I’m definitely one to let things fester and never open my mouth,” she says.
“Intellectually, I do believe that confronting people is the right thing to do, but emotionally, that’s another story.”
Dealing with conflicts, whether with friends, family members or colleagues, is one of the most difficult aspects of human relations. Figuring out when to speak out about something and how to handle ourselves if we do can be daily challenges.
“This is an issue for everybody,” says Naomi Drew, a conflict resolution consultant based in Lawrenceville, N.J., and author of numerous books on the subject. “People are trying to strike a balance and they’re just not sure how. Some of it is just lack of skills, because prior to the last 15 or so years this was not taught in school. So adults were never raised with this consciousness,” she says.
Are you a 'difficult' person?
Some people avoid any potentially uncomfortable encounter. Others don’t speak out for fear of a bad or unpredictable outcome — like losing their temper.
“I knew that I over-responded to things but I couldn’t control myself,” says Levine, who, with the help of therapy, has learned to handle problem situations calmly. “Once my adrenaline would run down, I was embarrassed,” she says.
Yet conflict is inevitable in any relationship, and keeping feelings in has consequences. People who don’t directly deal with conflict in the workplace and in personal relationships can raise their risk for stress-related health problems, such as increased cardiovascular and immune system problems, says Michael Stadter, a clinical psychologist and organizational consultant at Business Mediation Associates in Arlington, Va.
They are also at a greater risk for developing cynicism or “learned helplessness” — a belief that one’s actions have little to do with an outcome.
How can a person tell if they often cross the line when raising issues?
“You’re potentially a difficult person if you can’t get people to come to you and raise things directly,” Stadter says.
If people never or rarely disagree with you, or get defensive when they talk to you, you may be coming across in a way that makes it hard for them to be honest.
Check your motive
When you do feel like speaking up, Drew suggests first checking your motive to be sure it’s for the right reasons. Ask yourself if you are truly dealing with a question of justice, fairness or integrity, or if you are motivated by fear, old patterns or the need to be right.
You may also feel physical symptoms in a conflict situation — a knot in the stomach, a pounding heart, a sensation of heat or tingling in the extremities. Taking your pulse, almost literally, can prompt you to either take action or back off.
“Notice what you’re feeling in your body and ask yourself, ‘Is this something I want to let go of or address?’” Drew says.
Of course, there isn’t always the luxury of making a decision — emotions sometimes take over, particularly when you feel you’ve been wronged. When an issue has been raised, guard against over-responding.
“Stop. Breathe. Chill,” Drew says. “Realize you don’t have to stop or say anything in that second. Take a deep breath, and then choose what you’re going to do.”
Try walking away from the situation for a few moments if necessary to collect thoughts and cool down.
It’s also important to be open-minded about the motives of a person who has confronted or wronged you as you address them. A person who took your place in the grocery line may have a sick child waiting in the car.
“Be direct with respect,” Stadter says. Avoiding offense is important, particularly in relationships at work or with family members we may have to deal with again and again.
If you’re leaning toward holding your piece, Stadter suggests doing a mental cost-benefit analysis. For example, you’re in a group meeting and a boss proposes something you disagree with. Ask yourself: If you don’t speak up, will something important not happen for the organization? Is something serious being ignored? If so, it may be worthwhile to tactfully state your views.
Stadter recommends the book “Getting to Yes,” by Roger Fisher, William Ury and Bruce Patton, as a primer on successful negotiating in virtually any circumstance.
Keep in mind, too, that conflict usually leads to greater understanding. Once a discussion begins, you may discover that you share many thoughts and goals with the other party — who was just too nervous to speak up.
Stacy Lu is a free-lance health reporter based in New Jersey whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Forbes.com and ABCNEWS.com.