Dealing With Differences

by Shachi D. Shantinath, Ph.D.

Originally published at, 2001.


Everyone is different and we each have our preferences and perspectives which are shaped by our core values, experiences, culture and gender. For the most part, this leads to rich diversity in our lives. But what happens when being different leads to disagreements – especially the irreconcilable kind? If these differences are not appropriately handled, they have the potential to become unmanageable and escalate into full-blown conflict.

Conflict and Health

Conflict prevention and conflict management are important, not only because they help us to preserve our personal and work relationships, but also because they influence our health and well being. When interpersonal conflict is not handled in an effective way, it can trigger binge eating, misuse of alcohol and/or cigarettes and has been implicated in relapse (e.g. taking up cigarettes after having given them up).

Conflict Management – a Tool for Various Settings

For both our physical and mental well being, it pays to learn the basics of effective conflict management. Regardless of the setting, be it with family members, co-workers or even your health care providers, there are some common processes which you can put to work, thereby reducing the risk of differences escalating into conflict.

Techniques for effective dealing with differences have been around for some time and have produced results in various areas including politics, business and marital counseling. What is common to all of these settings is a set of skills that can be learned. With practice, they allow people to move forward in a way that leaves all parties feeling satisfied.

Get Clear about your Perspective

How you think about a situation will affect how you feel. Research shows that it is not only external circumstances that determine whether you are happy in life or not, but rather how you interpret the situation. Keep in mind that your perspective on the situation will have a lot to do with how you feel about it, and in turn, how you will respond to it. For example, are you viewing a situation as a personal attack or are you viewing it as something that simply happened due to no one’s fault?

Invest in Relationships before Problems Arise

All of our interactions exist within a relationship matrix. The stronger and healthier a relationship is, the more likely it is that people will give each other the benefit of the doubt, which in turn reduces the likelihood of escalation.

Investing in the health of relationships is a lot like ensuring against damage- before it ever happens. That way, should problems arise, they are less likely to escalate into conflict. And the stronger the existing relationship is, the easier it will be to recover from the disagreements.

Check out your “Hot Buttons”

Everyone has their own triggers or “hot buttons” that set off feelings of anger, unfairness, injury, insult or hurt. Become familiar with your “hot buttons”. By knowing which situations are more likely to trigger an unfavorable response on your part, you can be better prepared to deal with differences effectively.

Dealing with hot buttons calls for a two part response: finding alternative perspectives so you are less bothered; and slowing down your physiological response to your anger or anxiety. Keep these responses ready to use in case you find your hot buttons are being pushed. (Further information can be found at links at the end of this article.)

Additional ways to effectively control your hot buttons include reflection- and not reaction. By that, I mean, taking the time to think through a situation and not just have a knee jerk reaction. When one’s hot buttons are pushed, the most effective response is one that balances emotionality with rationality.

Seek to Understand the Other Person

When disagreements emerge, people are too quick to want to solve a problem. Problem solving is important and essential, but it should come at a further stage in the process. The first step is to stop the escalation and then to promote understanding between the involved parties.

Understanding is promoted by empathy – when each person understands the other person’s views and does so with respect. This process can be facilitated by paraphrasing – whereby one person states their view and the other re-states it – in order to let the speaker know that he or she has been heard. When both parties engage in this process, there is often a noticeable and immediate reduction in tension and quicker discovery of solutions.

Separate the Problem from the Person

This is difficult to do, but worth the effort, because it prevents escalation. This means that you talk about the problem, but not about the other person in a way that makes broad personality assessments about them. For instance, “You are greedy and unappreciative” is not effective. In this case, if a family has to live within a budget, a better approach would be to say ” We have to think about how we can stay within our budget while at the same time satisfying everyone’s needs.” This separates the person from the problem and invites the other party to join you in finding a solution.

Unite against the Problem

This is a variation of the above. For example, suppose two siblings disagree about what is the best elder care solution for their mother. Rather than engaging in a “my view is better than yours; or I know more about this than you”, it is helpful to search together for the best possible outcome. In this case, something along these lines works much better: “We are both united in our search for optimal care for our mother. Let us put our heads together and see what we can come up with.”

Avoid Name Calling, Sarcasm and Accusations

Sarcasm may feel good in the moment, and name calling may offer some kind of momentary relief. Beyond the temporary relief these strategies may offer you, they do a lot of damage to the situation and make it harder to continue.

An ancient Sanskrit proverb offers useful insight into this: “There are two things that can never be retrieved once they are released: an arrow and the spoken word.” I would add that, depending upon the circumstances, the spoken word can be just as harmful as arrows.

Call Time Outs if Needed

If you find that the situation is escalating, it can be useful to call a “time out” to allow all parties to cool off. This is fine, so long as calling a time out is not just an excuse to forget the discussion. Rather it is a way for people to catch their breaths, re-focus their thoughts and prevent an escalation.

Brainstorming as a Part of Problem Solving

Once all involved parties have heard each other, then it is time to come to problem solving. An important element of this is brainstorming, which consists of coming up with a list of all possible solutions, no matter how ridiculous they may sound at first. No answers are right or wrong. The idea is to create a list of possibilities from which to choose from.

This stuff really works! Convinced by the results I have seen in my work, I have become a big believer in this process. It is possible to deal with differences in an effective way, so that both sides are more satisfied.

I often see two sides – couples, families, or employer and employee- locked in a difference of opinion, frustrated, stuck and often going in circles. Time and again, I see how people experience a significant drop in tension once each side feels understood. Equally interesting is the fact that most people, though they may seem divided, in fact, want the same thing. For instance, they both want what is best for their family, but they just see it from a different perspective or express it in different words.

Remarkably, the process of brainstorming yields solutions that neither party thought of. And many times, the new solutions they find are even preferable to what each had originally envisioned as being the ideal solution.

“Rules of the Road” – to Prevent Collisions

You might consider all of these suggestions as “rules of the road” for interpersonal situations. Just as driving rules offer a structure that reduces the chances of collisions, while still allowing people to get where they want to go, these suggestions offer a structure that allows people to co-exist and function together, even if they disagree.

Copyright S.D. Shantinath, Ph.D. All rights reserved.