Anger is a normal, healthy – and often uncomfortable – emotion.  It is one thing to sit with a difficult emotion long enough to feel and release it; it’s another to repeatedly relive an anger-inducing situation until it dominates your thoughts.

“Anger is a warning bell that alerts us that something needs our attention,” states Dr. Brad Bushman, professor of communication and psychology at The Ohio State University.  “It’s that rumination that seems to be destructive.”

Sometimes an uncomfortable issue challenges us to take action; sometimes the appropriate action is to do nothing.  How do we tell the difference?  Conversations with people we trust often allow us to step out of the problem and into a solution.

I recently experienced a misunderstanding with an acquaintance named Helen.  She routinely takes small bits of conversation, twists them into fiction, and repeats it to other people. By the time the story circles back around to those involved, it creates unnecessary conflict.

I called my best friend, Eve, for advice. I explained the details of the most recent incident involving Helen. Consequently, others were upset at me for words I never spoke and actions I never engaged in. I asked Eve to help me explore different options so I could make the best choice and move past the conflict that now involved several other people as the result of an awkward misunderstanding.

“I’m sick of this,” I shouted.  “Helen needs to mind her own business.”

I logically understand that I have absolutely no control over other people’s reactions or perceptions. My words, my actions, my behaviors, thoughts, attitudes, and reactions are the only choices within my realm of responsibility. Other peoples’ words, thoughts, actions, and decisions are none of my business … even if their words, thoughts, actions, and decisions are about me.  But that realization doesn’t prevent the sting from stinging.

“Your life doesn’t just ‘happen.’  Whether you know it or not, it is carefully designed by you,” explains Stephen Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.  “The choices, after all, are yours. You choose happiness. You choose sadness. You choose decisiveness. You choose ambivalence. You choose success. You choose failure. You choose courage. You choose fear. Just remember that every moment, every situation, provides a new choice. And in doing so, it gives you a perfect opportunity to do things differently to produce more positive results.”

“Sometimes it’s hard to know what to say when someone’s made decisions about your choices without asking you for more information,” Eve observed.

Eve often asks two questions whenever I share a conflict experience with her:

Question #1:  How important is it?  The first time she asked me that many years ago, I could not distinguish mountains from molehills.  “How important is it?” helps me gain perspective.

Question #2 is “Why does it matter?”  There are certainly occasions when it is important to invite a dialogue when confusion or misunderstandings erupt.  However, issues often dissipate quickly when I ask myself, “Why does it matter?”  Things that seemed crucial in the moment often don’t matter in comparison to the grand picture of events, especially if my ego is bruised or I wanted to get the last word in.

Eve also asks, “Does it matter right now?”  This is a particularly important question to consider when I have multiple projects scheduled close to one another on my calendar.  When I ask myself this question, it forces me to put an unresolved issue away for another time so I can focus on the important tasks in front of me right now.

Eve gave me permission to growl and I growled about the matter that was upsetting me to gain some perspective.  Fully aware that my present thoughts dictate future outcomes, I want to make sure I allow time to calm down and get centered again.

“What are you going to do next?” asked Eve.

“I will talk to Helen tomorrow morning,” I explained.

“Let’s practice,” replied Eve.  “What will you say?”

I try to frame my words in a script that includes the words “This is what happened, this is how I felt, this is what I need/want.”

“I will tell Helen, ‘When I hear rumors about things I’ve said that aren’t true, I feel angry.  I want you to stop repeating words I’ve never said.  If you have any questions about what I’ve said, let’s talk about it.'”  

Practicing my response with Eve ensures I will be likely to approach the conversation with calm and maturity.

The next time you experience a conflict with someone, ask yourself, “How important is it?”  If it’s important, find the courage to do something about it.  If it’s not important, let it go.

We are much happier when we find ways to rise above problems and invest effort into finding solutions.

How will asking yourself “How important is it?” help you resolve conflict?


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