Healthy Conflict

Recently, the New York Times lead health and science reporter Jancee Dunn took a look at the role confrontation plays in our daily lives and in our overall wellness. In her article, which can be read at, she interviewed Karen Osilla, an associate professor in psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford Medicine. She posits that not only are disagreements inevitable, they can have benefits. Research suggests that resolving conflict in healthy ways increases your well-beinglowers stress and improves self-esteem. Productive disputes, for all their challenges, “are pathways to a bigger life,” she said.

They offer the following tips for ways that even the most conflict avoidant among us can navigate their way through healthy conflict:

Start with people you trust: If confrontation puts you on edge, practice disagreeing with people you trust, said Seo, “because honest, open-minded disagreement requires psychological safety.” Try getting comfortable saying, “I actually disagree with that,” she said. Think of healthy dissent as a muscle you can build over time, she added.

Ease into the discussion: First, take a deep breath, Dr. Osilla said, which reduces anxiety and helps you stay calm. Next, in a polite tone, concede that you don’t know the other person’s intentions. People often waste time imagining the other person’s motivations, she said, but these are impossible to know for sure. “Either way, the impact of their action is the problem you want to solve,” she said. Then, calmly share your concern, focusing on how the situation has affected you. You might say something like, “Hey, you may or may not be aware, but I’m cleaning up after your dog regularly in my yard.”

Describe your emotions: After you express the effects of their actions or words, communicate your emotions, and invite the other person to share theirs. An example would be, “I’m frustrated,” she said, or, “That comment you made stung.” Don’t bottle up your feelings, because they can manifest as passive aggression, or translate into anger or accusations, she said. “Better to name emotions,” Heen added, instead of using them to “blame and attack.”

Shift to a “learning conversation.” Once you’ve shared your feelings, have a “learning conversation” to trade perspectives and solve the problem together, Heen said. She 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, she said. If, for example, a friend keeps canceling plans, you could discover that the person has had a major life event. From there, you can brainstorm other ways to stay connected.

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, Dr. Osilla said. “In those moments, be compassionate with yourself,” she said. “Tell yourself: ‘I’ve said my piece. I’ve done what I can.’