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Want to Resolve Conflict at Home and at Work? Think About the Future

by Katie Moritz
January 23, 2017 | Living

Once you're in the heat of a conflict—whether at home with your partner or a family member or at work with a colleague—it can be hard to back down, especially if you're sure you're in the right. But if it's a resolution of yours to get a little less combative and to learn to handle disagreements calmly, try imagining the future.

It might sound silly, but research shows that keeping a future-oriented mindset can help you get the mental distance you need to resolve your arguments without causing harm to the relationship. Instead of focusing on what's happening in the throes of the argument and how it's making you feel right now (probably irritated, at the very least), try imagining yourself looking back on the conflict in a year's time and what you might have learned from it. It's kind of like putting yourself in the other person's shoes (which is also a good tactic for conflict resolution), but you're putting yourself in Future You's shoes.

Resolve Conflict

That's what researchers Alex C. Huynh and Igor Grossmann of the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, and Daniel Yang of Yale University asked about 500 undergraduate students and adults in the U.S. to do. They had half the group write down how they felt about an unresolved conflict they had just had with a close friend or romantic partner. They had the other half write about how they might feel about the conflict in a year's time.

The people who wrote about how they felt right after the conflict were focused on reliving it and assigning blame to the partner or friend.

"When I think of the conflict I had, I think of how selfish he was in his actions," one participant wrote. "He made a promise to my face that I thought he would honor, but in the end, he didn't and that upset me."

The people who wrote in the role of their future selves were able to see the argument as a small blip on the radar screen of life and think about what they learned from it rather than fixate on who was in the wrong. 

They naturally forgave the other person more, they blamed them less, it helped them construe the negative event in a way that was positive," Huynh said to Rewire. "Thinking about the future allows (people) to think about that conflict in a beneficial way: 'This is something we'll grow from and have a stronger interpersonal bond than we did before.'

"He always puts so much time into playing his video games and it really upset me when I needed his help," one participant wrote in the study. "Even though I was pretty angry, I decided to let it go and move on. I realized that he probably wasn't purposely ignoring me."

"The experience really helped us bond," wrote another. "It was really troublesome at the moment, but I will definitely see it as a deeper moment between us... allowing us to get to know each other and to learn how we both deal with hard situations."

Resolve Conflict

The researchers also asked subjects to rate their relationship satisfaction after writing about the conflict. Those who had written from the perspective of their future selves reported being happier with their relationships than the ones who wrote about how they felt right after the argument.

Although the research covered only friendship and romantic relationships, the takeaway can be applied to work relationships, too, Huynh said. If you're arguing with a colleague or a boss, remember that you're likely going to have to work with that person long after the conflict is over.

"It's important to get away for a moment and think about what your actions today are going to mean for you in the future," he said. "That type of mentality and that ability to switch into thinking about long-term consequences is very important for maintaining successful relationships with coworkers and romantic partners."

Katie Moritz
Katie Moritz was Rewire's senior editor from 2016-2019. She is a Pisces who enjoys thrift stores and pho. Follow her on Twitter @katecmoritz.
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