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Rules of Fair Fighting

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John Powers
Every relationship has conflict. How you handle the conflict determines the tone of your daily interactions. The following are a series of rules to help you and your partner guide your conflict resolution in a way that will optimize your chances of walking away smiling. If your partner is unfamiliar with these rules, feel free to pass them along. They will greatly improve the way you talk to each other during times of adversity…

1. Make it a Safe Place
The first thing to do when entering a serious conversation is get comfortable. There should be no urgency to the discussion, and you should prepare to sit for a while. Find a sanctuary in your living space. Make a subtle adjustment to your environment that changes the normal vibe to a more calm and relaxed atmosphere. Lighting a candle or turning on a gentle falling-water device sounds ridiculous but goes a long way. It is a visual indication that you are entering the discussing area. Put on some gentle music, or nature sounds. Anything that will help you to be patient and relaxed should be in place before the first word is spoken.

2. Keep Your Tone Conversational
Anyone who has ever yelled at someone knows it does not typically get the desired results. We yell when we feel like we are not being heard. “Clearly you’re not listening to me, so I will raise my tone until you do!” That’s not effective. The message is not getting through because you are ostracizing your audience. The listener is not hearing your words and your volume is only serving to make the situation more uncomfortable. No matter how frustrated you become it is important to remain calm and speak in an even tone and a normal volume. A quiet philosophical conversation always yields better solutions than a shouting match.

3. Focus on the Current Dilemma
There may be several looming discussion points on your Resentment List, but try to stay focused on the situation at hand. If you plan on making any progress on this topic you need to stick with pertinent information related to the issue. Go deep and really get into it, but don’t bring up other associated problems, especially unresolved ones; that only complicates things and makes it harder to stay calm in the current discussion. Talk about those things some other day, one at a time. This is not the time to bring up an unresolved issue from several months ago. Try to address things as they happen, or as soon thereafter as possible, so you are not building resentments. Also, try not to get distracted with your phone, or a snack or drink. An argument can get nasty when one party feels like they are not the sole focus during the entire duration of the discussion.

4. Listen Actively
Many times during an argument (or any conversation) we are waiting for our turn to speak. There’s so much we want to say and we feel our points are very important. It’s even more important to listen. Give your partner the ability to convey their points without interruption. Once they are finished, repeat it back in your own words to make sure you are understanding them. You need not agree with everything they say, in fact you probably won’t, but say it back anyway to give your partner the chance to be fully understood. What we seek more than anything is understanding. It’s less about who is right or wrong and more about understanding where the other person is coming from. When you make your person feel like you are really trying to understand them, they will be more comfortable and you will both feel better whether the situation has been fully resolved or not.

5. Avoid Words Like “Always” and “Never”
It’s tough to avoid this one, but over-generalization can be quite hazardous. When you say that your partner is “always this,” or “never that,” it leaves them feeling hurt and angry. It makes it seem as though everything they do is wrong and you just simply don’t like them for who they are. Always and never are all-encompassing words that leave little room for middle ground or compromise. They serve to put you at odds with your person, instead of making the point you intended. If you tell you partner that “they are always late,” they will feel like they are simply incapable of being early. If you say that “they never initiate sex,” there is little hope that they ever will.  If you say that “they start the fight every time,” they will feel like something is fundamentally wrong with the relationship. The truth is somewhere in the middle. Yes, they might …more often than not… be guilty of the things you accuse of them, but black and white exaggeration will do nothing but make your person feel incapable of change and resistant to attempting it.

6. Follow the Rules of Improvisation
When performing with an improv group, one of the first few lessons is generally called, “yes, and…” This is a way to accept what has already been said and add to it. You must go wherever the scene takes you, and always say “yes” to any new additions to the storyline. When having a fight with your loved one, saying “no,” shuts down the conversation immediately. You are now a contrarian and you are stopping this person from feeling comfortable sharing any further. The last thing you want to do is make this person feel like their perspective is wrong or inaccurate. Responding with “but,” can give the same impression. You are countering and negating what this person just conveyed to be their truth. The only effective way to respond is by saying, “yes, and…” leading into the next point, or clarifying your interpretation. This improv strategy keeps the dialogue moving and validates statements.

7. Walk Away if Necessary
There are times when you will not be able to fix a problem in one night. It is important to know your limits. If the conversation gets more heated than you’d like, you are able to say, “let’s come back to this later.” You have things to do and so does your partner. Maybe after shopping or lunch you can resume this discussion in a more positive or meaningful way. An hour or two into a conversation you start running short on patience and you may say things you don’t mean. Take a break, walk away, and come back refreshed and ready to go at it again. It is often said that you should never go to bed angry. That is true… unless it is absolutely necessary. Sometimes it is the only thing you can do. This problem will still be there tomorrow night, and it might still be there a year from now. Go get some sleep.

8. Find Solutions Together
Remember the point of this conversation is to make subtle changes in your behavior or the way you interact with your partner. In the heat of an argument many couples lose sight of that common goal. Keep the big picture in mind and know that this discussion is working toward that larger solution. Take the time to fully discuss all sides to the situation and try your best to stay in the moment. This is a crucial element of a larger resolution and if you can solve this piece then the rest will (more easily) fall into place. Remind your partner that there is a larger goal in mind of living together peacefully and happily. You can take turns being the level-headed one, depending on which one of you became upset in this present argument. Keep things copacetic and keep going until it’s done. Then think of the big picture. Find a way to agree on a solution that works for both of you and try your best to implement it.

– John Powers

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