Rules for Fair Fighting

In my Coaching and Psychotherapy work with individuals, couples, families, and business partners I’ve found a few simple & effective tools for de-escalating an argument and resolving conflict as tensions rise. People often seek coaching or therapy once they’ve found themselves in repeated unhealthy or non-productive patterns with significant others. This can become a frustrating and seemingly hopeless situation without the intervention of a helper or the resources needed to get out of the mire. We can all attest to the fact that feeling stuck stinks. Try these simple tips to aerate and refreshen the way you debate.

1. Use “I” messages instead of “You” messages.
Recognize how conflict affects you. Give your feelings words. Unless your partner is clairvoyant, there is no way for him/her to truly know your experience. Brush up on your feelings-words vocabulary.  Be specific about your experience. Notice where you feel your feelings. Do you tend to experience emotions in your gut, shoulders, or chest? Physical symptoms are cues to recognizing your emotional responses, such as anger, anxiety, fear, sadness, or joy. Don’t be afraid to make yourself vulnerable by sharing your feelings. It can open the conversation to a genuine course of understanding and problem solving.

2. Own your feelings, actions, and wishes.  State them clearly.
Use concrete, behavioral terms to describe what you want to say. Keep it short and sweet. Take responsibility for what you see, what you want, and how things need to change. Avoid accusations and blame.

3. Eliminate the words “always” and “never” from your vocabulary.
Very few things occur 100% of the time. Instead, think in terms of percentages on a scale of 1-100. Ask yourself, “What percentage of the time does this problem occur?”. Chances are it is not nearly as often as it seems. This can help gain a more accurate and realistic view of the problem which will help you address it more effectively.

4. Stick to the facts.
Resist making generalizations, interpretations or blaming statements. These will only put the other person on the defensive and derail the purpose of the argument.  Stating facts rather than personal attacks keeps the conversation moving forward in a proactive way.

5. Stay focused on the goal of resolution, rather than “winning” the argument.
Once you get caught up in who’s right and who’s wrong the original problem becomes moot. When voices are raised and tempers are heated, the anger is what’s heard instead of the message.  The conflict is now a power struggle that nobody really wins.

6. Avoid name calling, and physical violence.
This sabotages problem solving, mutual understanding, and conflict resolution. It damages the foundation of your relationship, threatens safety, and is more difficult to heal than the original dispute. Keep your anger and triggers in check.  Be assertive, not aggressive.

7. Leave past issues in the past.
Focus on resolving the disagreement that exists in the here and now. When ancient history is exhumed, the current problem gets lost, becomes ambiguous, and takes a whole new shape. If there are unresolved issues from the past, come back to them in a dedicated discussion at another time when both parties are cool.

8. Be an active listener.
Hear what the other has to say. It’s only fair to offer the kind of listening you want and deserve in return! Repeat out loud what you heard the speaker say and check it out with him/her to be sure you got it right. Give him/her an opportunity to clarify, tweak, or restate his/her message.

9. Practice empathy.
Consider the other’s feelings and perspective of the problem with an open mind. Ask for their ideas. Don’t assume you already know them. We are all individuals with our own history, experience, and frame of reference that shade the way we think, perceive, and interact with others. Honor each other’s unique self.

10. Keep calm.
Take deep breaths or a five-minute-time-out to stay cool. Recognize when your barometer is rising. Once anger wins, the argument is lost. As stated by Thomas Paine, “The greatest remedy for anger is delay.”.

About Heather Edwards

Heather Edwards is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor, Board Certified Coach, & National Certified Counselor. She is a frequent contributor to Psychology Today. She provides individual therapy, couples therapy, corporate coaching, career coaching, and life coaching.
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