How do I fight fair?


Melissa Killeen

The following is a new post about my continuing journey with a particular client, its focus on how he might have better conversations with his girlfriend, even when they start out as hot-headed disagreements and potentially explosive discussions.

First, I asked my client to describe what kind of person he is. Does he like a good debate? How does he conduct himself in an adversarial discussion? Does he avoid conflict at all costs? What about criticism? Does he interpret it, or disagreement, as an attack on him? Will he use a verbal dagger to stab his opponent, only to regret it later? Does he lose his head when an argument ratchets up a notch? Or does he back away, withdraw and become silent when he is angry? Is it his style to dredge up everything a person has done in the past to use as a weapon? Will he cry to get sympathy, or storm out of the room to end a discussion, all together?

In response, he laughs, and says, “at one time or another, all of the above have been characteristic of my ‘discussion’ style.” He asks, “How do I fight fair?”

Regardless of the nature of most relationships, conflict happens. For many of us, conflict creates significant discomfort, and we revert to “fall back” modes of handling it. As I mentioned in a blog post last month, it’s typical to retreat to what we learned as children, that being in a conflict situation with someone means you are going to get out of control, start acting like a child, and/or become aggressive. The truth is, conflict is a normal human component, just as normal as joy, happiness, and sadness. If handled appropriately, conflict can actually strengthen relationships, improve intimacy and our understanding of each other.

Conflict happens when two people disagree about their perceptions, desires, ideas, or values. It is not about the other person being a bad person. It is a disagreement about viewpoints. If you focus solely on the disagreement, dealing with conflict becomes easier. Fair fighting is a way to manage conflict effectively and the feelings that come with it. To fight fairly, you can follow several basic guidelines to help keep your disagreements from becoming entrenched or destructive. You may find this difficult when you think another’s point of view is irrational or just plain unfair. But remember, he or she may think the same thing about your ideas.

  1. Take your conversations into a private room or office. Consider the damage that fighting in front of your children can inflict. It can scar them emotionally, especially if you don’t have the self-control to contain the conversation. An argument conducted in front of your peers will likely be destructive to your career. Moving to another location will give you the opportunity to gather your wits, and can help you remain calm. By remaining calm it is more likely that others will consider your viewpoint.
  1. Keep what is in the past, in the past. Don’t bring up previous fights or heated discussions that don’t pertain to a current discussion. I have a household rule: You get one chance to criticize a behavior or action, and discuss it. Then it is gone, off limits for any discussion going forward. Throwing every complaint from the past into today’s argument resolves nothing. It is often a behavior of someone that knows they are losing credibility and uses this deflection tactic as a last defense. Storing up lots of grievances and hurt feelings over time is counterproductive. It’s almost impossible to deal with numerous old problems for which recollections may differ.
  1. Talk about what is really bothering you. Vague complaints are hard to process. Stay on topic, and deal with only one issue at a time. If you don’t focus on what really bothers you, you will come away from this exchange frustrated at not having your needs met, or being heard. Avoid back-stabbing or hitting below the belt. As your blood pressure rises, you get into fight mode rather than resolution mode. Simply avoid attacking your partner personally. Saying things like “Your father always did that” or “You can’t keep it in your pants,” guarantees the conversation will deteriorate beyond the point of resolution. Attacking areas of personal sensitivity creates an atmosphere of distrust, anger, and vulnerability. Accusations will lead others to focus on defending themselves rather than on understanding you. Instead, talk about how someone’s actions made you feel.
  1. Give your partner a face-saving way out of the disagreement. Avoid following them through the house, yelling at their back or screaming and kicking at a closed door (yes, that’s a form of violence!). How an argument ends is crucial. Recognize when an olive branch is being extended— perhaps in the form of an apology or a suggestion to discuss it at a later time. That’s a signal that it is time to end the discussion even if the matter is not resolved to your satisfaction. Recognizing this opens the door to resolution at another time and gives your partner that all too critical face-saving way out of the disagreement.
  1. Set a time limit. Arguments should be temporary, so don’t let them get out of hand. Don’t allow the ugliness of an argument to stretch on indefinitely. Having the last word, never automatically makes you the winner. Let the last word go, walk away, and have that last word with yourself, outside or in the basement, alone.

In my next post, I’ll focus on step-by-step guidelines for fighting fair.


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