The following is a new post about my continuing journey with a particular client, its focus is on how he might have better conversations with his girlfriend, even when they start out as hot-headed disagreements and potentially explosive discussions.
In the last post, my client and I discussed some ground rules for fighting fair. I suggested he speak to his girlfriend after making up from a previous argument, and discuss with her how to resolve difficult topics in a healthier manner. I also proposed they establish some common ground rules.
He asked if he should show his girlfriend this blog post, and I felt that would be a great opening to their discussion of setting new guidelines for healthy conversations. When both of them accept these ground rules for managing heated dialogues, then positive resolutions will become more likely.
Fight Fair Guidelines
I advised the client to take pen and paper to write down his answers to the following 10 guidelines, and then review them before he anticipates a heated discussion:
1. Before you begin, ask yourself, “What exactly is bothering me? What do I want the other person to do or not do? Are my feelings in proportion to the issue? Or is there something under these feelings that I am not seeing that makes this a colossal issue?”
2. Know what your goals are before you begin. Understanding that all discussions are an exercise in give and take, what are the possible outcomes that could be acceptable to you? Write them down.
3. Remember that the idea is not to win but to come to a mutually satisfying solution to the problem. What would be a mutually satisfying solution for you?
4. Set a time for a discussion with your partner or colleague. It should be as soon as possible but agreeable to both persons. Springing a conversation on someone when they are unprepared may leave them feeling like they have to fend off an attack. If you encounter resistance to setting a time, try to help the other person see that the problem is important to you. Set an appropriate location for the talk. If it’s a work colleague you want to talk with and you work in a cubicle farm, reserve a conference room. If you are at home, select a time after the kids go to bed, or early on a weekend morning, before they wake up.
5. Write the problem down on a piece of paper. State the problem clearly. At first, try to stick to the facts; then, once you’ve stated the facts, state your feelings (also write these down on paper). Use “I” messages to describe feelings of anger, hurt, or disappointment. Avoid “you” messages such as, “you make me angry. . .” instead, try something like, “I feel angry when you . . .” Understand the power of body language, sit next to this person, do not point your index finger at them, attempt not to cross your arms over your chest, or place your hands on your hips and keep approximately four feet between you at all times.
6. Invite the other person to share his or her point of view. Be careful not to interrupt, and genuinely try to hear his or her concerns and feelings. Repeat or restate (paraphrase) what you heard in a way that lets your partner know you fully understood, and ask your partner to do the same for you.
7. Walk a mile in their moccasins. Try to take the other person’s perspective; that is, try to see the problem through his or her eyes. The opposing viewpoint can make sense to you, even if you don’t agree with it.
8. Propose specific solutions, (write these down ahead of time) and invite the other person to propose solutions, too.
9. Discuss the advantages and disadvantages of each proposal.
10. Be willing to compromise. Allowing the other person only one option will make it difficult to resolve the concern. When you reach an agreement on a way forward, celebrate! Decide together on a time to check-in, discuss how things are working, and make changes to your agreement if necessary. Some people have the type of personality that thinks about important issues, twice as long as you do. These folks are still brilliant people, but they just are not comfortable coming to a quick resolution. So, if no solution has been reached regarding the original problem, schedule a time to revisit the issue and continue the discussion later.
When Nothing Seems to Work
Sometimes, despite our best fair-fighting efforts, a disagreement or conflict seems insurmountable. When this occurs, talking with a trained professional can help. A trained mediator, marriage and family therapist or conflict-resolution coach can help you communicate more effectively and eventually work your way through to a solution. Here are some books that may help as well:
The Dance of Anger: A Woman’s Guide to Changing the Patterns of Intimate Relationships by Harriet Lerner. HarperCollins, 1997.
Hostage at the Table: How Leaders Can Overcome Conflict, Influence Others, and Raise Performance by George Kohlrieser. Jossey-Bass Publishing, 2006.
Communication Miracles for Couples: Easy and Effective Tools to Create More Love and Less Conflict by Jonathan Robinson, Conari Press, 2012
Messages: The Communication Book by Matthew McKay, Martha Davis, and Patrick Fanning. New Harbinger Publications, 1995.
Love is Never Enough: How Couples Can Overcome Misunderstandings, Resolve Conflicts, and Solve Relational Problems Through Cognitive Therapy by Aaron T. Beck. Harper Perennial, 1989.
Fighting the Good Fight: Learning to Deal with Conflict Constructively in Permanent Partners: Building Gay and Lesbian Relationships that Last (pgs. 169-200) by Betty Berzon. Plume, 2004.