All Couples are going to disagree. Usually, we have not had training in how to fight fairly and so, fighting becomes a free for all to see who can hurt the other’s feelings the most. If we can adhere to the rules of fair fighting, our arguments can be much more productive experiences.
Rules for Fair Fighting
1. Identify the problem. If you can’t identify the problem, is there really anything to fight about? Is one of the participants simply irritable? Once you have isolated what the issue is, follow the rest of the rules and avoid the fouls!
2. Attack the problem, not the person. If an argument gets personal, it’s an indication that you’ve lost sight of rule #1. Attacking the other participant is a sure way NOT to gain agreement.
3. Listen to each other. Adults listen to views that are different than their own. Listening is a sign of respect, not submission. Take turns with a timer on if you need to.
4. Take care of each other’s feelings. Assume that you are each responsible for the other’s feelings and ensure that you do and say nothing that is damaging to the other person’s feelings.
5. Take responsibility for what you say and do. If you do lose control and say something “foul”, then own your behavior; apologize sincerely and do an act of kindness to make amends.
Each of the behaviors below is considered fouls. These behaviors indicate fighting behavior that is damaging to the relationship.
Chances are you’ve been in relationships where the fouls above have been part of the fighting. While you can only be responsible for your actions, you also owe it to yourself to set limits when others use these fouls with you.
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The question I want you to consider today is how good are you at listening? Do you really hear your partner? Most of us are pretty good at listening until we hear something we don’t like. Then we stop listening and begin to mentally draft our response. Learning to listen well is a terrific Winning behavior in a relationship. I’m going to walk through a process with you for speaking and listening and hopefully, you’ll give it a try with your partner.
In every communication, there’re two roles to play. One person is the speaker and one (or more) person is the listener. We communicate in multiple ways, with words, gestures, tone and body language. In fact, all behavior is communication. There is no NOT communicating. It’s impossible not to communicate something to the person we’re with.
Unfortunately, often the message received is not the message sent! If the first thing out of your mouth makes your partner defensive, your communication has failed. If the goal is for your partner to hear what you’re saying, you’ve got to be more aware of your own communicating behaviors. Remember that you can only control your behaviors, so presenting information in a way that it will be received is YOUR responsibility.
Now I always think it’s best to have a plan when you’re not sure about something. It’s also great to give yourself structure when there’s something that’s emotionally charged. You don’t want all those feels to take over your communication. My favorite structure for communication is from Imago Therapy.
Structure can feel awkward at first. But believe me, it helps you take that necessary pause to consider your communication. If it helps, isn’t it worth feeling a bit awkward? So this is how it goes:
The speaker’s responsibility is first to “make an appointment”. This isn’t necessarily a formal appointment. It could be just asking, “Is this a good time to talk to you?” How many conversations have gone down the tubes because one of the parties was tired or hungry or in the middle of their favorite TV show? So step 1 of successful communication is ensuring it’s a good time to talk. This may seem silly, but isn’t that the ultimate in respect?
What do you do if your partner says, “No?” This is a request, not a demand (ever notice most of us don’t do so well with demands?). A request can be declined without consequence. So a “no” doesn’t mean you stomp off and slam the bedroom door. It doesn’t mean you take it as a rejection and blow up. It also doesn’t mean your partner can avoid the conversation forever. If there is a no, ask when there might be a better time. Set an appointment.
Step 2 for the speaker is to state what you want to talk about using nonviolent language. Focus on your feelings and don’t tell your partner’s story. Things to stay away from are “you never”, “you always” and anything insulting. Generally it’s a good idea to stay away from the word “you” altogether. Remember writing things out is a great way to practice! I always suggest my couples do this at least a few times to get a feel for it. You will catch on much quicker than you think.
Step 3 for the speaker is to not trigger your partner’s defenses. This means your words cannot be critical or accusatory. Your words should not be sarcastic, or delivered with a contemptuous tone. You will have to carefully select your words. It’s a good idea to practice the delivery looking at yourself in a mirror. You can see so much in your expression that you’re mostly unaware of when you look in a mirror.
Remember this is growth, so expect pain!
Step 4 for the speaker is to stay on topic. You can’t solve every issue with one conversation. Your partner also doesn’t need a full accounting of every ill you feel they’ve done you. If you tend to be a kitchen sinker, time for a behavior change! Learn how to be really effective at this and you can resolve issues, but only one at a time. As your confidence builds you’ll have success, and you’ll be more relaxed with each other. Then you’ll find this much easier!
Step 5 for the speaker is to maximize agreement. Every few sentences, you want to gain agreement from your partner. Make sure they are comprehending what you said by having them mirror it back to you. This helps catch misunderstandings early on. Remember most of us listen until we hear something we don’t like, then the listening stops. Frequent checking in keeps both of you in the moment and focusing on the message being delivered.
The last step for the speaker is to thank your partner for listening.
OK, did you think that was challenging? You might not think so, but it really is. If you think that was tough, read on for the rules for the listener.
Rule number 1: Listen only. No speaking except to mirror agreement/understanding. Don’t interrupt. If you feel something rising up in you that wants to retort, focus on the words your partner is saying. Listening without reacting doesn’t mean you agree or give up your right to respond.
Do you ever watch Judge Judy? Sometimes they have a case there between people who were in a relationship that’s now gone bad. One person starts talking and the other cannot control themselves, they speak out and interrupt. Judge Judy jumps in and says, “Be quiet or you’ll be out of my courtroom”. You can laugh about that and shake your head, but how often do we do the same thing to our partner? The only problem is we don’t have Judge Judy to intervene, so our partner has to fight for their right to be heard. Pretend you have Judge Judy sitting in front of you.
The second rule for the listener is to mirror back what was heard. You do this by saying, “What I heard you say was…..” You can repeat exactly what your partner said or you can paraphrase, but don’t add your own spin to it. You’re not allowed to introduce your own thoughts to the discussion. You’re only allowed to ask two questions, one is, “Did I get that right?”
The other question is the third rule for listeners. The question here is “Is there more?” You then allow your partner to say more about the issue if they have more.
You repeat steps 1, 2 and 3 for as long as your partner needs to speak. If they are sticking to the one topic rule, then it shouldn’t take more than one or two times asking that question to get to the end. The speaker and the listener should agree that they are both understanding (doesn’t mean agreeing necessarily) the issue from the speaker’s perspective at this point.
When the speaker is done rule 4 is to summarize. After summarizing, make sure you got it all, by asking, did I get it all? If not, go back in for some clarification. The speaker and the listener should again agree that they both understand.
The fifth rule for the listener is to validate with empathy. Validation does not equate to agreement. Validation means if you really heard your partner, you can begin to see their perspective. It might be different from yours. You might demonstrate this by saying, “I can see why you’d feel that way because…..”; Or, “I can see why you’d react in that way........” Developing empathy and validating your partner shows respect for their feelings. It doesn’t mean you think they are right or wrong.
And the last rule for the listener is to thank their partner for sharing.
Are you wondering how you can use this if you’re playing alone? The same way it’s outlined here. If you approach or respond to your partner in this way, do you think your discussions are going to go better? I’m betting they will. Remember, behind every complaint is a deep personal need. That goes for both you and your partner.
Let me show you this in action.
Speaker(S): Is this a good time to talk?
S: I’d like to share my feelings about our laundry challenges, OK?
S: I believe I work hard, just like you, and we should both share household chores. You know what I mean?
L: You and I both work hard and you want us both to work together at home too. Did I get that right?
L: Is there more?
S: Yes. I’d like for us to come to an agreement on how we get our laundry chores completed. It seems that it never gets DONE. You know what I mean?
L: You’d like for us to agree on some sort of end point for getting the laundry done. Did I get that right?
L: Is there more?
S: Yes, I know it never really gets done, but I really get frustrated when I gather everything up and get it washed and then laundry comes from somewhere and needs to be done urgently. You know what I mean?
L: You are bothered when you think the job is done and then find it’s not. Did I get that right?
L: Is there more?
S: Yes. I think the problem is having more than one place where dirty laundry is held. I’d like to suggest we establish a formal place, or two, that is where dirty laundry stays until wash time. Then I can get it all done and not have to worry about being pressured to get that urgent thing washed. You understand what I’m saying?
L: I think so. You’d like to have a couple of laundry holding areas so you can always locate the clothes that need to be done. Then you aren’t stressed out because there’s that one more load that you didn’t know about. Did I get that right?
L: Is there more?
S: Just that I’d like to agree on those holding areas now and agree to use them exclusively. I can get a hamper for the spare room where you change if you’ll agree to put your uniforms in there every day. Does that make sense?
L: Yes. You want all the laundry in that hamper or in the bathroom hamper and you’d like me to ensure my uniforms go in one of those places. Did I get that right?
L: Is there more?
S: Yes. But first, is that agreeable?
L: Yes, I have no problem with that.
S: OK. It seems that I’m taking on the responsibility of getting the urgent laundry done now. I don’t think that’s how it should be. If the hamper idea doesn’t work, I’m relinquishing responsibility of washing suddenly located uniforms. You know what I mean?
L: You feel like you shouldn’t have to scramble to do my uniform if I don’t get it into the hamper. Did I get that right?
S: Not exactly. I’m saying, you have to own that.
L: OK, so you’d like for me to do my own urgent laundry rather than you doing it. Did I get that right?
L: Is there more?
S: No, that’s it. I’d just like to know if you’re in agreement or do we need to make another plan?
L: No, I’m really fine with that. It stresses me out to when I find my dirty uniform so if it relieves both of us of that, I can be diligent about putting it in the hamper.
S: Thanks for listening.
L: Thanks for sharing.
OK, that’s a lot isn’t it? But how many silly arguments have been born out of a similar issue???? Many, many, many, at least in my house!
Are you resisting the formal structure of this script? Remember, your best attempts at communication have gotten you where you are. It’s time to look at some more productive behaviors. Having a structure for communication makes it a safe place for both you and your partner. I promise you, if your relationship is going to change, you’re going to have change. Adopt winning behaviors, your relationship will improve.
Practice Time: Make a commitment to speak or listen according to this script for the next two weeks. Use the script for either every day for the next two weeks. Follow the script even if your partner isn’t playing with you. Feast on your success and I’m confident you’ll see some change in your relationship.
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