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Sunday, December 12, 2010

Wanna fight?

Most relationships have problems now and then. No two people are exactly the same so chances are that sooner or later you will have a communication breakdown, difference of opinion, or just plain have a bad day and conflict with your partner.

Recently I had a conflict with one of my partners that at the time seemed pretty serious. She got quite emotional and said some things that concerned me greatly about our relationship. As seems to be the case with conflicts, it came at the worst time. We were in bed and had consumed a fair amount of mezcal which, along with an intense sexual encounter, was probably the catalyst for strong emotions. We discussed things a bit and after I was sure I was sober, I headed home for the night to give us both some space.

The next day we talked and realized we had both made more out of things than we should have and worked out the things that needed adjusting. Alcohol, high emotions, or a bad day that really isn't the point. What it did cause me to do was think about the disagreements we have had, and disagreements I have had with my partners in general. That is what I'm going to talk about in this article.

Generally disagreements in my relationships don't involve name calling, yelling, screaming, throwing things, or result in a visit by the police. I don't want to take all the credit for that. Just like ugly fights, all fights or disagreements take two people so I believe a lot of the credit goes to my partners. And I've walked away from more than a few disagreements when they did turn to name calling, yelling, or throwing things by both parties so obviously I'm not perfect. The other thing I realized is that most of the disagreements I have don't result in an impasse. We almost always find there has been a communication error or we are able to negotiate or compromise and come to a happy solution.

I don't think I'm lucky that most of my disagreements are handled in a mature fashion, it takes a lot of work and effort. The process includes constant re-examination of how disagreements were handled, the results, and how I acted during discussions. There are some other conscious things you can do in the heat of the moment to try and keep a disagreement calm and reasonable.

Listen to the other person. You may be grinding your teeth, biting your tongue trying to hold back a response to something they are saying. But don't interrupt, let them finish. This accomplishes a couple of things. One is that they feel you are actually listening. Maybe you don't agree with them but you actually listened. Another is that you hear much more about how they are really feeling rather than just some of it when you interrupt trying to make a point of your own. The impulse to respond immediately to a statement is often an emotional reaction like the desire to make a point or to respond to what you felt was a "cheap shot". Waiting to reply will help the emotion to pass allowing you to make a calm, intelligent response rather than allowing yourself to be provoked. It also gives you time to forget that "cheap shot" to which you wanted to respond. If it is a cheap shot it may irritate you and push your buttons but honestly, will responding in-kind help the discussion? Probably not.

Be the adult. Now, this is different than considering yourself superior. You don't know more than the other person, you aren't smarter, you don't have better ideas. That isn't what "being the adult" is about. It is about not allowing yourself to be provoked. Think of it this way; If your 5 yr old yells at you that they hate you, do you respond to that like a 5yr old would by pushing them down on the ground or do you respond in an adult manner? Hopefully you respond in an adult manner. Do the same thing when having an argument with your partner. Ignore the "cheap shot", condescending comments, or foul language. Take a breath once they have finished speaking. And respond in an adult manner. If absolutely necessary follow your response with something like "Name calling, cheap shots, and foul language aren't going to help us fix this".

That brings up something else, "fixing this". Let your partner know that you want to discuss the problem, you want to find a solution, you want to work together with them. The problem isn't you against them, the problem is the two of you against the problem. Let them know, more than once, that you are viewing the situation as you and them against the problem. Not the two of you against each other. That may go a long way to diffusing a potentially explosive situation.

Of course there are a lot of other things you can do to keep a disagreement civil. A lot of what you try though depends on the other person. Some people respond better to certain communication styles than others. Try a few different things and see what works. I often think of disagreements like cooking. Sometimes things I make are great, other times the stove wins and dinner is burnt. But I'm always looking at my cooking and thinking about how to do things better, more efficiently, and with a better result. If you can look at disagreements that way you can learn from them and hopefully make them more constructive than destructive.

So what methods do you use for keeping disagreements civil? Active listening techniques, body language, breaks for thinking or calming down? What has worked and what hasn't? Or do you just make sure you call the cops first?


  1. I like the idea of using the techniques that are illustrated in the non-violent communication program. (Found in the book called Non-Violent Communication, and in the workshops). Mostly, I like to play it safe and stay within the range of expressing my feelings. When I remain in integrity to express my feelings, it keeps me from falling into finding ways to blame the other.

    Earlier this year, while busy in the kitchen, I was feeling quite frustrated about my inability to communicate something to my partner. I was frustrated to tears because I thought he was being disrespectful to what I floundered to express. In my frustration, I raised a jar of hot-packed canned beans, and smashed the mason jar onto the slate floor. (Splashes of black-eyed peas all over the kitchen). When I looked at what I had done, I realized that it was my fault for my wild gesture. I especially realized that it was not my anger at my partner, but it was my own frustration with myself at not being able to communicate efficiently with my partner.

    As I expressed in the first paragraph, I like to use the techniques used in the Guide for Non-Violent Communication. It is a safe place for me to communicate during difficult discussions with my partner.

    I am eager to read other responses to the question posted in this blog.

  2. Kameshwari,

    Thanks for the resource suggestion!

    I read a few books on communication and negotiation focused on dealing with hostile people when I was younger. I wish I could remember the titles. They taught me how to stay calm though I was more fascinated by communication theory than by resolving disagreements.

    Thanks for the comments!

  3. >>>Let your partner know that you want to discuss the problem, you want to find a solution, you want to work together with them. The problem isn't you against them, the problem is the two of you against the problem. Let them know, more than once, that you are viewing the situation as you and them against the problem. Not the two of you against each other.

    This is so, so, SO important -- not everyone is good at focusing on this. I try really hard to always view disagreements/arguments/fights as a chance to RESOLVE A PROBLEM, rather than to score points off my partner or to be seen as "right" no matter what.

    I admit that I'm terrible about not interrupting -- it's a flaw that I'm working on, and thankfully my partners are pretty good about just pointing out to me that I've done it, rather than getting angry about it.

    I can be a little spacey sometimes, and my instinct is to GET THE POINT OUT BEFORE I FORGET IT, which sometimes happens if I stay quiet and keep listening . . . but I need to just write it down or take a careful mental note of it, rather than not being present in the conversation by tuning out the other person until I can get my point in.

    It's a process, but I am dedicated to continuing to do the necessary self-work on it, because I know that it will make me a better partner and a better friend and mother if I can learn to be better about biting my tongue until it's my turn!

    -- A :)

  4. Ashbet, thanks so much for sharing!

    Believe me I wasn't, and I'm still not, perfect when it comes to disagreements. I still constantly learn and try to handle things better each time. As if that isn't hard enough, communication is different with every person who enters our lives. I found that realizing how I acted was a great first step to bettering myself when it came to handling disagreements. It sounds like you are aware of your flaws so you have taken the first steps. I think you will find it only gets better and easier as you learn how to disagree in more productive ways.
    Best of luck on your journey of self-improvement, I think you will do wonderfully!