When my wife and I moved to Colorado Springs for a new job we had been married a whopping two weeks. Thrown into a life where just about everything was unfamiliar, we were set up to have some serious conflict. We were also very ill prepared for how to have a healthy fight.
Like many young married couples, we had heard the ideas like “Don’t let the sun go down on your anger” and the horror stories about marriages ending because the couple kept sweeping their conflict under the rug. Naturally, our reaction to avoid the demise of our marriage was to swing the pendulum to the other side. I remember several times where we would stay up on a weeknight until 3am, trying to find a resolution to our frustrations. One of those nights I actually fell asleep in the middle of a fight, which caused a whole new fight and an even later night. We thought we were doing the right thing by not giving up on an issue until we both had peace around it. Little did we know how that approach was killing our marriage faster than anything else.
Thank God that life, and our training as relationship counselors, has taught us several rules for fighting fair that we can now share with you. We don’t use these tools perfectly by any means, but when we do use them, they keep us on track and cut through tension like genuine laughter through sorrow.
1) Calm Heart
You have to come to the conversation with a calm heart. We have all seen how trying to deal with conflict from a fearful, angry, or resentful heart means that the conversation is doomed before you even open your mouth. Don’t even try to deal with conflict until this step is achieved. I recommend you wait 24 hours before you bring up your frustration, no matter how angry or calm you are, because this helps you with step 1 and 2.
One question my wife and I ask ourselves often is, “Will this really matter 5 years from now?” This helps put things in perspective. I know for a fact that this step has saved my wife and I from thousands of needless fights. Many have heard of this one already, but fail to put it into practice every time an issue comes around. I challenge you to do so.
How do you expect me to have a calm heart when I am so pissed off or justified in my anger? Trust me, I feel your pain on this one, but deep breathing actually works very well here. Techniques like Neutral Breathing (breathe in smoothly through your nose and out through your mouth, each for 5 seconds. Repeat for at least one minute) are some of the fastest and most effective ways to take control of the neurotransmitters in your brain like Dopamine and get them working for you instead of against you.
If you have successfully done the first two steps, the other person in the conflict might not have. Ask if they are willing to have a conversation about the conflict instead of jumping right in. Giving fair warning is a great way to avoid trying to deal with the issue when it still might be set up for failure.
5) Stay Clear
I can’t tell you how many times I have given into the temptation to do several things that hijack a fight. Digging up bones from past conflict, bringing in more than one issue at a time, or counteracting the issue at hand with the other person’s mistakes because I am feeling defensive. All these make it amazingly difficult to resolve conflict. It is vital to have the issue clear in your mind and stay on point from start to finish. One technique my wife and I have used is taking an object (candle, mug, etc.) and establishing that as “the problem” because sometimes having something concrete to see and touch helps keep your mind focused.
NOTICE: This is the first step where you actually start talking about the conflict. Notice how much work needs to be done before this?
6) Active Listening
This is a really big deal! Many of us have heard about the difference between listening with intent to respond and listening with intent to understand. Active listening helps you do the later. Here is how it works:
- Take turns talking (interruptions are not allowed)
- When the other person is talking, listen to what they are saying even if you think it is wrong.
- When they have said their piece, tell them what you heard in your own words.
- If you didn’t hear them correctly, they get the opportunity to clarify and you both repeat this process until you’re on the same page.
- When you heard them correctly, it is now your turn to talk as you repeat the whole process.
Active listening does a great job at keeping the pace of your conversation at a manageable level, which is extremely important when both people are all fired up.
I have provided counseling for plenty of very difficult arguments and issues (and been in them myself), yet I have never seen a situation where either person in the conflict deserves name-calling or disrespect. Ensure that you are constantly using true and respectful words to describe what you are thinking and feeling in the conflict. Make sure that you set boundaries (like step 8) if you are the one being disrespected or if you are disrespecting someone else.
8) Take a Break
Sometimes, despite out best efforts, arguments get away from us and we start ignoring these steps. Taking a break is a fantastic thing to do in those moments because it gives you a chance to get back to steps 1, 2, and 3. There are two rules for how to take a break. First: respectfully tell the other person why you need a break. Second: set a realistic and specific time frame for you both to come back to the conversation.
The reality is that some issues are so deep and painful that simply using the first 8 steps is not going to be enough. This is where forgiveness comes in. One of the most difficult things for us humans to do with someone who hurt us is look him or her in the eye and choose not to hold onto our resentments anymore. What they did was wrong, and we don’t try to convince ourselves otherwise. Instead we extract the poison their behavior caused out of our veins so that we can see them clearly and honestly again. The more successfully you can do this, the more peace and freedom you get.
There you have it! 9 steps that, when used properly, are guaranteed to improve your communication skills. I know they work wonders in my life. Feel free to leave a comment with your thoughts, questions, or any other steps that work well for you!