In every close relationship -- be it spouses, lovers, siblings or parents and kids -- there is the occasional fight. Disagreement naturally arises between two people who, no matter how close, are bound to sometimes have different opinions, tastes and desires. How a fight gets fought, though, makes all the difference. As I tell my children regularly, it's not who starts it, it's who ends it. Fights are -- or should be -- about how best to resolve conflicting views. The trouble is most people have no idea how to turn conflict into solution and thus restore harmony, says life coach and frequent Daily Health News contributor Lauren Zander (www.handelgroup.com).
It's no surprise that Lauren says the one time never to attempt resolution is in the midst of battle... and also, never use anything said in those agitated moments, when accusations fly and emotions are high, against each other. The reason: You have both gone over the edge and become irrational. In an argument, participants become accusing and defensive all at the same time, and are prone to play out the roles of the entire legal system -- defense lawyer, prosecutor, judge and jury, says Lauren. "People say things they know aren't true, but they say them anyway to hurt the other and protect themselves," she points out. "Most people take this nuttiness to heart, but if you can learn not to take irrational fights personally, you are immediately in a much healthier place to resolve your differences."
Although the storm generally passes, there is often damage done -- truth spoken harshly in the heat of the moment, hurt feelings, etc. This needs to be cleaned up or it will reappear again and again in future arguments, arising eventually as an awkwardness or distance that enters your everyday interactions with one another.
What not to do: Pretend it never happened or minimize it as a meaningless spat. That is a dangerous path and one to avoid, says Lauren. Eventually this erodes intimacy in the relationship, turning it into a cordial one where the depth of conversation doesn't go much beyond what's for dinner. After the storm quiets and you are both calm, it's time to address hurt feelings and start to solve the problem.
In a perfect world, we would each be what Lauren calls a "good mediator," a person who is able to admit his/her faults right away ("Gee, I really was being rude... intolerant... obnoxious")... view life from the other person's perspective... and be non-judgmental about the differences. Frankly, few people are good mediators. Most of us would do well to become aware of how we handle conflict, whether it is by becoming defensive ("I don't do that!") or sarcastic ("Oh, puhleeese") or shutting down ("Well, whatever..."). These behaviors sabotage your efforts to successfully resolve your differences. You may not feel comfortable at the thought of doing what Lauren suggests to identify your style... but here it is -- ask the individual you most often have conflict with to describe how you behave during disputes. While this is not an easy conversation, it will be hugely helpful now and in the long run. Learning this about yourself gives you information that allows you to correct your intrusive behavior, plus tools to handle future disagreements better and have better relationships, says Lauren. Eventually it may even turn you into an effective mediator.
It's important to make time to hash out the conflict, but many people feel confused about how to proceed. You may need to confront the issues that are triggering fights... such as how you spend money, your lack of time with the kids, or the all-too-common problem of whether your spouse pays enough attention to you. Or you may need to own up to or be clear about annoying behaviors such as chronic lateness or sloppiness that are intruding on good feelings about each other. Set a time when you can talk together without interruption, perhaps by taking a walk or going someplace for coffee. You can expect this "date" to be stressful... but its intensity won't ruin either your day or your relationship, since you are now approaching it calmly and with the goal of achieving resolution.
What not to do: If you are now thinking "no way, this will hurt the other person," you are being dishonest and manipulative, says Lauren. "People aren't really afraid of causing pain, they are afraid of facing the other person's fury," she explains. Be brave and move forward. Being willing to confront big issues and small ones together, you are growing closer instead of growing apart. It may be a little scary, but going into it with a positive attitude toward the process and the outcome will help ensure that you are relaxed and committed to having a constructive and non-defensive conversation.
Now you are ready to take action. First, a few ground rules. Both parties need to stay respectful and calm. Right now the purpose is only to understand each other's point of view. This is not about being right or wrong. Both of you experienced your difference in your own, unique fashion and it's time to find out what that is. Here are the steps to take...
Partially, this serves to air complaints, but even more to the point, having the chance to talk without interruption or judgment validates the feelings of the person who is upset. "People underestimate how valuable it is to be understood," says Lauren. "It doesn't matter if the other person doesn't get why this is important or doesn't think it is fair, smart or true. The point is that people -- especially when they are upset -- desperately want to have the experience and their feelings about it respected and understood."
At last you have exchanged and heard each other's point of view and position. With that information in hand, you are ready to negotiate, says Lauren. She points out that quite often, there is no good answer -- a successful negotiation gives something to each party, but withholds something from each as well. In the short run no one wins completely, but both get something in the deal. This is what we call a fair compromise and peace, and it's what you get when you fight well.
In the long run there is an added benefit: Fewer fights. Over time, as you get to know each other even better, through the clearing process, the frequency and/or intensity of arguments often diminishes. Additionally, by understanding the other person better and honoring their viewpoint, people also realize that it is futile to try to change others. Rather, they accept others for who they are... and who they're not. With acceptance comes added peace and peace of mind.