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How to Stop a Fight

Updated on July 28, 2014

This has happened to you.

You’re standing in a crowded room. Someone pushes into you from behind. You feel a surge of irritation, even anger. Who is this careless oaf who can’t respect your personal space? You turn around to express your indignation, only to discover that the offending party is actually a good friend of yours who has bumped into you accidentally or, perhaps, even on purpose and is not smiling at you as you find yourself on the receiving end of a good-natured prank.

Your anger evaporates in an instant.

But why? The bump was no less of a bump on account of the person who bumped you. But the bump was never the issue at all. What was at issue was your ego, resenting the perpetrator who failed to show you respect.

It’s almost always ego that is the real perpetrator in any fight. Change one little detail and our irritation or anger vanishes. But when we feel our ego has been affronted, heaven help the offending party.

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When other people are being unreasonable, which of the following is most likely to put them in a more reasonable frame of mind?

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A folktale

A man woke up one Sunday morning convinced that it was Monday. No one could tell him otherwise, and all the evidence his family and coworkers rallied made no impression upon him whatsoever. On Monday he asserted it was Tuesday, and on Wednesday he insisted it was Thursday. He refused to entertain the notion that he might be wrong and that everyone else might be right.

On Thursday afternoon, the man’s wife made a frantic visit to her rabbi. During the week, her husband’s delusions were benign, if somewhat irksome. But what would happen that evening when her husband insisted that the Sabbath arrived at sundown? And, even worse, how could she prevent her husband from desecrating the Sabbath the following day, when he would be convinced the holy day was over?

The rabbi pondered the question for a time, then leaned forward and told the woman what she should do.

The woman returned home to find her husband issuing orders in preparation for the onset of the Sabbath. To the surprise of her family, she echoed her husband’s instructions and began preparing the Sabbath meal.

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L’chaim!

That evening, the husband returned home from synagogue – apparently unimpressed that the rest of the community had not observed the traditional Friday night Sabbath services. There he found his entire family dressed in their finery and waiting for him in their respective places at the dining table. Pleased to discover that they had finally come around to seeing things his way, he raised his cup to recite kiddush, the ritual prayer for welcoming the Sabbath day.

However, the husband did not notice that his wife had filled his cup with schnapps in place of the usual light kiddush wine. When he finished reciting the blessing, he swallowed the entire cup in his usual fashion and, overtaken by the potency of the drink, collapsed face down upon the table and passed out.

For the next 24 hours, the family tiptoed around the house so not to wake the man. When Friday evening arrived, they returned to their places. The wife then gently shook her husband and, as he roused himself from his slumber, she said, “You must have been exhausted; you fell asleep before you had a chance to make kiddush! But the children are hungry, and you can sleep later. Come now, it’s time for us to begin the meal.”

The husband looked around the table and, after a moment’s confusion, picked up his cup (which now was filled with wine) and recited the inaugural Sabbath blessing. From that day forward, he often recounted how the entire community had miscalculated the day of the week and bragged about how everyone had eventually accepted that he was right.

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Five ways to prevent escalation

Sleep on it. If I’m too tired to cope, I’m also too tired to fight. Agree to take up the matter the next day. Chances are it won’t seem so important then.

Take responsibility. As a rule, every argument has two sides. Even if you’re right, you may simultaneously be wrong. Admitting that you share the blame makes it easier for the other to also admit error and scale down, rather than ramping up.

Bury the past. Don’t start bringing up ancient history (anything older than a week). Once you go off the edge of the map, there be dragons.

Just the facts, ma’am. Don’t try to mind read, and don’t expect others to read your mind. If you haven’t been clear, it’s your own fault that those around you are wallowing in confusion.

Take ownership. I know, it sounds all touchy-feely. But saying, “That makes me feel bad,” is a lot less confrontational than “you hurt my feelings.”

Give peace a chance

“Wisdom is greater than war craft,” says King Solomon in Ecclesiastes, describing how adept psychological or political maneuvering can achieve more enduring results than brute force, precisely because the mechanisms of wisdom often go undetected and therefore give rise to neither alarm nor opposition.

Certainly, the wife could have continued to battle her husband, achieving nothing except a spiraling level of frustration and acrimony in the home. Her ability to “let him win” benefited the entire family, herself included. And although she might have resented his smugness at believing that he had convinced the others that he was right, she might find even greater pleasure in restoring peace to her home without the need to receive credit for “being right.”

It’s the principle! we like to say. But how far does principle get us when our relationships become frayed around the edges? We’re all human beings, with human shortcomings and moments of irrationality. Is it so bad to let one another just be human?

Stress, exhaustion, money, children and, most of all, ego. These are just a few of the most common reasons why little problems explode into big problems. By recognizing the contributing factors, it becomes easier to defuse fights before they happen.

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Timing is everything

This has happened to you, too.

You're in the middle of a heated argument. Unexpectedly, your antagonist makes a cogent point and -- shazaam! -- in dawns on you that he is right and you are wrong. Do you:

a. admit that you are in error and apologize for defending an erroneous position?

b. start arguing even harder so you don't have to admit you're wrong?

Sometimes we're just not ready to admit defeat. And if that holds for us, it holds for others as well.

Consequently, Rabbi Shimon son of Elazar teaches in the Talmud: Do not appease your fellow at the time of his anger, do not console him at the time his dead lies before him, do not ask him [to reconsider] at the time of his oath, and do not attempt to see him at the time of his downfall.

Timing is everything, and it can be worse to win an argument than to lose one. Disagreement with respect, sensitivity, and graciousness will usually lead to a positive outcome. But when we fight to win, everyone loses.


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    • CyberShelley profile image

      Shelley Watson 2 years ago

      Really enjoyed the read - thank you. I always admit when I am wrong, I find it pays great dividends. I did this too with my son as he was growing up and he learnt to do the same. Up, interesting and useful.

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