4 Simple Ways to Stop Fighting
Does This Sound Familiar?
- I heard you. Did you hear me?
- There's no point in going any further with this...
- Why are we always talking past each other...
- I wish there was some way to reach you...
- None of this is making sense...
- We keep going over this again and again and we're getting nowhere...
What Conflicts Do You Find to Be the Most Stressful?
Which fights make you feel the worst?
Communication. We all know better communication is the way to stop fighting, right? It makes sense. We don't like to fight; we just want to be heard. We want to be understood. We want to understand. So why, by the end of so many conversations with our loved ones, do we feel so confused, angry, hopeless, and misunderstood? Why do simple requests result in explosive conflicts? Why do innocent comments backfire? Why do we get it wrong so often?
The answer lies in the painful fact that effective communication with your spouse, your child, your parent...anyone...is hard. Communication is not just saying whatever you want. If it were that easy, nobody would fight at all.
What successful communication requires, first and foremost, is two people who are willing to communicate. It also requires at least the desire to trust and respect the other person. You may not trust or respect them yet, but you have to at least hope that you will get there.
If you do have two active participants who sincerely want to communicate, then you and your spouse, children, mother, father or boss or employee can work it out - without fighting. Here are some guidelines to get you started on the road to communication powerful enough to not just deflect building conflict, but actually make it self-combust.
Tip 1: Recognize the Idea
At its root, effective communication involves the successful transmission of an idea. The first step to communicating an idea is to recognize that the idea exists in the first place.
Recognizing your ideas is not as easy as you'd think. You must first pay attention to your moods, thoughts, opinions, and impressions. Without acknowledging that you're feeling upset or angry or anxious, you can't communicate it. Without acknowledging that you disagree with someone, you can't communicate it. Without acknowledging that you have a preference, you can't communicate it. You'd be surprised at what ideas people miss because they don't pay attention.
Here is an example of what could happen when you don't pay sufficient attention to your own state of mind. Take a look at this exchange of a hypothetical couple, Bob and Julie, who are getting ready for a party.
"Julie, I'd like to head out for the party before noon."
"OK, Bob. No problem."
Unfortunately, Julie takes too long getting ready. The couple arrive late to the party and Julie cheerfully starts acting like she could party all day. Bob's patience wears down, and eventually he snaps, "I told you very clearly I wanted to get here early."
Now, the exchange they had initially seemed to be open, direct and friendly, yet clearly something went amiss. Looking deeper than the obvious interpretation--that the problem is simply Julie's acting inconsiderate and Bob's being short of temper--we find that what went amiss is the communication between Bob and Julie. There is much that was left out, much that has failed to be communicated, much that wasn't heard.
What has been left out? All of Bob's deeper motivations, feelings, and anxieties have been left out. He neglected to say any of the following:
"I've got a headache. I'm in a bad mood because I'd really rather stay home. I don't like our hostess, Barbara. If we get to the party late, I'll probably want to leave early."
It's possible these statements have been left out because Bob didn't want to say them. Maybe he didn't want to complain. Maybe he's had fights with Julie before over saying such things. Maybe he doesn't like to talk about his feelings. But it's just as likely that Bob didn't say any of the above statements because he hasn't really been paying attention to what was going on inside him.
Bob knows, of course, that he's not feeling great. But he doesn't articulate to himself why, or the details. Since he doesn't acknowledge it, he cannot express it.
Often what's happening when we don't acknowledge our own feelings and thoughts is that we're aware of them below the surface but, because we're tired or uncomfortable, we don't articulate them to ourselves. With spouses, we tend to assume our husbands or wives already know how we feel. Children think this way perforce--they often neglect to tell their parents how they're feeling, assuming their parents must know. Spouses who are close often share such assumptions.
In this example, Bob mistakenly assumes that all those things he didn't tell her, Julie already knows. Even more importantly, he assumes that, knowing how he's feeling, Julie must also know that his request to leave by noon was of high priority to him.
Julie is not free of blame here, either. Had she listened to Bob with a sensitive ear, she might have caught on to Bob's tone of voice and asked him, "What's going on?" Such a question would potentially have opened the lines of communication. Unfortunately, she's busy getting ready for the party and not really listening to her husband.
What is the result of Bob's omissions and Julie's distraction?
Julie's behavior looks inconsiderate, while Bob's anger seems to come from "out of the blue." Bob feels betrayed and unloved; Julie feels confused and attacked. They each suspect the other of leaving things unsaid. But it's too late. A fight develops.
You can often avoid fights by first and foremost recognizing what's going on with your own inner mental processes. Only then can you communicate them to someone else.
Tip 2: Consider Your Wording
Before you blurt out, "You must be crazy," take a moment to consider if that's the best way to express what you want to say.
If you don't care whether your husband or wife understands or cooperates with you, then sure, go ahead, go for it. And don't be surprised when your spouse gets angry or defensive and is unwilling to listen to you.
However, if you want to be considered seriously, then think about the impact your words will have and choose the best words to convey your meaning.
Follow the motto, "Speak as you would be spoken to." Which would you rather hear from somebody who disagrees with you: "You're nuts" or "I'm not understanding what you're saying?"
Does the latter sentence sound too wishy-washy for your taste? Sound too fake to work? You'd be surprised. Diplomatic phrasing may sound awkward, but it will be far less likely to hit the other person's "hot button."
What's a hot button? It's a lightning-fast negative reaction to certain words, phrases, and tones of voice. Everyone has his or her own particular hot buttons, although keep in mind that universally, people dislike hearing the word "no." Once a hot button has been hit, that's it. Good luck getting heard after that....
Tip 3: Ask for Clarification
One common mistake we all make—particularly when we're talking with somebody we know well, like a spouse—is assuming we know what our husband or wife is saying, without bothering to listen to the actual words. Starting now, banish any assumptions about what your husband or wife is trying to tell you.
Pretend you don't know them at all. Start from scratch. Pay attention to the actual words they're using. Quite often, you'll find they're saying something new...or that they've been saying something else all along.
When something your spouse says doesn't make sense or you don't understand a particular point, ask them to explain what they mean. Asking for clarification will not only help you understand, but also go a long way toward convincing them you are truly hearing them.
Asking for clarification has another major benefit: it helps you identify misunderstandings as they occur. The sooner you identify a misunderstanding, the sooner you identify a potential problem—before it escalates into something too big to surmount without an explosive fight.
Take this exchange as an example of a miscommunication between a mother and son happening and exploding quickly into an argument.
Mom: "Will you please clean up your room?"
Son: "I'm doing it now."
Mom: "I don't see you cleaning it. It looks to me like you're cruising the Web."
Son: "I told you, I'm doing it now! Go away! Stop bothering me!"
Mom: "That's it. Shut off your computer. You're cleaning your room right now."
In this exchange, a major miscommunication occurred and quickly evolved into a power struggle.
Now take this version of the exchange, where the miscommunication is identified right as it happens:
Mom: "Will you please clean up your room?"
Son: "I'm doing it now."
Mom: "I see. Um...Now? What exactly do you mean by now?"
Son: "What? Oh, I'm just finishing up here. I've gotta just send this e-mail. It'll just take me a minute."
Mom: "OK. So you'll clean your room as soon as you're done?"
Son: "Sure, I just said so, didn't I?"
Mom: "Just to make sure I have this straight...since you're my child and I happen to know you...when you say 'just one minute' you don't really mean an hour, do you?"
Son: "Aww....OK, hold on. I'll do it now."
In this exchange, mother and child reached a common understanding. How?
When the mother noticed that her son wasn't jumping to obey her request, rather than assume her son was lying or rebelling by saying "I'm doing it now," she asked him for clarification.
When she discovered that he was merely having a hard time dragging himself away from the Internet, she checked with him again about his intentions.
Checking with him like this also enabled her son to examine his own state of mind and to acknowledge his own behavior—which in turn enabled him to clean his room—now, even if reluctantly (and that reluctance is not a mark of rebellion...who, honestly, enjoys being told to clean their room?)
No power struggle...only respectful communication.
Tip 4: Don't Let Things Build Up (And If They Build Up Don't Let Them Explode)
Joe, a friend of Susie's, sits down next to Susie and starts talking.
"Susie, there's something I've been wanting to tell you for a long time. I really hate it when you gossip about other people the way you do. It hurts my feelings, especially since I'm convinced you gossip about me the same way. It's gotten to the point that I don't want to be around you anymore. If you can't stop gossiping to me about everyone, I'm going to have to stop hanging around you."
What happens next? Susie bursts into tears and never talks to Joe again.
Although often mistaken for communication—"I'm just confronting the issue!"—what Joe did was set policy, otherwise known as issuing an ultimatum. You deliver ultimatums as a last resort when you've kept silent on an issue for a long time and matters have finally built up to an explosive point.
Although you can't always avoid such long-term silences—often you don't even recognize problems stewing until they've had a chance to reach a full boil—be careful how you communicate them.
If, for example, Joe had remembered that this was the first that Susie knew of his problem, he might have tried a different approach, one that started with, "Hi, Susie. Listen, I've got something on my mind. Do you have a few minutes to listen?"
With that opening line, Joe would have opened the way to reaching Susie rather than alienating her. Although he might have feared risking the friendship, his efforts to communicate might, in this case, have served to cement his friendship with Susie rather than cleave it in two.
Forgive Yourself and Your Spouse
Learning how to communicate hardly happens overnight. It's an ongoing process. Just as relationships change, so too does the way we communicate with the people in our lives.
Be patient. Don't be harsh on yourself for making mistakes—or on the other party. Rather than cast blame, try to understand what happened and learn from it.
As you begin to practice communicating effectively with your family, friends, and associates, you will probably notice that your relationship improves right away. That is because underlying your efforts to communicate is a new dimension in your relationship—mutual respect and trust. With mutual respect and trust, half the battle is won, and you're well on the way to making your marriage - or any relationship - happier.