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10 Ways To Fight Fair

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By Peggy Loo, LPC

Conflict is tough. It’s no surprise that we often go to great lengths to avoid conflict. Within moments a fight can go awry and leave hurt feelings, painful memories, and an even larger rift in our relationship. When we approach conflict, we can do one of three things. We can: Avoid fighting, (Unresolved conflict), fight dirty, (Poorly resolved conflict) or fight fair (Resolved conflict).

Unresolved or poorly resolved conflict often leads to stress, hostility and a superficial or stunted relationship. This outcome is often the case when the conflict is about being right, getting even or not being open to change. Regardless of who your conflict is with, remember that the fundamental purpose of conflict is to address an issue that has become divisive in your relationship with the goal of expressing feelings openly and building a stronger relationship. Fighting fair requires honest communication, consistent commitment, and a shared goal to prioritize the relationship, and ultimately, each other. When we learn to fight fair, we build safety, trust, and intimacy in our relationships.

As with any skill, learning to fight fair takes practice. Here are ten guidelines to consider:

1. Agree to fight.
Make a mutual decision of when to fight. Don’t take on a difficult conversation after a hard day or when one person is under significant stress or preoccupied. Fighting fair takes two ready and clear-headed participants.

2. Make ground rules.
Identify some basic rules together that both participants agree to stick to, such as no interrupting, no sarcasm, or no taking phone calls during the fight. The focus here is to create a safe environment for both people to engage openly without distraction or retaliation. Allow each other to gently and firmly redirect the other when a ground rule is broken.

3. Stick to the subject.
Clarify and limit what the fight is about. Do not take this opportunity to bring up other issues or shortcomings. If there is a problem that comes up that’s worth discussing, agree mutually to bring it up at a later time.

4. Stick to the present.
Don’t take this opportunity to list off every instance of the problem or bring up every past mistake made. Often this only serves to get the fight off topic and increase defensiveness. Often what has happened in the past cannot be changed. Focus on what can be changed.

5. Don’t button-push or use blaming language.
Often we know the buttons and sensitive areas of the people we are closest to. Don’t use this information against one other simply because you or the other person may feel vulnerable, defensive, or upset during a conflict. Instead of starting sentences with “You always…” or “You never…”, be responsible for your own feelings and thoughts and instead use “I-statements”, such as “I get mad when…” or “I feel frustrated because…” or ”I think sometimes that…”

6. Be open to taking breaks.
Take a time-out if emotions start to run high or you feel that you can no longer remain calm, respectful, and productive. Just like children are instructed to take time-outs when starting to get out of control, adults need to do the same. Keep in mind that if you choose to take a break, you should agree together on a time to return to the conversation.

7. Respect crying.
Often crying brings conflict to a screeching halt or sidetracks the conversation. Consider that crying is a legitimate response for both men and women, and crying often gives release to pent-up feelings or reveals root emotions that need validation. Take some time to validate, communicate support, or at the very least respect the other person’s expression of feeling.

8. No violence.
Physical or verbal threats or aggression is unacceptable and violates all rules of respect needed for fair fighting.

9. Don’t prioritize “winning.”
Remember that fair fighting is about resolving a problem in order to build a stronger relationship. This goal requires listening with an open mind to what the other person has to say, and at times, agreeing to disagree. When the focus becomes about being right or winning, it automatically detracts from the relationship.

10. Don’t quit.
Just as you start the fight by mutual agreement, end the fight together. If you don’t, the fight will likely repeat again and again because one person remains unsatisfied. Even if the fight requires another planned conversation in the future, it should be a joint decision.

Learning to fight fair takes time, practice, and most importantly, patience. Be patient and gracious with one another as you learn to engage respectfully and lovingly in the issues that matter most.