Avoid Fighting–The Recipe

Thursday, November 1st, 2012 at 1:28 pm


It never hurts to revisit an old topic, one that applies to every one of us: I am referring to effective conflict management.

Three or four times a week I have a couple in my office and one of them says they are afraid of conflict. When I asked them what that means, typically they provide a detailed description of fighting. Sometimes it involves fighting that they heard or witnessed between their parents growing up. It also includes fights they have had with their relationship partner or spouse.

What I have learned over the years is that people are not so much afraid of conflict as they are afraid of fighting. So what I help couples do is to separate those two issues: conflict and fighting.

Conflict is a difference–a way that couples can actually come closer to one another, BUT,  they must manage conflict effectively.

Fighting, on the other hand, is what happens when a conflict is mismanaged. Another way to think about conflict is that conflict is a difference. One of you is male, one of you is female.  Or, one of you thinks differently about an issue than your partner. That is a conflict, but it is not a fight.

Another way to separate the notions of conflict and fighting is by understanding the functions of each one. The functions of fighting are to win, defend, and to stay distant.

Conversely, effectively managed conflict functions to draws us closer together–we finish business, clear the air. Another function of conflict is to provide a process by which each partner can be understood. When we feel understood we typically feel safer, heard and closer to one another.

Mismanaged conflict may lead to fighting. Fight tactics leave one another’s feelings hurt, one or both parties feeling angry,  neither party feeling heard nor understood.

So, what are the ingredients of effective conflict management?

Here they are:  Listen, recap, ask questions that lead to understanding your partner’s experience. THAT’S IT!

And here is how you put it to work:

Understanding your partner’s experience means that you ask questions that focus on three areas:  Your partner’s thinking, feeling and behaving.

You might ask:   “What did you think when I said or did (state the issue) whatever you didn’t like ?”

When your partner gives you his or her answer, re-cap the gist or the interpretation of what you heard and ask if it was accurate and complete.

Your next question might sound something like this: when you thought that, what did you feel?

Now, you can recap that as well.

At that point, it will be helpful to ask:   when you think those things and feel those things, what do you tend to do?

Asking questions that are designed to gather information about what your partner thinks, feels, and does covers all three areas of experience: thinking, feeling, and behaving.

You may not like hearing what your partner is telling you, and you may begin to feel some emotional reactivity and defensiveness. Do your best to put your defensiveness aside, and continue to ask questions until you understand your partners experience as completely as possible.

Remember, we have two ears, and one mouth.  That means listen twice as much as you talk.

Asking questions and listening to your partner telling you what they think feel and do is difficult and does not feel natural. We are taught to manage conflict in a competitive way.  Competition leads to either winning or losing. fact is, when one of you loses, you both lose.

Although it may seem counter intuitive, the competitive style of conflict management leads couples farther apart from each other rather than closer. What I have described above is a cooperative method of managing conflict.

The cooperative style of managing conflict generally leads to couples feeling closer, especially when they have a lot of practice and employ it frequently.  The cooperative method reduces the odds of fighting, and fighting is what most of us are afraid of.

Now you can effectively manage conflict and avoid fighting.

Wishing you a satisfying relationship,

Jim Hutt, Ph.D., MFT

©2012 CounselorLink.com & Jim Hutt, Ph.D., MFT

All rights reserved

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  1. Hi Dr. Hutt,

    First of all, I want to tell you that all your articles are extremely helpful. I have enjoyed reading each one of them and identifying things that I could do better in my relationship.

    I wanted to ask you, a topic that has caused a lot of stress in my relationship with my fiance is the in-laws, but very specifically my future mother in law. I am 25 years old and so is my fiance. Things that seem to concern me are her constant need for attention from her son (even though she lives far away, – demanding from him to talk for hours per day and getting mad if her son tells her he is in the middle of something, making comments that imply that she feels he should be home with his brothers when he is at my place), treatment of her son as child, not including me in plans of his future and making comments related to that, and what it feels almost like a competition for his with me when it comes to his behavior, which I never started to begin with.
    I know this causes my fiance a lot of stress as well since neither of us knows how to deal with this effectively.

    I’d appreciate it if you can shed some light.
    Thank you.

    Comment by Maria — February 9, 2013 @ 3:13 am

  2. Well, Jody, this is a real problem for both you and your fiancé. The short version is that your fiancé is in the middle of a powerful loyalty conflict between you and his mother. He wants to please his mother, and, he wants to please you, not to mention himself. Another part of the problem is that his mother does not seem able to let him live his own life without interpreting his independence from her, and his attachment to you, as rejection and/or abandonment. Since I have no historical data from which to draw any conclusions, all of this is speculation.

    My guess, and that’s all it is, is that there may be some long-standing difficulty between his mother and father, and that your fiancé MAY be playing a surrogate role with his mother. It is also possible that your fiancé is fearful of conflict, which has ramifications for the two of you. Someone who feels as torn as your fiancé seems to feel, usually fears being rejected by the possessive mother. However, possessive mothers often are very dependent, and will not reject the person upon whom they feel so dependent, even thought they might threaten to. Furthermore, he may also feel guilty in believing he is causing his mother so much pain. Let me assure you both, he is NOT causing her pain–her pain is hers, and hers alone. He needs to understand at his core that to live a separate life is not synonymous with being rejecting.

    You each need to support each other, and do your best to not turn this into a fight at the heart of your relationship. I strongly encourage you to seek couples counseling asap, and learn how understand the roots of this powerful and complicated dynamic so that you each can develop effective strategies AS A TEAM for dealing with the situation.

    Good luck, and please keep me informed. I wish you, and his parents, well.

    Dr. Hutt

    Comment by Dr. J. Hutt — February 17, 2013 @ 6:30 pm

  3. I have been married 30 years and never knew until reading this that the competitive communication in my tone of voice and in his tone of voice was driving my husband and I appart.By always thinking that there had to be a winner at the end of every conversation.I found in reading your blog that there is no winner…we both are losers.Thank you for the tools to communicate better with my spouse and children and grandchildren.I have been consistant in driving those I love most appart from me.I never understood with so much love in my heart ,I was driving them appart from me.thank you with tears that now there is hope for me to hear what the other person is saying better.I was the 12th of 13 children and only grew up with survival tools.Which really wasn’t tools at all.Just kept me isolated to keep me protected from being harmed .Never teaching me how to enter in to be a part and content with meeting others needs .

    Comment by Grandparent Evans — February 19, 2013 @ 7:33 am

  4. Great work! Now you are well on your way to breaking one of the most powerful patterns that creates distance between people, fractures families, and generally breeds unhappiness.
    If you have not already done so, sign up for my newsletter here on the website, and also go to my Facebook page, Relationship City, and you will get lots of free info about many other aspects of communication and relationship repair. Stay in touch!

    Comment by Dr. J. Hutt — February 19, 2013 @ 2:11 pm

  5. Hello Dr. Hutt, my name is Tyler and I am 23 years old. My problem is not with a partner but with family members. There is intense yelling in my household at least five times a week. Usually it is between my dad and myself, we disagree on a lot of stuff and it leads to it. In the past year I’ve realized how bad yelling is for everyone involved, I’ve tried ways to calm myself and prevent it but usually it will still happen because of how much we do not get along and do not see eye to eye on everything. Any suggestions?

    Comment by Tyler — March 12, 2013 @ 2:54 am

  6. Tyler, clearly, that is a very difficult situation to deal with. It is difficult for me to give you suggestions on how to manage things without knowing more details of your situation.
    At your age, one thing you can work toward, if at all possible, is finding a new place to live. Of course, getting some professional counseling either for yourself individually, or for the family is the way to go. No doubt, everyone is affected by the tense atmosphere that probably hovers over the day to day existence for all of you.

    Do keep me informed.

    Dr. Hutt

    Comment by Dr. J. Hutt — March 12, 2013 @ 10:21 am

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