Fighting the 'good' fight: Families find constructive ways to handle discord

Published: Tuesday, May 14 2013 4:10 p.m. MDT

Ending conflict requires one thing, but it's painfully hard, experts agree. The only way to know what's bothering someone else is to listen.

"Too often, I talk and then I wait for my turn to talk," is what Stewart said happens instead. If a child or spouse can sense you're trying to listen, even if you don't understand or agree, it provides potential for resolution.

That is harder "once the point of contention has heightened to the level of raised voices, threatening statements, impulsive actions or words, defensiveness, blaming and a great deal of unspoken, hurtful body language," warned Erica Ives, marriage and family therapist in Los Angeles. Rational thought stops and it is hard to gather oneself to address issues. If safety is threatened, there's no chance of resolution. Ditto if a party is using alcohol or drugs. Get help and wait. If you tend to have conflict at a certain time of day, that's not the time to try to solve it.

Puhn starts a "good" fight by noting common ground: "We're both upset and hurt. Our relationship is important to me. I want to work this out," she might say. Next, she takes her "humility pill." "I am interested in hearing your perspective on this and what you felt. After you share that, would you be willing to listen to how I felt?"

That sets up a successful ending and conveys fairness, instead of "trying to douse a person with the notion you're right and she's wrong." It conveys respect — and usually in a fight, someone feels disrespect. She may add: "It was not my intent, but I can see how you could feel that … " or "I shouldn't have said that and I won't in the future."

Cool things down so you agree on a solution.

Tone matters. According to Stewart, there is a world of difference between "Why on earth did you do that?" and "Can you help me understand why you did that?"

A good fight

Some battles are necessary. Done well, it doesn't hurt.

"It breaks you out of whatever bad routine you're in," Puhn said. "You learn new information about how others see things and can do better. Happy couples fight. You are not the same, don't have the same perspective, will not interpret everything the same way. ... " Argument can help you do better in the future, Puhn said.

If whomever you're arguing with cares about something that doesn't matter to you, experts say let them have that one. Fight for what matters. Don't curse. Don't belittle. Don't be aggressive or defensive.

"Mind your own fight. Don't speak for anyone else. You may not use other people as your evidence," Puhn said. That applies to getting in the middle of someone else's fight, too. Don't.

Pay attention not only to your words, said Stewart, but to your volume, body language and posture.

It's OK to let kids see you don't always agree, he said — as long as there's no character assassination, the kids aren't put in the middle and there's no scary level of aggression. "Kids should see some conflict between Mom and Dad. It doesn't mean they don't love each other or the situation is hopeless. It means this is part of the process."

"When you're having a disagreement with your spouse, you need to ask yourself if the disagreement is really about the issue at hand or if it is about something else, like the workday that preceded it, chores around the house or lack of affection from your partner," said Larry A. Moore, a life and relationship coach in Houston. "Take a minute and a breath and figure out why you're really upset."

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