How to Fight Better
Updated: Feb 10, 2020
Conflict is absolutely necessary for a healthy relationship. And yet, most of us struggle to do conflict well. Many of us are taught that fighting means something is wrong with the relationship or is an indication that we are not compatible with our partner. I'm here to debunk that myth once and for all: you and your partner are different people and you will have differences of opinion. How you deal with those differences defines how healthy the relationship is. A good partner is someone who challenges us to grow and be flexible, encourages us learn new things and let go of what is no longer serving us, and provides the safety and security for us to explore new ways of being in relationship with ourselves, with them, and with the world (and of course, we should offer them the same in return). But this stuff is not easy and certainly not comfortable. Relationships are dynamic, unpredictable, and often times extremely challenging as we try to navigate conflicting needs and old wounds and unrealistic expectations and feelings of inadequacy. Conflict is going to happen. It needs to happen for us to understand where the other person is and how to meet them.
So, what is healthy conflict and how do we do it?
The most important thing when engaging in healthy conflict is this: Don't take it personally. I can't stress this enough. If someone is lashing out at you it doesn't mean that there is anything inherently wrong with you, it means that they're hurting and they don't have the skills available to adequately manage their pain. Once you realize that it's not about you, you're free to get curious around what's actually going on under the surface. I highly doubt your partner is slamming doors because you forgot to unload the dishwasher. It is much more likely that they are feeling unseen and unmet in a number of different ways in their life and this 'frustration about the dishwasher' situation is a great opportunity for them to discharge some of that pain.
Today I'm going to be introducing Nonviolent Communication, or NVC, developed by Marshall Rosenberg and used widely since its nascence in the 1960s. This approach acknowledges that we have been socialized to use language to hurt and control people by playing into victim/perpetrator dynamics. It believes that the only way to engage in healthy conflict is to get rid of the power struggle, the guilt, and the blame, and to come at relationship from a place of deep compassion - especially when we are feeling hurt. It teaches that violence only arises when strategies for meeting universal human needs are in conflict, and therefore we can mitigate that violence by learning to use new strategies that encourage collaboration instead of competition. This approach can be used in every type of relationship, from intimate, to familial, to professional, and even to the one with that stranger who is road raging at you for no apparent reason.
NVC focuses on three aspects of communication:
Self-empathy – your deep and compassionate awareness of your own inner experience
Empathy toward the other– your ability to listen to another person with deep compassion
Honest Self-expression – your ability to express yourself truthfully in a manner that can inspire compassion in others.
NVC operates under the premise that unmet needs are the source of all conflict. The idea is that when we respond to our unmet need by evaluating others negatively we invite shame, defensiveness, anger, and blame. On the other hand, when we give people a chance to see and understand our need (as well as a way for them to meet our need if they want to), it will inspire cooperation and closeness. So, here is the formula:
Observation / Feeling / Need / Request.
1. Observe the situation objectively: It has to be a specific, simple, inarguable observation. Use an actual example instead of referencing a pattern of behavior. Just state the facts. E.g. the room is messy, it's later than we had agreed upon, or the clothes were left in the washer for two days and are really smelly, etc... stay away from assigning any reasons to this or making assumptions about why things are the way they are.
2. State how the situation made you feel: This one can be tricky but it is extremely important. You must own your feelings. It is okay to say, "I feel really worried when you don't show up when you say you're going to". It is not okay to say, "You make me so anxious when you're late". The second example is inappropriate because this is a sneaky kind of blaming, where you're giving someone else the power to make you feel something and therefore making your feelings their fault (notice the victim role being invoked here - remember that every time you play the victim you are turning the other into a perpetrator and no one wants to be made to feel that way). Another example of an inappropriate feeling statement is, "I'm feeling really attacked" - this is inferring that they are willfully attacking you. Unless they specifically said, "I am attacking you", you can't possibly know that. It is an assumption about their intent, and is ultimately unfair. It is not your place to assign motivation to their behavior, but rather to own what is happening for you because your experience is the only thing you can be truly sure of. So check in with yourself - what is your reaction to feeling attacked? Do you get defensive, do you feel hopeless and collapsed, do you feel like fleeing from the situation, or something else entirely? "I'm feeling really defensive" is a very acceptable feeling statement if that is your response to their behavior.
3. State your needs: are you feeling a need for protection, understanding, trust, connection, compassion? (Here are examples of universal human needs that you can use to help identify your feelings and build your emotional vocabulary.) Get curious around where the need comes from and what you can do to solve the problem. It could be that you really want to come home to a clean space after a long day of work (understanding and support), or that you feel abandonment and fear of being unwanted when people don't meet their commitments (connection). Sometimes we don't know what we need, and you might be simply feeling a desire for closeness or distance. Often listening to and fulfilling these simple proximity instincts allows us the space to explore the deeper needs hiding beneath.
3a. Conversely, you can try to guess what the other person's needs are: It could be that the clothes were left in the washer because the person doing the laundry had to attend to an emergency (support) or is simply feeling overwhelmed and forgetful (compassion). Try to always give them the benefit of the doubt and they will likely do the same for you.
4. Make a reasonable request or a reasonable offer. It must be a request and not a demand, meaning it has to be okay for them to say no. If they say no, you can find a new strategy to meet your need. Ultimately it is your job to take care of yourself.
Alright, let's put it all together.
E.g. Instead of saying, "You never pick up after yourself - this place is a pig sty!" you could say, "I'm noticing that the living room is pretty messy (observation). I feel overwhelmed and exhausted at the end of the day (feeling) and I would really appreciate coming home to a calm space (need). Would you be willing to spend ten minutes picking up before I get home from work (request for understanding and support)?"
E.g. Instead of saying "Don't yell at me, I hate it when you yell! What is wrong with you that we can't have a normal conversation like normal people?" you could say, "I noticed you were raising your voice at me earlier (observation). I feel upset and confused (feeling). I would like to understand what happened that was upsetting to you (need). Were you angry that I didn't call you earlier when I said I would (offer to meet a need for connection)?
E.g. Instead of saying, "I cannot stand spending one more weekend with your family. They are driving me up the wall." you could say, "We have been spending a lot of time with your family (observation), and I notice I'm feeling some anxiety and frustration (feeling). I think I should do my own thing and take care of myself (need). Would it be alright if I skipped family dinner and spent the evening with my friends (request for identity and independence)?
You're not going to be perfect. You are going to slip up, your partner is going to slip up, and you will occasionally find yourselves wrapped in a shame/blame, victim/perpetrator dynamic. That's totally normal; just name it when you see it and try to course-correct. These may feel somewhat formulaic and clumsy at first and that is also totally alright. We learn this like everything else - from walking to driving to learning how to write - by repetition. Expect yourself to stumble, because that is how we learn. However, it is surprising how simple and effective these strategies are once you start to get the hang of them. There's a lot of really great (and free) literature about NVC online too. I encourage you to take this and run with it - do whatever level of exploration feels right for you.