A good team knows how to effectively navigate the vital seas of conflict. Learning how to fight well may be the hardest part of truly becoming a team. Most of us have a convoluted relationship to conflict. If we're not conflict avoidant, we're conflict prone. One of the first steps to finding balance, is to be able to tell the difference between a good fight and a bad one, and act accordingly.
"Bad" or destructive fights:
- Often erupt out of tense situations
- Are launched/experienced as an attack
- Globalize, with phrases like "You Never," "You Always"
- Thrive on reactivity and raised voices
- Are usually started unconsciously, to help one partner manage a bad feeling
- Are difficult to recover from
- Are about real needs and differences
- Are an attempt to get something to work even better
- Are about issues connected to a larger vision i.e., "Why the family really does need to get a new car....."
- Raised voices used only when absolutely needed to make a point
- Good fights are negotiations that eventually end with both partners feeling satisfied
Bad fights lead nowhere, because, at the bottom, they are not really about the relationship. The relationship just happens to be the arena in which internal discomfort is played out.
Below are team-based prevention tools and in-the-middle exit strategies from destructive fights.
1) Find out the differences together:
At an appropriate time or in a relationship maintenance conversation, engage a rich discussion with your partner. Discuss fights you've had that took you somewhere and fights that didn't. Get specific about the differences. This will make regrouping as a team in the middle of an unhealthy spat much easier.
2) Establish ground rules:
Go over specific ground rules for fighting. There are certain ground rules that should be on everybody's list:
- No name calling
- No in-fight sarcasm
- No yelling
Add your own rules and lay out the consequences for trespasses clearly. For example,"If you, at any point call me an A-hole, I'm going to leave the room"; "If you bring up...... again, I will shut down." Hopefully, a signal can help you before those trespasses happen.
3) Choose a signal:
During peacetime, choose a signal that you will use when you feel things start to go off in a "bad fight" direction. A waving "stop!" or a "talk-to-the-hand" gesture will do. I always encourage it to be playful or funny.
Then when you actually have a fight, you each have to:
4) Referee and regroup:
When players break the rules in a boxing ring, the referee steps in and sends them back to their corners. You can each lead in the relationship by playing referee. Recognizing when you are sliding into a bad fight and using the signal is like blowing the whistle. Both parties must heed its call.
After a signal appears, you have to find a way to let go of the power struggle and retreat. Take a minute apart or in silence and regroup. Ask yourself:
- What are we actually fighting about?
- What, if anything, do I need to communicate across the lines (and don't forget to consider an apology first)?
- What can I let go of?
- What, if anything, do I need to deal with on my own?
This is part one of two in the How to Fight the Good Fight series. Stay tuned for the second part tomorrow: Negotiate.
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