How to Fight Fair


Every relationship has conflicts and disagreements.  That’s especially true in the intimate relationships of marriage and family.  It’s also true in relationships with colleagues at work and friends.


How successful are you at resolving those times of discord and tension?  The secret to success is following the rules of “fighting fair.”


Here are some suggestions for the next time you find yourself at odds with someone important to you:

     •  Start with the right attitude.  Your goal is to understand the relationship better and find out what the two of you can do to more fully meet each other’s needs.  If you are in it to win at all costs, you will sabotage the relationship.  In a quality relationship, both people feel safe during a conflict and both trust that working on the problem will enhance the relationship, not destroy it.  You will know you are “fighting fair” when you open up an issue with that confidence.

     •  Speak up when something in the relationship is bothering you.  Other people can’t read your mind.  Saving all the little hurts for ammunition to be unloaded at a later time will only make it harder to resolve conflicts.  Deal with the issue as soon as possible.  If it is a very heated moment or if the conversation quickly escalates, schedule some time after you have cooled down to discuss the problem.  If either of you has been using drugs or alcohol, wait until both of you are sober.

     •  Start by stating exactly what is bothering you.  This must be a very specific, concrete, behavioral statement.  Vague generalizations only leave the other person confused about what the problem is.  One helpful approach is an “I” message.  It goes like this:

     “I feel _____ when _____.  What I need is _____.”

     •  Continue by listening carefully to the other person’s response. If it is a calm, rational response, you will likely be able to discuss the problem in a mature manner and find a solution.  If the other person starts blaming, accusing, analyzing, shifting the topic, or some other defensive maneuver, agree with whatever truth is in those statements and repeat your “I” message until the other person starts working with you.  Remember, that the other person may have legitimate complaints, too.  Accept your part in the problem.

     •  Seek to solve the problem.  Request and offer changes that will make a positive difference in the situation.  Brainstorm possible solutions.  Bargain and compromise.  Don’t give in to keep peace -- the issue will just re-emerge at another time.  When you have an agreement, live up to your part of it.  Forgive and move on.


During your conversation, observe these guidelines:

     •  Attack the problem, not the other person.  Be respectful.  Put-downs, name-calling, threatening, insults, ridicule, and other ways of “hitting below the belt” have no place in a fair fight.  Keep the problem the problem.  Don’t personalize it.

     •  Communicate clearly.  Speak in a clear, direct, empathetic way.  Make concise, thoughtful statements.  A monologue about the problem is unlikely to help.

     •  Be honest.  Exaggerations, half-truths, parts of a story, innuendos, generalizations (“you always ...” or “you never ...”), and other “spin” are dishonest ways of avoiding an open confrontation with the problem.  Take responsibility for your actions.  Don’t make excuses or blame other people.

     •  Stay calm and rational.  Keep the issue in perspective.  Maintain your sense of humor.

     •  Fight about what you really need to fight about.  For example, parents who fight with their children about curfew frequently are really worried about safety, drug use or some other teen problem.  Spouses who complain about business trips or other brief separations are often really concerned about fidelity or inability to advance their own career.

     •  Stick to the subject.  Work on one problem at a time.  The other person may try to change the topic by blaming someone or something else for the problem, counter-attacking with his or her unrelated complaints, or some other effort to shift the topic.  If that happens, stop the diversion and get the conversation back on the main issue.

     •  Keep the issue between you and the other person.  Involving children, parents, in-laws, colleagues, neighbors or others into the dispute is unfair to them and will only make a solution more difficult.

     •  No physical attacks, pushing or shoving – ever!


Great personal relationships are important for all of us – physically and emotionally.  Every relationship will be challenged by disagreement and conflicts.  “Fighting fair” will help solve those problems while enhancing the relationship.


© Glen Rediehs, Ph.D.


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