Reflecting Before you Fight - Five Crucial Questions

How to create less conflict and more successful resolution in your relationships

Posted May 12, 2013

The most consistently painful interactions I observe in my work with couples are two people unabashedly yelling at each other in noisy and blatant enmity. Their faces are contorted, their eyes are narrowed, and their voices are raised as they spew negative phrases at each other. Neither partner shows any evidence of hearing the other’s need or point of view or looking for any kind compromise.  What once might have been an offer of understanding or an attempted solution, has now been replaced with two human steam rollers intent on flattening each other.

Arguments that have gotten out of hand are never productive. They have no helpful purpose in an intimate relationships and cause cumulative and often irreparable damage. Once they get going, they only end when one or both partners give up. A painful separation often follows until the partner who most hurts from isolation tries to reconnect. The underlying injuries may be buried, but will continue their damage, hidden and unseen. Even more distressing, successive similar battles further weaken the love that both partners depend upon.

Couples who sincerely want to stop these adversarial patterns must not only be able to see them coming, but be able to stop them before they give way to runaway negative emotions. That requires them to have practiced and mastered an alternative set of substitute behaviors they can choose to do instead.  

There are many options. Partners can agree to separate for a while until each feels calmer and more ready to listen. They can also agree to listen without interrupting until each has been able to express his or her point of view. Some couples agree to limit their negative interactions to email where they can take the time to more carefully phrase what they want to say.

In my four decades of working with couples, I have found that the transformational exercise below is another option and often the most effective way to help them find meaningful, long-term resolutions. When they master these easy steps and put them into action when they feel a dangerous disagreement brewing, they are able to keep the damage low and a successful resolution more likely.

As soon as a couple becomes aware that their disagreement is beginning to heat up, they separate from each other and write the answer to five crucial questions. When they have both have completed that part of the assignment, they share their answers with each other. The act of going to a quiet place alone defuses some of the growing emotional surge, and also gives them time to settle before exchanging their thoughts and feelings.

Doing the Exercise

First pick a recent or familiar disagreement that both of you agree would be a good option to practice. Make sure that you are in a good place when you do the exercise, so that you are not asking yourselves to learn while you are upset. After you and your partner have each role played your typical parts in that example argument, separate out and write down your answers.

When you’ve finished sharing, you may find yourselves more able to understand each other’s core issues and points of view even though you have staged it this time. The awareness, alone, may offer up options that you did not see before. When your partner shares his or her thoughts and feelings, do not argue or question. Each of your reality is sacred, even though you may not see things the same way.

With your new information about each other’s distresses and needs, you still may not be able to give what each of you may desire in that moment. Information is necessary for change, but is not always enough to make those changes happen. Still, when you do actually fight, you will have a better chance of coming out ahead.

The Five Questions

Question One – What am I feeling right now and what do I need?

Most people react unconsciously to what their partners are throwing at them without stopping to examine what they are feeling, what they need, and what they can give in the moment. They may be tired, out of sorts, pre-occupied, looking for something from their partners, or just focused in some other direction. Their partners may not have any idea what they are thinking or feeling, or what their current resources are to respond from.

Perhaps you’ve just come home from work and are looking forward to some much needed quiet, but your partner needs to talk about something urgent to him or her. Because you are focused on your own need, you may react with irritation and impatience. Your partner may misunderstand and think you are arguing about the problem he or she is presenting. You may then find yourself in the middle of a disagreement that could be easily resolved when you were more rested. (Or, the underlying problem could be that you are often too tired to listen and your partner is getting worked up over that.)

Maybe it is you that wants some close connection and your partner is the one who is preoccupied. You feel rejected and alone, and start to challenge him or her about generic choices and priorities that have nothing to do with what you need at that moment. Your partner begins to defend and the interaction becomes a heated discussion about distribution of resources and who deserves what and when.

Question Two – If I tell my partner exactly how I’m feeling right now and what I want, how will he or she respond?

In established relationships, both partners can have a pretty good idea how the other will respond to a request if they just take the time to remember past interactions. Perhaps they don’t want to remember those patterns because they are tired or feel the problem isn’t resolvable given their current patterns. Sometimes partners don’t want to acknowledge any memories of past disappointments, hoping this time the outcome will be different. Maybe they just want what they want and thinking about the likelihood that they won’t get it makes them unable to do what might work better.

If committed partners choose to think carefully about previous relationship interactions and heed the lessons they’ve learned, they often can see more options that were hidden before. Perhaps they realize that the timing is off for them to get what they need, or they might do better if they modify what they were going to say. By thinking about the answer before they speak to their partner, they can check out whether their anticipations were correct.

Question Number Three – What do I think my partner needs from me now and how is that likely to make him or her hear me?

This step is the most crucial for successful conflict resolution. It is not easy to actually identify with what your partner may be thinking if you are too preoccupied in setting up your own approach. When you have been with someone for any length of time, you can temporarily let go of your own world-view and sincerely try to enter the mind and heart of the one you love. What do you think they need at this moment? What do you believe their internal resources are in this moment? How much energy do you believe they have to give or to help solve the problem?

Looking at the situation through the eyes of your partner does not have to erase your own desire. It just makes it clearer that there is more than one of you in the room and that any solution or distribution of resources has both short and long term goals. Do his or her desires seem more legitimate than yours in this moment? Perhaps one of you feels more distress and the other is in a better place. Maybe you have been given much of what you’ve wanted for a long time and now have a chance to reciprocate.   

Before you speak, you should at least have a working idea of how your partner might respond. You can show how much love you feel just by anticipating his or her inner even if you aren’t exactly on target. Just caring that much is often enough.

Question Number Four – If my partner and I were to interact right now in our old way, what would an impartial observer think about how we felt about each other?

Try imagining that a video camera is recording your conflict interaction while it is happening, and that you are planning to show it to someone else later. Think of that person as an impartial and fair observer, someone you both know and respect, and who will give you objective information about what he or she sees.

I often ask couples how they would feel if someone important to them were to witness their most distressing interactions. How might those intimate partners change the way they interacted? Would they be more careful to sound more caring, listen more deeply, or give the other partner more respect? Most intimate partners know inside what they should be doing even when they are not able to control themselves in the moment. Keeping an imaginary impartial observation going on in their minds can help them to better stay on track.

Were you able to let some part of you stay outside your interaction, it may give you the ability to hold on to the way you’d like to be despite the intensity of your emotions. That part of your consciousness will keep you voting for what is right even when the rest of you may be caught up in trying to get your way.

Question Number Five – Knowing as much as we can about successful committed relationships, what would be the most ideal way you could behave in a disagreement?

Most people in committed relationships has within his or her mind and heart an ideal way that people should treat each other, especially when things are not going right. Whether spiritual, mental, emotional, sexual, or physical, most people know which behaviors are wonderful and which make most intimate partners hurt or angry. They may not know how to get there easily or to remain there once they’ve attained it, but they still know it.

To help you get in touch with who you would most want to be in conflict situations, answer the following questions. They are not meant to imply a one-size-fits-all self-respect, but only to help you find your own.

1)      How would you behave differently if were you standing in front of a person you highly respect? Would you treat your partner the same were you arguing in front of someone from whom you want respect, support, and acceptance?

2)      Would you change your behavior if you wanted people important to you to feel supportive of your point of view, or in the way you were expressing what you wanted from your partner?

3)      Who have been the people in your life that you have admired? How might they behave in the same situation? Would it be different from the way you are acting?

4)      How would you wish to be different with your partner the next time you disagree? What would you need to change to make that happen?

5)      Can you recall a time when you interacted in a conflict with your partner and felt good about yourself and the outcome? What did you like about how you and your partner handled yourselves?

You won’t always be able to reach those ideals. Forgive yourself if you’re just feeling down and can’t always do the right thing. As long as you learn from your experiences and keep your values in sight, you’ll always have another chance to practice doing it better.

Also, forgive your partner if he or she can’t always give you what you need. There is not one person who hasn’t behaved in a way that felt embarrassing or too hard on his or her partner. But knowing who you would like to become and keeping that ideal in mind, even when you can’t fully embrace it, will bring it closer each time you remember.

Every time you prevent a destructive conflict, you will have less damage control when you resolve things in a productive way. All couples have disagreements that beg for resolution. Every destructive conflict erodes a couple’s confidence that they can find a greater closeness, and each successful resolution can form the foundation for the next.

When you learn to disagree in a loving and caring way, you can spend more time building the sweetness of your relationship instead of needing to repair it. Mastering this exercise will help you to create the internal integrity and preparedness you need.