The First Rule of Fight Club

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I’m sure someone has done research on this but why does it seem the people we fight with the most are the ones closest to us? In fact, we say some of the most heinous things to our dearest love ones. Things that if we said to a stranger on the street would result in a physical beat down. I guess it only took one divorce to realize the wrong way to fight is to say things like “I can’t believe you’re that f*&%#@g stupid!” Well, no one ever said I was a fast learner, and it turns out that, according to Bruce Feiler, author of  The Secrets of Happy Families: Improve Your Mornings, Rethink Family Dinner, Fight Smarter, Go out and Play, and Much More couples who learn to negotiate are happier in their marriages and their jobs (Feiler 77).

So what’s the right way? Bruce Feiler went to the Harvard Negotiation Project and also talked with Deborah Tannen, the author ofI only say this because I love you,” to figure out the smart way to negotiate disagreements in the home.

The first four tenets of successful fighting are: time, language, length and body (Feiler 77-78). If you’ve ever heard your spouse say, “let’s talk about this another time,” or “I’m not quite ready to talk about this.” Unless there’s some sort of urgent deadline to resolve the issue, listen to your spouse. Most fights occur either as people are coming together or saying goodbye. Getting the kids out the door in the morning or when someone walks in from a day of work are the most vulnerable times (Feiler 77). So identify better times to have discussions.

Sticks and stones may break my bones but words, oh who are we kidding, words hurt. In fact if it wasn’t for words most fights would never even start. Personally, I was never really injured by a stick or a stone but there’ve been plenty of times I shot my mouth off and ended up feeling physical pain as a result. Feiler notes that University of Texas psychologist James Pennebaker, the author of The secret life of pronouns, says that if a couple uses first-person pronouns, I or we, it’s a sign of a healthy relationship. Get rid of saying the word “you.” (Feiler 78).

In arguments, most of the good stuff comes out the beginning (Feiler 78). After that most of it is just repeating your point over and over and at higher decibels (Feiler 78). I will point out a cautionary note here, I have noticed with my own wife that sometimes I will immediately acknowledge her position but she still wants to wash-rinse-repeat a few dozen more times. Apparently, I also have this habit. Sometimes you just need to let the other person vent for a while. She is also wonderful in that she will inform me when she is done venting. The griping light is off, sound the all-clear.

Body language also plays a significant role in arguing. Whatever you do, do not roll your eyes. It is a sign of contempt and a trigger for the other person (Feiler 78). The best way to ease tense conversations are to lean forward, smile and nod your head (I suppose it also helps if you listen).

Speaking of, listening is actually the second key component in successful arguing (who knew?) The point of a negotiation is not to reach an agreement it is to serve your interests. Stay calm, actually listen to the other person’s position and reframe in a manner that moves you towards a solution (Feiler 81-82). Dr. Stephen Covey called this the Fifth Habit: Seek First to Understand, then to be Understood. Once you can accurately articulate the other persons position you can then move to the all important “third alternative” which may even be a better solution than either of you could’ve generated individually.

Most of us consider ourselves to be rationale adults, but how do we handle it when our kids fight? Most siblings fight because they take each other for granted which is also the same reason they fight when they grow up (Feiler 112). Disputes between siblings are the most common conflict families face (Feiler 112). Note: I was an only child so if I was arguing with myself I’d end up talking to a mental health professional for an hour, meanwhile successful Ventriloquist Jeff Dunham talked to himself while growing up and he’s a multi-millionaire. Life’s about choices I guess.

  • To reduce fights during mealtime have siblings spend at least 20 minutes prior engaged in a joint activity (Feiler 113). And just hope that does not result in a fight. 
  • To boost camaraderie give siblings chores to do together (Feiler 113). You may need to monitor this activity as my youngest son is a manager-in-training and has mastered the art of watching others do his work. This can even work between non-siblings. I once had a shop teacher who knew that me and another guy in shop class did not get along and had even exchanged blows a few times. One day he forced us to play “the football game,” where you fold up a piece of paper into the shape of a football and…well, the rules are not important, the point is while this guy and I did not become best buddies afterwards, we at least quit trying to hit each other.
  • To increase confidence, spend 10 minutes alone with each child every night doing something they enjoy, such as reading a book, or telling stories. This also seems to contribute to a sense of significance and individualism. Plus, it helps build rituals, which are the things we look back on later in life, and then try to re-create with our own kids. I still fondly recall my dad taking me up to The Wizard Magic Store in Boulder, Colorado to check out the latest new tricks.
  • Get involved in your kids disputes (Feiler 113). Like Feiler, my wife and I used to think that telling the kids to work it out themselves was a progressive parenting strategy. However, as most parents will tell you, when you tell a child to work something out for themselves, they will find a way and it will not likely be what you had in mind. Most adults barely have decent negotiation skills yet somehow we expect our kids to be born with them. I think we believe they will sit down, visit with each other on their opposing viewpoints, stay calm and work towards a mutually beneficial solution. That’s as ridiculous as it sounds. Instead, have both parties calm down. This may require a few minutes of separation. Then, focus on the actions both took to continue to escalate the conflict. Next, let’s go back to habit 5, which is also the Golden Rule. Teach the child to think about the person they’re in conflict with and that individuals perspective (Feiler 114). Finally apologize, as the late Dr. Randy Pausch said, an apology contains 3 elements, I’m sorry, it was my fault, and what can I do to make it better? We have found this to be a pretty good strategy ourselves. Not perfect but we are working on it and its wonderful when we see our kids execute this resolution strategy entirely without our intervention.

Finally, one of the key lessons that I learned about kids fighting: little things do matter. As parents we have a tendency to minimize what our kids are arguing about. But Feiler notes that to a child, when they get into an argument with their sibling, they wonder if they are being treated fairly in the world (Feiler 115). Fair warning – how you teach them to resolve their arguments now, will be the strategy they will use with you when it’s time for them to start changing your diapers. There will be a time when the loved one you’re fighting with, is the one making the decisions about your long-term care. The first rule of fight club, is to play nice.

Feiler, Bruce S. The Secrets of Happy Families: Improve Your Mornings, Rethink Family Dinner, Fight Smarter, Go out and Play, and Much MoreNew York, NY: William Morrow, 2013. Print.

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