The Art of Fighting

Welcome to Format Free Fridays at, the one day a week when I break the format of answering your questions and I dispense that which we rarely welcome in life:  Unsolicited Advice.

Given the fact that every aspect of our life involves negotiating relationships, wouldn’t it make sense to learn communication skills, specifically, how to fight fair, at some point?

It’s as though we’re expected to inherently know how to have difficult discussions, how to deescalate our self and others, and how to recover from and move past dissension.  This expectation is about as realistic as expecting parents to inherently possess parenting skills, but that’s a post for another day.

I was a beach patrol lifeguard as a teenager and one of the first things I was taught is that a good lifeguard rarely gets wet.  She sees trouble before someone gets sucked into a rip and acts before there’s danger.  I believe the same principle applies here:  A good communicator sees trouble before she’s sucked into it ~ before her own emotions are escalated and compromising her ability to act rationally.

In my work as a therapist, I tend to see two types of communicators:

1.     People who believe that being in a loving relationship gives them license to speak openly about any thought that crosses their mind.

2.     People who avoid confrontation at all costs.

Not surprisingly, neither is ideal.  Group 1 tends to projectile vomit their unedited thoughts onto their partners, after which they need the emotional equivalent of HazMat suits to deal with the damage.  Group 2 avoids confrontation until either they explode or their partner explodes from their passive-aggressive behaviors.  Both of these groups find themselves neck-deep in water.

So how can you avoid falling into either of these groups?

Two things:  First, try not to get wet.  I’m going to explain how to do that in today’s post.  Next Friday I’ll explain what to do when you find yourself, uh, wet.

Don’t Get Wet

When people learn how to communicate with one another, they rarely fight. Most fighting occurs when one or both parties feel unheard.  Below is my 4-Steps process to effective communication.  If you can employ these steps into your everyday dialogue, you will feel as though you have a super power.  You will have a leg up in every relationship and you will never be reliant on another's cooperation to avoid conflict, because you’ll have the skills necessary to avoid it independently.

Dr. Darcy’s 4-Steps to Effective Communication

1. Do Use: “I” Statements.

“I” Statements describe how a situation made you feel.

Examples: I felt, I heard, I saw, I thought, I needed.

Avoid using the word you.

Don’t Use: Descriptions of the other person.

When you describe someone else’s behaviors as though you’re reciting facts, it makes the other person defensive. One person’s account of a situation is rarely accurate and never productive for the purpose of expressing feelings. The only thing that is important is perception.

2. Let Them Speak First: Then, speak one at a time.

Americans don’t really know how to do this.  We have poor impulse control, we are notorious for interrupting and we speak over each other as though it's OK.  It is NOT ok.  Cultivate the skill of patience while your partner is speaking.  Allow them to fully complete a thought and even allow for a pause before responding.

Don’t Respond With Your Side: We’ll get there, but not yet.

When your partner has finished speaking, DO NOT chime in with your perception of what happened.  Follow Steps 3 & 4 first.

3. Demonstrate ACTIVE LISTENING: This is also referred to as 'Mirroring' the other person.

Describe what you heard your partner say.

“What I heard you say is when I raise my voice, you get nervous and all you hear is screaming and you miss my point. Is that right?”

Ask For Confirmation That Your Mirroring is Correct: Is that right?

Continue mirroring back until you get confirmation. This can take a few times.

4. Validate the Person’s Feelings.

Feelings are valid and universal. You don’t need to have cancer to understand pain, fear and sorrow.

Example: “I’m sorry that you were scared. It’s a terrible feeling to be scared.” Note that you didn’t say, “I’m sorry I made you feel scared,” or "You're right.  I am an asshole."  Validating is not synonymous with taking responsibility for the way the other person feels. It merely validates their feelings and deescalates emotions.

Don’t DEFEND: Don’t go beyond validation.

There is no room in these steps for defensiveness. Defensiveness creates opponents / adversaries. It serves to invalidate the other party. This is not intended to prove one party wrong and the other right. If there is only one winner, everyone lost.

If you must, you may now give your rendition of what happened.  By now, your partner is nicely deescalated and just might be able to listen to you with the same amount of dignity and respect that you’ve shown to them.

Good communication is like good foreplay.  If you can control yourself and delay gratification, everyone feels better.  If, however, you rush the process and need to get yourself off before meeting your partner’s needs, you prove yourself to be a rookie and everyone walks away unsatisfied.

That’s it for today.  Tune in next Friday to learn part 2 in The Art of Fighting.