How to fight well
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How to fight well

Image by Rose Juliet, licensed under Creative Commons

Beyond our stories — finding language that reconnects

When we fight, it’s so easy to make things worse just by the language we use. This is how to change that.

Think about a fight you had that still has a bit of a sting in it.

What did that other person do or say? How strong was the feeling that they were ‘wrong’ or needed to know how their actions had hurt you?

Maybe, after it had all settled down, you could see that they didn’t intend to hurt you. That their motivation was entirely separate from the indignation they caused you.

There’s a good reason for this.

When we get triggered, what’s really happening is that another person has touched on something unresolved — the edges of a story that hasn’t quite been tied up.

As human beings, we develop and learn through our early experiences. As a child your mind and body were shaped by the interactions between you and those important to you.

This created a set of neural pathways, and scripts, that you instantly refer to in present day life which guide and steer your responses to events.

These are your ‘triggers’ and how you react is reading straight off these scripts. It doesn’t mean you should suddenly find all unreasonable behaviour to be reasonable — it is instead about separating what actually happened from the story you’re telling yourself about the situation or other person.

Moving beyond our stories

When you’re triggered, before you start considering how to respond, the first job is to remember that how you are reacting is a shadow of your past, not an accurate representation of this other person, in this moment.

It’s important not to squash or repress these feelings. They are still very real and require your compassion — it’s just not going to help if you throw them out at other people. All you’re doing is inviting them into your personal drama.

Instead, you can pause to give yourself some breathing space, notice what’s happening inside of you and practice just allowing that to be there.

I personally find it helpful to physically get some space, make myself busy with chores or jobs I’ve been avoiding and practice focusing on being in my body, not my churning head.

I’ve learned that when I think my partner is being a dick and I’m the one who does all the work round here (or whatever my drama is that day), then anything I do or say in that moment is likely to carry that idea with it, and we’ll end up in a bigger, less constructive fight.

One of the main reasons for this is that when I’m stressed, angry or annoyed, my sympathetic nervous system is aroused (i.e. I’m in an adrenalised ‘fight or flight’ state). This means that I’m neurologically incapable of the clear, curious mind that I want to bring to a good fight.

So I just have to practice getting back to ground by recognising the story that’s alive for me and allowing my system to calm itself down.

This might take a few seconds or a few days — it all depends who’s pissed me off and how.

Language that reconnects

Sometimes, engaging with the other is part of the process of getting back to ground.

This is because once you begin to see that their intention wasn’t what you thought it was, the story you had about them begins to lose its power.

It’s empathy in action — the process of feeling into what’s going on for someone else, so that you might experience the world from their perspective.

This means that our past, unresolved drama can no longer attach itself so firmly to anyone else.

Whether you choose to go straight in, or give it a little time to cool first, the language we use matters.

Why? Because, in the words of Marshall Rosenberg, creator of Nonviolent Communication:

“When we combine observation with evaluation, we decrease the likelihood that others will hear our intended message. Instead, they are apt to hear criticism and thus resist what we are saying.”

To put this into practice, what you need to do to develop your inner conflict ninja, is to identify for yourself, very clearly, the trigger event.

When you’re triggered, whatever words or action led to it, you will instantly pile on the evidence for why your judgement of the other person and situation must be correct.

You will implicitly feel the many reasons or past events that they are a selfish bastard (for example).

But this is only because you want that to be right. It’s a self-protection mechanism and a function of your drama. Whatever the past, unresolved experience was, it has it’s own life and wants to be real.

If you instead spot the very specific words or action (or lack of words or action, perhaps) which precipitated your rage, then you take the power out of all the potentially false evidence you’ve levelled at them.

Using objective language, you can enquire into what’s going on for them.

It might sound intimidating but all you have to do is a little due diligence on ‘how would I react if I was in their shoes?’

So rather than ‘You left me out’ you might choose ‘Dave was invited and I didn’t receive the same text message’.

Or instead of ‘You acted unreasonably’ you might choose ‘You reacted in a way I didn’t expect.’

It’s not about being a robot, or a saint, it’s about whether you want to be heard or not — whether you want a conversation or a punch up.

And really it’s about taking responsibility for how you’re reacting and not believing that you’re right before you even know what’s going on.

The other way to open up the connection is what their story or motivation was.

This can be as simple as ‘I’d like to know what was going on for you’ or ‘Can you tell me why you said that?’

Or even: Why do you say that? Why is that important to you? Why does that matter for you?

The goal is to challenge your assumption and practice curiosity — to take off the judgement googles for a moment to give you the chance to see it from their perspective, too.

I’m not saying it’s something that will feel natural to you when you imagine yourself in your most vengeful, raging state — but you are capable of it and it will change the direction of your conflict.

Only if you’re willing to try, of course.

Moving on, fighting well

From here, you’ll have a more complete picture of what’s happening in the conflict.

You’ll know your experience of what happened and your story about it.

You’ll know their motivation behind it, and hopefully feel (even just a little) understanding.

From here, options are open — you may tell them clearly and firmly that something isn’t OK or you might suddenly realise that you’ve blown up unnecessarily.

We’ll explore this in the next post How to act wisely in conflict

How to fight well is a practice for learning how to engage in healthy conflict — taking the stress and suffering out of fights and disagreements, and using them as opportunities for learning and growth.




Getting comfortable with conflict to have the conversations that matter.

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Max St John

Max St John

Showing people the way home by connecting to what’s there and working with what is. Get clear, fight well, move naturally.

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