Fighting Better

Dear Neil: My wife and I are getting into a fair number of ugly arguments and vicious fights. Lots of things can trigger an argument, but stopping the argument is an entirely different matter.

I feel we are destroying our relationship by the way we are fighting. Are there any suggestions you can offer about how we can stop being so destructive and start being more loving to each other?

Battling in Ottawa, Canada

Dear Battling: There are several techniques the two of you could use that might help.


Your partner begins by sharing some thoughts and feelings that upsets her. Listen to her response and mirror that back as accurately and empathetically as you can. After she verifies that you heard well, say “You make sense” (whether you agree with her perceptions or not.) Next, say “I imagine you might also be feeling….” and try to put yourself in her shoes, and in essence argue her point for her—seeing things from her angle. After she again confirms that she feels you understand, then switch roles, and you can either respond with your own viewpoint, or choose another topic, and she will then mirror you.

If the two of you genuinely feel heard and understood by the other, tension and mistrust lessen, even if you disagree with each other. It allows the two of you to more easily accept that there can be two correct ways of seeing an issue or a problem, and that each viewpoint can be valid without the other person being “wrong.”


Select an issue or behavior of your partner that at times bothers or upsets you (this shouldn’t be something of cosmic proportions to start with). Use the following words to begin your sentences:

  • I notice (behavior)….
  • I assume this means….
  • I wonder….
  • I suspect (about you)….
  • I believe (for me)….
  • I resent….
  • I am puzzled by….
  • I am hurt by….
  • I regret….
  • I am afraid of….
  • I am frustrated by….
  • I am happier when….
  • I want….
  • I expect….
  • I appreciate….
  • I realize….
  • I hope….

Your partner’s job is to listen attentively. He or she must not interrupt with any advise, rebuttal, judgment or comment. But he or she may ask you to repeat or rephrase your thoughts if you say something that he or she does not understand.

What you say should be phrased in a low-key, non-argumentative fashion. Neither of you are trying to win or prove anything. You are simply trying to exchange information and communicate.

Now your partner tells you what he or she heard. Fill in whatever your partner left out until you know he or she heard it all, then thank your partner for listening.

It is now your partner’s turn. Your partner may, using the dialogue guide, either respond to what you said—or select an entirely different subject.

Sit facing each other and hold or touch each other’s hands while you talk. It is much harder to misunderstand when you make eye and hand contact.

The dialogue guide exercise comes from Lori Gordon in the book Passage To Intimacy (Fireside). The mirroring exercise comes from a Harville Hendrix workshop. I will present more such techniques in next week’s column.

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