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Becoming A Fair Fighter: Healthy Resolution of Interpersonal Relationships

by Tom Rohrer
September 2008 Tom  Rohrer


To build and maintain health and functional personal and work relationships, it is absolutely necessary to carefront (confronting in a caring manner) issues, problems and concerns. If you are like most people and don’t want to do this, you will want to set yourself up. The moment you sense a potential conflict is building you need to take action.

Did you know that how you fight/resolve conflicts with your significant other affects your relationship as well as your physical, emotional and spiritual health? Although you are well aware that words can hurt emotionally, they can also hurt physically. The stress of nasty and hurtful words will actually cause your body to deteriorate and lead to such issues as heart disease or stroke. This is especially true for women, who tend to be more open and hang on to the emotional distress longer.

It’s not difficult to learn to fight/resolve conflicts fairly; however, you must be aware of these three factors and how they affect you.

1. Power, Control and Intimacy Issues: There are power and control issues in all human relationships. In relationships that are personal, there are always intimacy issues. The more personal the relationship, the more potential exists for conflict.

2. Personal Insight: You must gain insight into your own role in the conflict. Although you may see yourself as blameless in a situation, this is never reality. No matter what the conflict, you did have a role in creating it. Unless you accept this, any conflict in which you take part is unlikely to be resolved. If you are the only one aware of this reality, you must be the one to take the high road and act upon this insight.

3. Structure: This is the manner in which you choose to communicate, clarify, and resolve all your issues, problems and concerns, and may also be called laying ground rules. What you choose as your structure will determine whether or not the conflict will be resolved successfully. Unless you choose the right structure for resolving conflicts your relationships will always be difficult. Perhaps the most important lesson to be learned by reading this handbook is that you must observe and evaluate what is happening during a conflict without passing judgment.

The Three Steps

There are three steps to determining your fighting structure.

First, you must know what outcome or solution you desire. When you have decided this you must act in ways that will move you and the other person in the right direction. Step back from yourself and observe your own thoughts and behaviors. Make whatever adjustments are needed.

Second, you must be able to observe and accurately evaluate the status of the situation. What is the current reality?

Third, what is the structure that you will use to accomplish your desired outcome? Your structure will lead you from where you are presently to where you wish to be.

Fair Fighting Structure

You know that dealing with a personal issue can be emotionally difficult, especially in a committed romantic relationship. Finding a structure that is clearly understood can make life much easier. You need one that both you and your significant other feel comfortable undertaking as a contract. While the techniques used in fair fighting work best for the romantic interpersonal communication, they can also be utilized in work relationships or friendships. The fair fighting structure is made up of solution-oriented attitudes, practical behaviors, and controlled emotions. The guidelines you negotiate must be enforced as soon as they are agreed upon. The structure you use will determine the outcome of your communication. There are four parts to this process, they are:

1. Setting-up or acknowledgment of the structure you will use.

2. The sharing of positions/opinions.

3. Discussion of the various aspects.

4. Agree and disagree, negotiate, resolve, or agree to disagree.

Fair Fighting Elements

In any negotiation, all parties must ultimately reach an agreement that is reasonable for both/all parties. However, if one party has an emotional or fear-based issue, additional time and consideration may need to be given.

Agreement: Get an agreement for 1) a certain place and time for the discussion, and 2) what issue(s) will be discussed. You should come to an agreeable conclusion, even if it is to disagree.

Approach: Begin the discussion with language that is not threatening. You might start with, “I have a problem and I hope that you will help me with a solution. Would you be willing to do that?” Assuming the response is “Yes!,” you could counter with “Would now be a good time to start?” “No, how about in one hour?” or “Okay, good!”

Asking: When you expect or demand something you are, in reality, asking. When you are truly asking for something you are open to hearing “no” or to a negotiation about the how and when the person will respond.

Assertiveness: This is the ability to be forceful when presenting an issue. You may need to repeat yourself to get the point across, but be respectful about it. Do not cross the line into aggressiveness.

Body Language/Gestures, Position: Your body language should be neutral and open. When you are closed you will tend to fold your arms against your chest. You also need to avoid distractive behaviors such as rolling your eyes, sighs and tapping your foot. During the discussion you should be sitting or standing. If your partner is standing, you should also be standing. By maintaining the same level during the discussion you are communicating nonverbally that you are equal despite the disagreement.

Boundaries: We all have emotional and physical boundaries. You’ve probably referred to yourself as “needing your space” at some point. Generally speaking, we need between 3 to 10 feet between us and the person with whom we are communicating. When you refer to your emotional boundaries, you are speaking of the need to be open rather than closed with your body language.

Breathing: Remember to take deep, slow breaths. When you breathe fast you tend to feel anxious and then it becomes a vicious cycle.

But/Yes, But: This is a very common defensive response. The word “but” usually is a denial of what was just said. Catch yourself and replace the “but” with “and.”

Carefrontation: This term refers to the confronting of issues, problems or concerns about another person’s behavior, in a caring, kind and empathetic manner. The approach is the essences what is being presented in this article.

Communication: Be kind, yet state your truth. Use “I” statements, such as, “I wonder,” “I notice,” “I suspect,” or “I believe”. Some others include:

”I am scared,” “I regret,” and “I am embarrassed.” You might also use: “I regret,” “I am puzzled,” “I am frustrated,” “I am hurt,” and “I resent.” Also, “I hope,” “I appreciate,” “I want,” and “I need.” The essential thing to remember in any heated discussion is that there should be absolutely no verbal abuse. This includes swearing, belittling, bullying, contempt, criticizing, denunciation, discounting, guilt tripping, obscenities, sarcasm or taunting. Even more important, there is to be no violence. If any discussion reaches this level, it needs to be ended immediately and help summoned. Only two people should be interacting at any one time. If there are others in the room, they should not get involved unless an intervention is necessary.

Control: You have control over your own behavior; others do not. When you choose to give that control away, problems will occur. The very foundation of fair fighting is based upon the assumption that you embrace your power and self-control, and that others respect this and do the same. This particular aspect is difficult to grasp and may take time, as well as professional help.

Criticism: This is a judgment about something that is wrong or bad about someone. If you’re trying to end a relationship, this is the quickest way to do so. It almost always starts or escalates an argument. Criticism causes others to defend, resist, and leave rather than open up, engage, and grow. With criticism you may win the battle but you’ll always ultimately lose the war. It may work in an adversarial relationship but never in a cooperative one.

Emotions: Your most valuable feedback tool. Without your ability to feel, you could not make any decisions. When someone shares their feelings, acknowledge them by saying something like, “I’m glad you can tell me how you feel. This is how I feel...”

Environment: When it’s time to have a serious discussion you need to find a place that is quiet. It’s essential you not be disturbed during this process.

Evaluation: An evaluation is a statement of the value, quality, importance, extent or condition of something. Your evaluation may be positive, neutral or negative. However, it should always be accurate and not a disguise for criticism.

Getting Back on track: Breathe, mentally and/or physically step back, emotionally disconnect and ask yourself honestly, “What can I do to get the process back on track?” If you can’t come up with a response, table the session for now and decide upon a meeting time. Read this handbook over again and/or seek outside help.

Handicaps: You may be in a relationship in which one person has a disadvantage. He or she may simply be less skilled in communicating. If you have superior speaking skills over your partner, take less time to speak.

Issues: Focus on one issue at a time and stay in the present. If you are unable to come up with a solution to the issue, set your discussion aside and agree when it will be revisited. If you can agree to set up a structure, find one that works for both of you and implement it. Decide who will do what and within what timeframe. Make certain you do not leave the issue hanging. Set up a time to come back to the table.

Language: Be mindful of your language. It should be moderate, clear, specific and brief. Do not use language that is offensive, derogatory, threatening or negative.

Length of Time: If you are being heard, you don’t need much time to state your point. The entire interaction should take from 2 to 30 minutes. Consider choosing a “symbolic” piece of flooring to indicate who is speaking or “has the floor.”

Let Go: Look realistically at the importance of the issue, if you won’t remember it in 3 months, let it go. You may have heard the saying, “Let go and let God.” There’s much truth to that adage, regardless of your spiritual beliefs. The sooner you let go of an issue, the better. Once the issue has been fully discussed, make an agreement, table it or just agree to disagree and move on.

Listener Style: Listen carefully and feel what the other person(s) is saying. There should be no interrupting and you should both be respectful of the other. Create a picture as they are talking. If you aren’t getting a clear picture, ask for some clarification. If you are getting a picture, paraphrase it in your own words and get feedback. Be very careful not to get defensive. If you are considering a comeback rather than simply thinking, you are defending.

Observation: Stand back and observe the situation. What’s happening? Are you behaving in a way that pleases you? What is the other person doing right? You must find the most constructive method of communicating your concerns.

Outcome: Consider what would be the best outcome for all concerned. Make decisions that will create that outcome. If you are later dissatisfied with the outcome, renegotiate. You may not be able to come to an agreement on an issue. If not, agree to disagree and table it for later; however, always set the time and place for that next meeting before you leave the discussion. You should also have settled who will do what and on what timeline. Appropriate outcomes are: wanting to understand, wanting to be understood, or wanting an agreement on an issue. Inappropriate outcomes are: wanting to make your point, to prove you are right, and to win an argument.

Role Modeling: You approach an argument based upon people in your past and their own methods of resolving conflicts. It may have been your parents, the movies or even the parents of your best friend. Think about how your own parents resolved their issues. If you don’t remember that they ever argued they probably did so behind closed doors. If so, this provided you with no information on conflict resolution.

Pick Your Fights: Some things simply are not important enough to fight for. If you decide you need to fight for everything, life becomes a battleground and fighting a negative habit. This constant stress will drain you and your significant other of time, space and energy, leaving nothing for positive interactions. You may win a few battles but you’ll ultimately lose the war and the relationship will die.

Self-First: You are the only person who has control over you. Others may influence you, but they do not control you. If you want a particular outcome, you must behave in a manner that will influence this outcome. Take responsibility for your attitudes, behaviors and any issues that are part of the conflict. You might state, “I have a problem and I need your help...” Use “I” statements. Some examples of “I” statements are “I am afraid,” “I am frustrated,” “I am happier,” “I am hurt,” “I am puzzled,” “I appreciate,” “I believe,” “I expect,” “I hope,” “I notice,” “I realize,” “I regret,” “I suspect,” “I want,” “I wonder,” “I resent.”

Sharing: We all have opinions. You probably have an opinion about someone, or something you are not directly affected by. You may want to offer your opinion on the matter, but should you? The best policy is to get permission to speak on the matter before doing so. If, however, you have an opinion on a matter that directly affects you, you may choose to relay it whether they wish to hear it or not. In doing so be accurate, truthful and as kind as possible.

Symbolic Communication: During an interpersonal conflict you need to have a method of communicating important information, such as the breaking of a rule or going over a time limit. For example, if someone breaks a rule, come up with a way of calling “foul.”

Truth: It is essential that you share your truth, honestly and accurately, if you feel safe. If you don’t feel safe, that is another big issue to consider.

Thinking Errors: These are inaccurate ways of thinking and speaking, which leads to inaccurate emotions and a more emotionally charged situation. It also makes it easier to misconstrue what the other is trying to convey to you.

Value Conflicts: There are some value-based deal-breaker issues that those involved in the conflict must negotiate and come to an agreement on. Consider what the issue means to you, as well as why you feel this particular way. Where did this value come from?

Venting: Venting is used when one person is upset with someone or something and wants to vent to someone who safe, yet has nothing to do with the situation. Research shows that venting alone does not help a person to grow and learn to handle conflicts. If you wish to permanently change your experience with conflict resolution try other approaches, such as empathy, reframing and letting go.

Voice: The volume of your voices should always be low to moderate, unless all parties are comfortable with a louder volume. Even if you happen to be in agreement loud talking, yelling or screaming is not acceptable.

White Flag: When the heat is rising in a conflict, you must know when to back off, or de-escalate the situation. Using a symbolic “white flag” can be extremely helpful. The “surrender” or “truce” meaning can be expanded to other meanings.

* STOP! No further communication

* Walk away for ____ minutes.

* While away, breathe and calm yourself down. Think about your part in the situation and focus on a solution.

* When you return, acknowledge your negative behaviors and attitudes.

Offer a positive verbal or behavioral contribution. This might be a heartfelt apology or an action you will commit to doing in the near future. If you have not been able to calm down and shift into a positive mental state, acknowledge this to the other person. Postpone any further interaction and tell them you will approach them when you’re ready. You need to reconnect within the next 24 hours if possible. If one or two weeks have gone by and you are still unable to connect, it’s time to consider professional help.

Setting-up the Process

~ Remember to breathe, stay relaxed and maintain eye contact throughout the process.

~ Stay focused to the outcome you desire.

~ Approach the person(s) and present your desire to process the issue. Decide upon when you will deal with the conflict.

~ State what your desired outcome is and attempt to get agreement.

Agreement on the process:

The issue to be discussed. The length of time each person will speak, acceptable language, and the volume of your voices. Your physical boundaries including distance, body positions and mannerisms. Any handicaps that need to be addressed. Symbolic communicators such as the white flag.

~ Engage in the Process

The first person should share their issue for ____minutes while the second person listens only. Share your thoughts and feelings using “I” statements. Take advantage of the model

“When you

I feel

because .”

The second person may need to take some time to gather his thoughts. While he is responding the first person needs to listen only. Follow the same steps as for the first person as dictated above. If you get stuck, breathe deeply, take an emotional step backwards and focus on what you could do to express your inner emotional truth.

Discuss the issues appropriately. Acknowledge the other person’s point of view respectfully. This does not mean you are agreeing with it, simply making it clear that his view is just as valid as yours. The goal here is to fill everyone’s needs; hopefully, at an acceptable level. Make decisions together and create a positive ending.

Getting Stuck: There are three ways in which people can get stuck. When this happens the fight ends up counterproductive and unfair. Note: Consider taping (video-based or audio) your sessions. This will provide you with excellent feedback about what is happening. Perhaps it will motivate you to change your behavior.

1. Getting caught up in complaining, criticizing, blaming (vs. responsibility), defending, etc., usually ends up in cycles of repetition, thus, leading to further problems.

2. Focusing on the other person’s attitude, behaviors and character rather than your own.

3. Assumptions about the motivations of the others, AND becoming self-serving, hurtful or wrong.

Revisiting Issues: Previously agreed to or tabled issues may need to be revisited. Be open to this, because if both/all parties don’t buy into an their agreement, they may not support it and that can be disastrous.

Trouble Shooting: If the person with whom you are interacting goes outside the structure, it is necessary to carefront them. As a neutral question, such as, “What’s going on?” or “Are you aware that you are not staying within the bounds of our agreement?” You could use your symbolic communicator such as the white flag by saying, “white flag,” “volume,” or “distance.” Finding a solution is often about perspective. If you look at a situation from a bigger point of view you will expand the way in which you look at an issue and the solution. You could also try looking at it from the point of view of the other person. Consider that your way may not necessarily be the only, or the best, way. Mentally remove yourself far enough back to see the big picture. Trade positions and try arguing for the other side. If you wish to be in a long-term relationship with this person it’s not worth always winning or being right, especially over a trivial issue. You always have the option to agree to disagree.


If you want the conflicted relationship to work, you must find a way in which to resolve your conflicts. Your behavior is the reality of what you believe and desire. If you wish the relationship to work you must be active, constructive, and supportive. Fair fighting is well worth the effort you put into it as you see a strong healthy relationship begin to develop into a solid partnership. The number one predictor of the future of a relationship is based on how you end your fighting. Attempt to end your interaction in a positive manner. Say something like, “Let’s agree to disagree for now and focus on (a known positive activity).” Or “It’s unfortunate we are having this disagreement; I love you even if I disagree with you.”

If you have several failed attempts or even one disaster at fair fighting, consider going to a trained professional for help. They can guide you through the process step by step. Remember to always validate the value of others. The Golden Rule applies here. “Treat others as you would like to be treated.” One way to see how that’s working for you is to video tape a role-playing session. Have the second person role-play the first person’s behavior. If the first person doesn’t see it as being accurate, have a 3rd person sit in to watch and give objective feedback. What is the difference between debating and arguing? When you debate you speak about something at length and in detail, especially as part of a formal exchange of opinion. When you argue you are expressing disagreement with another and it is often done so in anger. When you use one of the structures provided within this handbook you are exploring the details of both sides without having it disintegrate into a power struggle.


Dr. Rohrer, a Life & Performance Coach, and Psychotherapist (MFC 20325), has been in private practice in Walnut Creek since 1979. He is the owner of Success Works Coaching.

Dr. Rohrer is certified in Sports Psychology, Neuro-Linguistic Programming, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing and Hypnotherapy. He is a Senior Therapist with “Learn Dr. Phil with Lawlis” network, a graduate of the Authentic Happiness Coaching Program, training with the father of Positive Psychology, Dr. Martin Seligman, and has trained with creativity expert Robert Fritz.

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Additional articles by Tom Rohrer