Fair Fighting Rules:
A Formula for Resolving Conflict



At best, having fair fighting rules may seem like a contradiction in terms. At worst, it may seem utterly impossible. In fact, fair fighting provides a framework to resolve conflict, solve problems and help people get on with lives.

And for divorcing parents, fair fighting is a valuable, even necessary skill. Think of it as one of the most important tools in your toolbox for protecting your children and keeping them out of any conflict that may occur between you and their other parent. It also helps you manage your own stress, which is important for you and your kids.

Fair fighting rules aren't just for divorced parents. The concept actually comes out of couple's therapy. Thousands of therapists, teachers and coaches teach this process to their clients and students to help them improve their relationships. Once mastered, it's definitely a skill that you can use in a variety of situations - everything from dealing with employees and co-workers, talking with your kids, working things out in new relationships, and yes, managing the conflict with your child's other parent. Once you begin to follow the rules of fair fighting, you will be amazed at how much more competent you feel as a communicator. OK, I know that is a pretty big claim. But in my work with all kinds of families, I've found that fair fighting is one of the primary skills I offer that has really helped people change their patterns of interaction.

Fair Fighting Rules

Some of these fair fighting rules will seem utterly and ridiculously simple. And others will be just the opposite - unbelievably difficult to imagine pulling off. And yet, thousands, perhaps millions of people have successfully applied these rules of fair fighting to their lives. Try them on and see what you think.

  • Timing is everything. Find a time and place that will work for both of you. Blurting out your concern the moment you see the other person is definitely not a fair fighting technique. Scheduling a time to fight means that you must be in enough control of your emotions to be able to delay the discussion. This takes practice but is absolutely achievable.

    Here are a few suggestions about time and place.

    Pick a time when you aren't tired, hungry or rushed. (For some of us, sadly that could mean a very long wait!)

    Never talk/fight in the presence of your children. That means transition times are out.

    Pick a location that is relatively neutral.

  • Focus on solving a problem/reaching a solution rather than venting your anger or winning a victory. Think win-win.

  • Deal with one issue at a time. No fair piling several complaints into one session. Some people call this "kitchen-sinking" - talking about everything including the kitchen sink!

  • Stay focused on the present. Bringing up the past isn't fair. If you need to schedule a separate session to discuss past issues, do that. And you may want to pull in a neutral third party to facilitate this kind of discussion. As a general rule though, avoid dragging past behavior into current discussions and attempts to resolve problems.

  • Limit your discussion/fight to no more than 30 minutes. Adults have relatively short attention spans - just look at television programming to confirm this. Long drawn out discussions/fights rarely reach resolution. Instead they just wear the participants out. And when you are worn out, the potential of saying or doing something you'll regret is much greater. If you are unable to solve your problem in the 30 minutes that you've allotted, schedule another time to continue.

  • State the problem clearly. This means you must think through what your complaint is, make sure you have all the facts, and use good communication to state your concern. Avoid blaming the other parent. Instead, use an "I-message" to state how you feel. When the kids come back from spending time with you they are often hungry. I am worried that they aren't getting enough to eat at your house.

  • Be willing to listen to what the other parent has to say. Summarize what you hear the other person saying. This is called paraphrasing or active listening. If you are busy thinking about your reply, you aren't truly listening.

  • Take turns speaking and listening. Don't interrupt, talk over or make comments while the other person is speaking. Watch your non-verbal expressions too. Rolling eyes, smirking, yawning etc. all work against fair fighting.

  • Focus on the problem - not the person.

  • Brainstorm solutions. Be willing to compromise. Give a little to get a little.

  • Choose the best solution that will work for everybody - especially your kids.

  • Implement the solution. If it doesn't work, schedule another time to talk and pick another solution.


Fair Fighting Rules: Phrases to Keep in Mind

  • How can we work this out together?

  • This is what I would like to see happen.

  • This is what I am willing to do.

  • What would you be willing to do?


Sound Impossible?

Fair fighting rules help you switch from fighting and getting nowhere to actually solving problems. It takes time to learn a new behavior. So keep trying. Remember the old adage - practice makes perfect. I guarantee you that every time you avoid a down and dirty fight by problem solving instead, you will feel better. Not to mention the fact that you will actually get resolution to the problem. That's worth a lot.

Improve your Fair Fighting Skills

Fair fighting rules set a framework for you to solve a problem. Sometimes though, people are so used to fighting that anything else seems foreign and frankly too hard. It's more familiar to slip into fighting in the old way - using dirty fighting.

Check yourself out to make sure you don't slip into using some of these below-the-belt tactics. I'll warn you ahead of time that they are subtle and some of them even come disguised as fair fighting rules. But they are not.

Dirty fighting tactics are the exact opposite of fair fighting rules. And yet, I'll wager you'll find one or two that you've used. I know I always find something that has sneaked into my discussions. Believe me, it takes constant vigilance. I urge you to hang in there and practice and then practice some more. Fair fighting rules allow you to practice the art of focusing your complaint clearly and then making the request for change as effectively as possible. Remember the concept - win/win. You win because you avoid a miserable, awful argument. And your kids win because you have kept the conflict away from them. Win/win. Give it a try -it works.

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