Fighting Respectfully 1.0: How to Do Conflict Badly

Fighting Fairly; Repairing Responsibly

In the last two posts, we considered two intrapersonal spiritual practices that can contribute to the repair of broken relationships: wu-wei and radical acceptance. Today we’ll discuss some interpersonal practices that can help with fighting fairly and repairing responsibly, on a small scale (between two people), on a medium scale (within families), and on a larger scale (within society). These can also be applied to world issues, but we won’t address those matters in this blog.

Yesterday, and in several other posts, I referred to John Gottman’s research on interpersonal relationships. Gottman studied marriages that worked well and tried to identify why they did. He found that healthy marriages have a minimum of some key toxic features and an abundance of some rejuveniating ones (we’ll cover those tomorrow and the day after).

In essence, healthy relationships are characterized by very little criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling. Let’s take each of these features separately.


Gottman makes an important distinction between criticism and a complaint. Criticism sounds different than a complaint, mostly in the blaming, attacking tone. A complaint simply expresses dissatisfaction with a dynamic that needs to be discussed respectfully. Women are more prone to criticism than men.

If it’s not already clear, the antidote to criticism is to complain responsibly instead. Every relationship will have conflict. If you accept that, you can learn to raise issues in a way that is less likely to devolve into the following three dynamics.


Contempt is any expression of low regard for the other. Insults, name-calling, devaluing, belligerence and self-righteousness are examples of contempt. This dynamic is so toxic that if a husband employs it, it can predict a wife’s illness. It can even predict divorce with astonishing accuracy.

The antidote to contempt is creating a culture of appreciation. There’s a reason you chose your partner to be your partner. Make the effort to build fondness and admiration into your dynamics on a regular basis. Gratitude is a powerful force for connection and good will.


Defensiveness occurs when one tries to maintain one’s innocence, ward off an anticipated attack, respond with a counter-attack, whine, deny any responsibility for the problem, take the innocent-victim or martyr position, or cross-complain. Basically, defensiveness communicates that the other is wrong for bringing up a problem that doesn’t exist.

The antidote for defensiveness is to accept responsibility for whatever you contributed to the problem, no matter how minuscule you feel your contribution was/is. When one person in a system identifies a problem, there IS a problem. You may not see it or understand it, but if it’s a problem for one, it’s a problem for the whole, and it’ll be resolved or unresolved as a team. When people fight, everyone contributes something to the emotional system. Become an expert at seeing the smallest ways you do so, acknowledge them and take charge of changing those things.


Stonewalling refers to a listeners unilateral withdrawal from an interaction, and usually signals that an emotional hijacking has occurred, in which a person’s physiology is flooded with stress hormones, resulting in emotional flight from the conflict. Stonewalling usually indicates that self-soothing is no longer emotionally or physiologically possible. Men are more prone to stonewalling than women.

The antidote to stonewalling is learning to self-soothe when you aren’t in conflict so that you can employ those skills when you are. Self-soothing includes finding ways to validate your own emotions without invalidating your partner’s emotions. One way to self-soothe is to coach yourself through the emotions of the moment using your intellectual guidance system.

It takes tremendous emotional maturity to kick these four dynamics to the curb and replace them with the dynamics we’ll address tomorrow–regarding how to effectively solve problems that are resolvable–dynamics that you can intentionally learn, develop and practice.

(For a more complete description and examples of these toxic dynamics, see The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, by John Gottman.)




One thought on “Fighting Respectfully 1.0: How to Do Conflict Badly

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s