This was first published on KSL.com
I work with many couples who are struggling to get along, handle conflict and feel safe with each other. When they tell me about the disagreements they have, I can always see some simple questions they could have asked that might have stopped the fight before it started.
It might help you apply this article to yourself if you could think back to a specific fight or conflict you have had in the past and replay it in your mind. Then imagine what might have happened if you had tried the suggestions below.
Conflict usually begins when someone says or does something that makes the other person feel insulted, criticized, taken from or disregarded. I call this the triggering incident. When these incidents happen, the other person then feels they must defend or protect themselves, and they often respond with a defensive response or counterattack.
The best time to stop a fight is right when the triggering incident happens — before you get defensive or make a counterattack. But it is difficult to stop and think clearly when you have just been offended.
Stopping at the triggering point is going to take some practice and some battling with your ego — because your ego always wants to react defensively or attack back. Your ego shows up to protect you any time there is a perceived threat, but it's important to remember your ego is fear-driven and not capable of love-driven behavior. If you let your ego respond from fear, you are always going to make the situation worse.
The other thing to keep in mind is that most triggering incidents are unintentional and driven by our own fears. When people feel unsafe they behave selfishly and carelessly, and most of the time it isn't really about you at all.
So here are some questions to ask yourself that will help you pause, get out of ego, get more information and respond to triggering events in a more mature, balanced way:
What am I feeling?
The moment a triggering incident happens, walk away, close your eyes, ask for a minute to get your head clear, or just pause and pay attention to what's happening inside yourself. What are you feeling? How did that trigger make you feel?
Don't stop asking questions here, though. You don't want to let your ego make these emotions bigger. Before you start ruminating about the offense, ask some more questions.
Am I applying meaning to what was said or done?
For example, maybe you're thinking: "My spouse making that comment means they don't care about me at all." Does it really mean that? Take the meaning away and just look at the content of the comment or action alone.
How am I perceiving this?
Ask yourself: Is there any way that I am hearing or perceiving this to be malicious while it wasn't meant that way? Do I have a tendency to feel insulted or taken from easily? This could mean I see offenses when they aren't really there; own it if this might be true.
You may want to ask the other person about their intent. Did they mean that to sound critical or judgmental, or is that just the way you are hearing it? Give them a chance to explain their intent. Ask this from a place of really wanting to understand the other person, not from a place of judgment where you are talking down to them.
Was it malicious?
Ask yourself: Do I think this person purposefully wants to hurt or offend me? Is there malice in their actions and do they intend harm? Or, do they love me and just say or do thoughtless things because they aren't paying attention?
What is going on with your partner at this moment? Are they tired, hungry, distracted or experiencing fear that might keep their focus on themselves? Could there be another reason they did this triggering behavior, one that isn't even about you and has no malice in it?
What do I want to happen?
Ask yourself: What do I want this day or night to look like? What kind of experience would I like to have with my partner today? Are there reactions to this triggering incident that will create what I want and others that would totally destroy what I want? Consciously choose a response that will create what you want.
How often does this happen?
Ask yourself: Is this kind of offense something that is happening often? Is the behavior creating fear about this relationship not working long term? Is that scaring me? If it is, then you must address the behavior, but you must do that the right way and at the right time. Think about the best time and place to have this sensitive conversation.
Then, make sure when the right time comes, you ask the other person if they are open to having a heartfelt conversation about the relationship. Get their buy-in to do this. Let them know that your intention here is to make the relationship stronger, not poke holes in it. You are not mad at them, and this isn't about attacking each other; it's about understanding each other better. Let them know you love them and give them some validation around all the things they do right.
Start the conversation by asking them questions about how they feel the relationship is going. Is there anything that concerns them or scares them? Is there anything you could do to show up for them better?
Spend time here listening to understand them, how they see things and how they feel. Honor and respect their right to think and feel the way they do. Ask lots of questions and stay here until they feel heard and understood. If you do this right, you will probably learn some things about your partner you didn't know.
Then, ask permission to share something that has been creating a little fear in you. Ask if they would be willing to listen and not get defensive, reiterating that your intent here is to strengthen the relationship and understand each other better.
Remind them that you love them, then explain the behaviors that are triggering you using "I" statements. Try phrases like "I feel," "when I hear this I experience this," "in my opinion," and "from my perspective."
Try to avoid "you" statements that feel like an attack. Tell them that when they say or do these things it triggers some fear in you and explain what your fears are. Own the fact that your reactions may be more about events in your past than they are about your partner in the present. Talk it through while staying focused on mutual understanding, respect and a desire to know each other better.
The people closest to you typically don't mean to intentionally offend you or put you down on purpose, but it does happen. If they intentionally meant harm, there are a couple of places it can go from there:
You can do this.
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Kimberly Giles is the president and founder of Claritypoint Life Coaching and 12 SHAPES INC. She is an author and professional speaker. She was named one of the top 20 advice gurus in the country by Good Morning America in 2010. She appears regularly on local and national TV and Radio.