The Key To Fighting Right: Listening

Marriage Counseling Insights From Westlake Village-Based Patricia McTague-Loft

I have often cited the research and published works of the husband-wife duo of John Gottman, Ph.D. and Julie Schwartz Gottman. You can find their fascinating and extensive research on marriage at Indeed, many people often turn to the couple for interviews, especially when they publish a new book or announce completion of a research study. Recently, Maura Hohman did exactly that — interviewed the couple for and focused on their new book, Fight Right: How Successful Couples Turn Conflict Into Connection.

The subject matter of the book should not come as a surprise. Couples are not immune to the anger and divisiveness so prevalent in our society today and fueled by social media. But, as most anyone in a long-term romantic relationship can probably attest, avoiding conflict is virtually impossible and really not an answer at all. “It’s how you fight with your partner,” writes Hohman, “especially within those first few minutes.” The Gottmans’ research backs up this assertion. They have developed a test that predicts with 96% accuracy the long-term health of a relationship based on how people act in the first three minutes of a conflict.

Fighting Right

Don’t blame yourself if your style of conflict doesn’t pass the Gottman test. Since we were kids, most of us probably simply tried to be as truthful and straightforward as we could be when we’re in conflict with another. You naturally don’t want to hurt anyone, especially your partner, but you also don’t want to be walked over. The problem is that “straightforward” and “truthful” all too often comes across as personal criticism. Unless we’re shown an alternative, we’re probably not going to stumble into a manner of communication that dials down the heat in an argument. Citing Gottmans’ training, Hohman says, “When pointing out a problem to their partner… it’s much more productive to instead describe whatever emotion you’re feeling and the context that led to it, and not focus on your partner’s flaws. Then, tell your partner your ‘positive need.’ “

Julie Gottman takes this process one step further. She tries to understand what her partner’s ideal resolution would be and then, if necessary, puts that into the context of past relationships or even childhood experiences. That, obviously, covers a lot of ground and may not be appropriate for every conflict or argument. On the other hand, if conflicts are not easily resolved, that may be necessary and may require the help of a therapist.

A tip for successfully resolving conflicts that’s more commonly in order is to simply take a break. If one or the other is not in a mental state to truly listen, agree to take a break and renew the conversation when you’re both in the right mood. It might be good to come back in an hour, or even the next day, but don’t simply put it off for a week. The issues will fade over time.

That issue of being in the right mood is an important one. It really helps to make understanding your partner a top priority. So even if you’re not 100 percent up for listening, the key is to put aside any annoyance you may feel and replace it with curiosity. Try to develop a desire to truly understand what how your partner sees the world — what they think a perfect world would look like. Then, if you can contribute to creating that world, you’ll be doing pretty well in their eyes.

Get more information about the Gottman Institute here. I am a proponent of their methods, having studied and completed Levels 1, 2 and 3 of the Gottman Method Couples Therapy Program at the Gottman Institute. You may also get their new book, Fight Right, here.