Fighting sucks, especially when it’s with someone you love. All you want is for the dishes to be rinsed before they’re put in the dishwasher and the next thing you know, both of you are saying hurtful things. How can you have conflict without being hurtful? On Megan’s post on relationship hacks, I saw lots of commenters with great tips and strategies. So what makes these tips great? How can you build your own hacks?
First, some over-simplified neuroscience to understand the problem…
The front part of the brain is where we do high-level, abstract thinking. Impulse control, empathy, weighing options, and learning all take place in the front part of your brain. Further back in the brain is where pattern matching, habits, and things you’ve learned well reside. All the way back is your brainstem, which regulates breathing and heart rate.
This is important, because when you get under any kind of stress for any reason your brain starts to “shut down” from the front to the back. Just when you need them most, you start to lose your ability to control your language, empathize with others, decide between valid points, and use all those techniques you just learned. Instead, you go back to old, counterproductive habits. Stupid brain!
Unfortunately there’s nothing you can do to keep the front part of your brain from shutting down like this. It’s biology. Fortunately, it happens in recognizable stages…
The three brain stages during conflict:
- In the Green, there’s little stress. Your front brain is on and you attuned to everyone’s attitudes and body language.
- In the Yellow, you are stressed. You’re losing your situational awareness.
- In the Red, you are so stressed that rational discussion is pretty impossible (silence and profanity are common in the Red).
Knowing where you and your partner are gives you…
Three tactics to keep a heated discussion from going bad:
First, pick the right time to have the discussion. The closer someone is to the Red, the less rational and empathetic they are. If your partner comes home from work in the Red, it’s not the best time to talk about the unrinsed breakfast dishes. If you are in the Yellow, then it’s not a good time to discuss child disciplining methods, but you can probably manage a civil discussion about dishes. Waiting until you are both in the Green is the best for a talk that needs sensitivity and deep thought.
Second, how time-critical is the conversation? “What to do about Bobby’s straight D report card” can probably wait a day until both of you are on the Green side of the Yellow at least. Telling your wife that you’re about to drop your end of the couch should happen right away, no matter how stressed you are while moving furniture.
Third, use the appropriate communication style for the situation. The closer someone is to the Red, the more direct you need to be. Saying “Gosh it feels warm in here,” to bring someone’s attention to the fact the curtains just caught fire is not going to work if they are in the Red. It may feel mean or insulting to say “I need you to respond by 5:00 today,” to your co-worker in the Yellow, but you’re doing them a favor. You have made your expectations clear and you have not further taxed the part of their brain that isn’t working so well by making them guess what you want.
Now here’s the paradox; you’ve learned some useful new things, but when you get in a stressful conversation the new-information storing front part of your brain doesn’t work optimally. So what can you do? The same thing that fighter pilots do when they’re having an engine flameout. You turn to resources that you’ve put into place before the emergency happens. Here are some generic categories of resource so you can customize your solution. Build a few before your next fight, and remember, you’ll probably have to tweak them a few times to make something that really works for you.
Three resources to implement while fighting:
Ugggggh, am I really going to the most vapid of office tropes? Yes, now hear me out. Commenting on the original post, Liset talked about the family picture she and her husband use to remind each other that above all else, family is what’s important. No matter what else is going on they have that to remind themselves about the solid ground and guiding principle for their decision-making. I love it. Put your mission statement, philosophy, commander’s intent — whatever you call it — into words that you can each go back to for guidance.
The Offbeat Homies had great ideas to keep fights from getting ugly. Some people literally call a “time out” — giving both everyone a chance to calm some of the emotional stress. Some people need to hear “I love you” but others can’t stand to hear it in the middle of a fight. These are decisions you and your partner need to make before your next fight. Then when you are in the Yellow and edging to Red you don’t have to work out whether you should say “I love you.” You’ve already talked about it while in the Green, so you just have to stick to the decisions you’ve already made.
Practice — You react the way you train
Don’t wait for the fight to use your new hacks. Use them when you’re cooking dinner together, watching TV, or at the grocery store. Tell your family that you’re in the Yellow when you get home after a bad slog through rush hour. Practice speech that is direct, but not mean. Get the skills from the front of your brain into the pattern-matching part of your brain so they’re easy to use under stress.
Use these categories to look for hacks for other things too, not just “fighting fair.” Because being in the Green, Yellow, or Red can affect everything from remembering your grocery list to the safety of your driving.