Tag Archives: fighting

How To Negotiate The BIG Stuff

Learning how not to sweat (but to quickly and easily negotiate) the small stuff in your marriage is a darn good idea. I wrote about that last week in How To Negotiate The Small Stuff.

This week, what about the big stuff?

Well, what IS the big stuff?

At some level I want to say the big stuff includes things like:

  • where to live
  • if and when to start a family
  • whether to buy or rent your home
  • budgeting the big ticket items
  • where your kids go to school
  • where and how to spend the important holidays
  • whether and where to worship.

However, from years in the trenches helping couples navigate some stormy waters, I’ve come to see the definition of “big stuff” differently.

For most of us, the big stuff we have to negotiate in our long term relationships gets defined by what matters to us as individuals that we disagree about as a couple.

That could look like the list above, for sure.

But what if you and your partner both feel similarly about these things?

Then those things – like buying a house and whether to have kids – become the small stuff because the process of negotiating the hows and whys and whens are non-issues. You both agree. No problem!

But, what if you disagree about one of those, or even;

  • how to fold the towels
  • whether to join a Bank or a Credit Union
  • whether it’s funny or rude when the kids burp at the table
  • whether to clear the table completely each meal or leave mats out and salt & pepper in place (don’t laugh  that’s me!)
  • and a host of other things that you and your partner might disagree about, whether they seem objectively large or small?

These then become the “big stuff.”

Now what?

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The rather well-worn old Chinese-character-for-crisis metaphor works well here.

Areas of disagreement are both a danger and an opportunity.

The dangers include ~

  1. having a win-loose or right/wrong mentality
  2. losing sight of the long-term benefits of cultivating a great relationship over achieving the short-term benefits of “winning” an argument
  3. doing damage by the way you go about negotiating for what you want.

The opportunities include ~

  1. getting to clarify what really matters to each of you, and why
  2. getting to expand your thinking
  3. getting to build your creativity as a couple as the two of you co-create a both/and solution that brings you closer, inspires cooperation and confirms your mutual respect.

So, here’s the “How-To-Negotiate-The-BIG-Stuff” method I recommend.

In blue type is an example of what by any “normal” standards would be a “small stuff” item. But see how it became a “Big Stuff” for one couple.

#1   Describe The Problem

Usually “Big Stuff” only becomes “Big Stuff” after a few rounds of unsuccessful negotiations. Two people won’t know what they disagree about until they disagree. So, after a few rough and unsuccessful attempts to have things go as you wish, you might decide you want to have a real conversation to sort things out. A real negotiation to put this issue to rest. Not by “winning” I hasten to add. But by coming together as fellow explorers, fellow solution-seekers, to see what you can both learn about one another and discover about how to move beyond whatever the gridlock is.

For couple Frank and Heidi their differences regarding how to treat their dining room table after meals went from “cute” to “amusing” to “touchy” to “frosty” to “All-out-hostile” over the course of a few years.

Heidi loved a “Zen” space. She wanted the dining room table cleared off after each meal. She needed the salt and pepper or sugar put away; the mats shaken and taken off the table and the table wiped down.

Frank hated having to put out for every meal what should have been out since the last meal. He loved having the salt, pepper, ketchup, sugar, mats and even extra cutlery out and on the table. Why create work?

At first they found it sort of quaint that they felt so differently about this. They initially did what the other wanted. Frank would put stuff away while singing a song about the department of redundancy department. Heidi would leave stuff out – but way too much stuff… things that might go off like cream, mill and OJ.

But after a couple of years the battle lines were drawn. Frank never put anything away at the end of a meal. Heidi put everything away at the end of a meal. Someone was always unhappy.

#2   Get curious about why this bothers you.

Here are some questions to guide your curiosity.

  1. What precisely is this flare of disagreement about for you?
  2. What do you wish your partner would do instead of what they actually do?
  3. What value of yours seems to be compromised by the actions of your partner?
  4. What story do you tell yourself about your partner when things don’t go as you wish?
  1. As FRANK thought about what pissed him off  it was the inefficiency.
  2. He wished Heidi would see things from his point of view and leave the meal-time-necessities there on the table.
  3. He valued investing his precious life-energy in things that had immediate and observable feedback – which mico-managing the salt and pepper did not! He valued efficiency – yes!
  4. He told himself that Heidi was wasting his time over nothing.
  1. HEIDI was on overwhelm. She was super busy. Frank was beyond busy. It was as if their lives were about to fly off the handle and unravel totally. What she needed was some small ritual that demonstrated they were OK.  
  2. She wished Frank would simply take the 3 minutes it took to clear the table at the end of a meal.
  3. Her values for calm and beauty were being massively stomped on.
  4. Heidi told herself that a messy table meant they were heading downhill as a couple. They were loosing the battle for the things that mattered – which was home and family.

#3   Get curious about why this might bother your partner.

Even though your partner might well be doing what you’ve just done – getting curious about him or her self – it can help to imagine how they might answer this. Knowing what you know about your partner, what might be happening as they appear to resist your request for how to handle this situation?

  1. What might your partner wish you’d do in the face of this situation?
  2. Do you have any feel for what story your partner might be telling him or her self about you and your actions over this issue?
  3. What value might your partner have that could be compromised by what you are doing?

Frank thought long a hard. What might Heidi want? He knew she wished he’d clear the table – but he really was not about to concede his valid point. Yet.  He figured her clean-table thing had to do with, humm,  . . what? Third-grade rules? He could see no value to her request and felt angry and clueless.

Heidi thought about Frank, and his life and how full each day was and she figured he was going for efficiency. She knew he wished she’d just let this bone drop…. But she had standards, after all.

#4   Ask for some time to talk about the issue.

Engage the old grey-matter here.

If you launch into your partner with some hot-blooded diatribe like

  • “You’re such a [insert personal attack here. “Slob” says Heidi / “Neat freak” says Frank]
  • You always [insert globalizing accusation here “Create a mess” says Heidi / “Make unnecessary work” says Frank]
  • I wish you’d just [Insert one-sided demand here “Take 5 minutes and clean” says Heidi /  “Relax, sit a talk to me for 5 minutes” says Frank]
  • Or I’ll [insert ultimatum here “Eat alone without you” says Heidi / “Eat at work without you” says Frank.]

These do not work – right?

So before you launch the one-sided attack, followed by the global accusation, followed by the one-sided demand, followed by the ultimatum, simply say:

“I’ve noticed we have this on-going issue about the dining room table. Would you be willing to set aside some time for us to resolve it?”

#5   Share what you’ve been thinking

Tell your partner about your inner homework. Share what you’ve noticed about your values.

“You know Heidi, I’ve been thinking. I’m so full-on at work, I’m really about eliminating anything that does not feel vital. For me, clearing the table of things we’ll only use again in a few hours seems like madness.”

“You know Frank, I feel I want to take one small stand against all the busy-ness we are both in the midst of and for me, that is symbolized by the small effort it takes to clear up after a meal.”

#6   Invite your partner to share what they have been thinking.

  • “Heidi, tell me more about what you’ve been thinking.”
  • “Frank, tell me more about what you’ve been thinking.”

#7   Zero-in on the values

Just that. The “Big Stuff” is always about core values. Get curious. What is underneath this stand your partner is taking?

“Oh” says Frank. “For you Heidi you have a value around not acting as if we are so full tilt busy that we can’t even clean up after a meal? You value not letting this sort of small ritual fall away even though we are moving so fast?”

“Humm”, says Heidi. “Frank, given how fast your days are you have come to value being super efficient, and it makes no sense for you to move stuff on and off the table when it seems not to matter at all that stuff stays in place?”

#8   Brainstorm some solutions

Just this. How might the two of you honor one another’s values but do something different?


“OK Heidi. I get that. We both are moving way faster than we ever have and we’re both maxed out. But for you, this small thing (not that it always feels small to me mind you) about having a clean table, makes you feel calmer? How about this idea? Since you really value it clean between meals, you go ahead and clear the table and leave it empty and clean. That honors your values of zen and high standards, right? And since I like having stuff around me while I’m eating so I’m not jumping up and down fetching things all the time, I’ll stop grumbling about putting things out before a meal and just do it?”


“Yes, that could work Frank. But on weekends, or when we have friends over and there’s lots of stuff out at the end of a meal, I’d appreciate your help then. And, you know, could we make gathering all the meal-time-stuff up easier? Maybe a tray or caddy for salt, pepper, sugar, and another one for fridge stuff?”

And so they are off. Each now informed about why this matters to one another. Now they can negotiate respectfully towards a win-win, instead of the old win/loose.

It’s not always this simple or this easy obviously. But the thing to remember about “Big Stuff” is that what makes it Big is not the objective assessment of the money or effort involved. What makes an issue big between people is the issue’s connection to competing core values. Frank’s value of efficiency clashed with Heidi’s value of calm and clean. Unless you get to the root of these deeper issues, you’ll never find peace.

And if negotiations don’t go so well? If some of those less-wise words slip out – like the attacking, accusing, demanding and ultimatum-type language? Do what you can always do when things aren’t going well ~

  • Stop.
  • Comment on the fact that neither one of you is up for the conversation right now ( in ohter words, don’t blame anyone).
  • Suggest you take a break.
  • When you are ready, say sorry for your part in the melt down.
  • Try again.
  • Remember – keep your eyes on the prize: a long term happy relationship where each of you continues to learn about what matters to one another and to seek to honor those things that each of you values.


This is the latest article in a year-long series on the “12-most-important-relationship-skills-no-one-ever-taught-me-in-school-but-I-sure-wish-they-had.”

Click the box for the full list.  →Top 12 Relationship Skills

If you’re interested in reading this blog in sequence, below are links to the series to date, beginning with the first posting at the top.



SKILL ONE ~ Recognize (and get to know) the many “yous.”

SKILL TWO ~ Learn how to be pro-active: choose how y’all show up.

SKILL THREE ~ Accept (and get curious about) other peoples’ complexity


SKILL FOUR ~ Master the Art of Conversation

SKILL FIVE ~ Learn How To Listen With Your Whole Self

SKILL SIX ~ Crack The Empathy Nut

SKILL SEVEN ~ Practice Kindness

SKILL EIGHT ~ Negotiate with a Win-Win Mentality

The 7 Deadliest Fights – Part 2

Last week and this I’m exploring the 7 deadliest fights.

Not those knock-down-drag-out-referee-over-the-body fights.

But those we launch with words, looks and silences on those we love.

I actually believe fights can be good. They are a sign of robustness and courage and can clear the air. I’m almost worried when I meet “nice” folks who tell me with pride they’ve “Never had a cross word…”

But, there are fights, and then there are FIGHTS.

These 2 weeks are dedicated to helping you bring things down a notch or two.

So here they are ~ The 7 Deadliest Fight Strategies

  1. Attacking
  2. Belittling
  3. Criticizing
  4. Contemptuousness
  5. Defensiveness
  6. Escaping
  7. Escalating

(Today I’m writing about 5 – 7. Last week was 1 – 4. Too long for one week.)

Deadly Fight #5 – DEFENSIVENESS

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One of the most subtle and common of the deadly fight strategies, it is the rare person who has not responded to an attack with excuses, explanations, justifications or a counter attack in the form of blame. “The other chap started things, of course I’ll defend myself!”  you righteously think.

Maybe it sounds like ~

  • “But I didn’t mean to!”
  • “That was so not my fault!”
  • “No, no, no. Let me explain.”
  • “Well obviously I had to do this because…”
  • “You know, if you would have done this first we’d not be in this mess.”

What you’re doing is pushing away what the other person needs you to hear. It might well be that this person is coming on strongly and is angry so you find yourself feeling the need to defend yourself. But not listening to what this upset person has to say will not solve the problem. The more close to the bone the complaints, the more likely you are to reach for those innocent sounding explanations and excuses.

The problem with this is ~

No one is listening! If you’re not listening to what this other person is trying to tell you, for sure they will be in no mood to listen to you. All your excuses, explanations, justifications and blaming will not only fall on deaf ears, it will fuel the flames.


Get curious. If you’re in the habit of responding to criticism or “feedback” with excuses, explanations, justifications or a counter attack in the form of blame – switch to asking questions.

Stop. Breathe. Listen. If you feel defensiveness bubbling up, the deeper truth is that if you could only stop long enough to listen, maybe you’d agree just a little… but instead of exposing that vulnerability, you launch a (clearly justifiable!) defensive mission. If the other person is shouting by all means let them know you’d love to listen when they can calm down. Then, if they can talk to you without shouting, really listen. Ask questions. Get curious. Your goal is to fully understand what is upsetting them. This is important:

Seeking to understand is not the same as agreeing with their point of view or admitting any fault.

Understanding is simply that – understanding. You are the anthropologist seeking – in a non-judgmental way – to see things from the other culture’s point of view. You want to briefly inhabit their worldview so you genuinely see what they see. There is no salve as calming as feeling heard.

I know this can seem like nothing. Or not enough. But once you try it, I think you’ll find its a hugely helpful way of being in the face of someone’s anger. Often indeed, simply listening deeply, non-defensively and with genuine curiosity will allow both of you to flush out what the other person needs to express. And that can be enough.

Deadly Fight #6 – ESCAPING

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You escape – either physically or emotionally – without letting your partner know you need a time out. You just walk out, drive away, slam a door, hole up, or get lost in the TV, internet, or music.

Maybe it looks like ~

  • A door slamming.
  • A car engine revving.
  • The TV on full blast.
  • A person lost in distractions, buffeted by headphones.

What you’re doing is running for all you are worth away from the pain. You are possibly flooded with sadness or rage; shame or guilt. You are spent, exhausted and done with the effort of figuring out what anyone needs or wants, yet everything is left hanging and no resolution is in sight.

The problem with this is ~

It’s abandonment! If you do this to a friend, it’s unkind. But if you do this to your committed partner it’s devastating. It triggers deep places within people in primary relationships when a partner makes a unilateral move to withdraw with no warning, no explanation, no reassurance. And, right when the stakes are high, your partner’s anxiety will go through the roof.

He or she is left thinking:

  • “When will s/he come back?”
  • “Will s/he ever come back?”
  • “Will s/he do something stupid?”
  • “What should I do now?”


Ask for a break. If you are in the habit of leaving abruptly, either physically or emotionally, without letting your partner know you need a time out, please – pause before you leave. Right when that “I am not taking this any more” button gets pushed see if you can tell your partner what’s going on for you.

Don’t leave them hanging. Before you take that break tell them “I’m totally overwrought. I need to take 15 minutes. I’ll be back.” Then go. But come back when you said you’d come back. If you know you need an hour, say you need an hour, but come back in an hour. If you feel you want to run away for a longer period of time, it works better to move a bit more slowly. Take a 15-minute break and then come back and negotiate a longer space, like a weekend away. The idea is to not lose sight of the goal – which is to reconnect with your partner and heal the problem. If you just take off without negotiating this space, you run the risk of making the issues so much worse because now you’ve got whatever the initial issue was, plus abandonment. And believe me – the latter is a hard repair.

Deadly Fight #7 – ESCALATING

Screen shot 2015-04-28 at 4.13.44 PMYou know you’re way too far gone when your partner has de-escalated their part of the fight, is trying to listen to you, is making soothing noises, is asking you to calm down, and is clearly telling you they want to stop. But you are so overwrought, angry, righteous and caught up in emoting that you don’t notice the cues. You just keep on punching the air like a blind fighter alone in the ring.

Maybe it sounds like ~

  • ”No I’m not willing to calm down and take a break”
  • “Don’t change the subject on me now…”
  • “No I don’t want to sit next to you and talk calmly!”
  • “We need to figure this out right now!”

What you’re doing is throwing a “Fire & Brimstone Anger Party” for one. No one else wants to come. You’re horrid company. You make no sense, and you look like you have no intention of stopping any time soon.

The problem with this ~

You are pouring gas on your own internal fire. You are, effectively, fighting with yourself. Your partner is not the issue anymore. You are not listening to anyone, most especially yourself.


Get some firefighting skills. If you know there are times when you loose the plot and escalate conflict, it’s time to get some pre-emptive, flame dousing skills. Here are three tips to get you on your way. The fourth, if these are not helping you, would be to let yourself go talk with a good therapist.

  1. Think of this out-of-control behavior as a Part of you, not the all of you. Say to yourself “I have a Part who escalates fights in certain situations.” (See here for more on the idea that we have distinct inner Parts)
  2. If you can see that you are not only your anger, then immediately new possibilities open up. You may notice other Parts of you who get judgmental and critical of this fearsome, escalating angry Part, but you might also find it within you to be curious about it. What does that Part of you need right then? Quite possibly something about the fight has triggered deep emotional pain, and this aspect of you – this Part of you – tries to protect you from emotional pain by escalating the external mayhem to distract you from the internal maelstrom. This behavior probably made sense at some point in your life and this Part does not understand that it’s not such a great approach today.
  3. Tell your partner about this Part and make a firefighting plan together. If you fight and your partner notices this super angry Part is on a path of escalation, what do you want to do? Some partners come up with a protocol which keeps the non-escalating partner away from receiving the brunt of the escalation without shaming or abandoning the partner who has been overtaken by this pained Part.
  4. Or, seek good therapy. It is so wonderful to de-trigger these Parts of ourselves who hold on to old pain and trauma.


In truth, the tips above about thinking of a potentially problematic behavior as a Part of you – not the all of you – help with all of these tough fighting scenarios. If you attack your partner verbally it”s not the all of you attacking, but you sure have a Part in attack mode.

Or maybe a Part who is

  • Belittling
  • Criticizing
  • Contemptuous
  • Defensive
  • Escaping
  • Escalating

If you want to thrive in your relationships, remembering that different Parts of you show up in different contexts is very liberating. Go back here and here to explore this some more and to let the implication of thinking of ourselves as having Parts sink in a little deeper.


This is the latest article in a year-long series on the “12-most-important-relationship-skills-no-one-ever-taught-me-in-school-but-I-sure-wish-they-had.

Click the box for the full list.  Top 12 Relationship Skills

If you are interested in reading this blog in sequence, below are links to the series to date, beginning with the first posting at the top.



SKILL ONE ~ Recognize (and get to know) the many “yous.”

SKILL TWO ~ Learn how to be pro-active: choose how y’all show up.

 SKILL THREE ~ Accept (and get curious about) other peoples’ complexity


SKILL FOUR ~ Master the Art of Conversation