two people sit across from each other at a table, in serious conversation

How to Fight Fairly: 3 Rules to Go By

By Lisa M. Basile
Reviewed by Susan Ko, Ph.D.
October 13, 2023

Have you ever found yourself hitting below the metaphorical belt in a heated argument with someone you care about—only to regret what you said or to realize that your approach made things worse? If so, you’re not alone. According to Candace Kotkin-De Carvalho, licensed therapist in Morris Plains, New Jersey, unfair fighting can involve behaviors worth avoiding such as:

  • Name-calling
  • Blaming the other person
  • Refusing to discuss the issue
  • Holding onto grudges
  • Getting overly emotional
  • Attacking the other person’s character

In the end, these behaviors can cause long-term damage to relationships.

Learning to fight more fairly—with a romantic partner, family member, or friend—can help you turn a painful exchange into a productive conversation. So, how can you get better at communicating, especially during challenging conversations? Here are three key expert-backed strategies to fight fairly.

Know Your “Why”

“More times than not, the root of why we fight can be quite simple: We do it to be understood and to become more connected,” says Alissa Martinez, a licensed therapist at Crystal Mind Counseling in Austin, Texas. Ultimately, Martinez explains, both parties want that same thing—even if it’s not being expressed clearly or kindly.

Martinez recommends coming into a discussion with a clear understanding of what your core issue is. “Knowing what you're fighting about also means you can be sure to focus on that topic, and that topic alone,” Martinez says. “For example, is it about the dirty dishes, the laundry, and partying too much—or is it about [the other person] not caring how you feel about those things?

Before getting into a heated talk, try writing down an intention centered on the issue. Keep your conversation on track and focus on that core need or feeling. And try not to veer down a tit-for-tat rabbit hole, Martinez offers—retaliation to hurtful things doesn’t help your cause.

Take Turns Listening

Fighting can sometimes mean doing more talking than listening, but that’s not helpful, Martinez says. “Don't simply sit there and hear them speak words as you prepare your rebuttal," she adds. "Listen to what they're saying in an attempt to understand their deeper meaning—even if you don't agree with it.”

Be mindful of the urge to interrupt the other person. One 2021 study suggests that couples who use dyadic communication—that is, a style of communication where people take turns listening to one another—had fewer fights and disagreements.

“If you're able to effectively listen to one another respectfully, you'll be able to gather your thoughts together and develop a compromise that's fair to the both of you,” Martinez says.

Embrace Diplomacy

“Use your diplomacy skills,” suggests Andy Johnson, a licensed therapist with Rise Above Counseling in Green Bay, Wisconsin. Diplomacy is the ability to communicate and handle things smartly and with sensitivity. To do so, he recommends using a handy diplomatic communication technique nicknamed DEAR MAN developed by Marsha Linehan, the developer of dialectical behavior therapy (DBT). DEAR MAN is an acronym for the following:

  • Describe the situation—Stick to the facts.
  • Express how you feel—The other person can’t read your mind, so say what you’re thinking.
  • Assert yourself—That could be saying no, or asking for what you want.
  • Reinforce or reward the person you’re talking to—Explain the benefits of your desired outcome.
  • Mindfully stay on track—Stick to one topic at a time.
  • Appear confident—Use a level voice and demeanor; no shouting, and avoid looking at the floor.
  • Negotiate a mutual compromise—Ask for other solutions to the problem.

In the end, Kotkin-De Carvalho emphasizes the importance of fighting fairly: “This kind of behavior teaches us to communicate our thoughts, feelings, and disagreements without resorting to violence or verbal abuse.” And remember, it’s not just about communicating your side of things, but also actively listening to your partner’s. In turn, that can help you build, keep, and deepen your relationships.

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