I have to thank Charlie W. Shedd for including Rules to Love and Fight By in his classic books Letters to Karen and Letters to Phillip. I can think of no information that is more important for young couples beginning a marriage or serious relationship. That model has been reworked and woven into many guidelines for couples and have formed a framework of my overall social view.

What was for many years a common cultural reference for fight rules was the knife fight scene in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. I have in recent years mentioned it to groups and been met with blank stares; the younger audience was unfamiliar with the film. Here is a brief synopsis: The outlaw Butch Cassidy is about to engage an opponent in a knife fight. He asks to clarify the rules. The other fighter replies that there are no rules in a knife fight. At which point Butch says good, I just wanted to be sure and then kicks the other guy in the groin.

Those types of tactics are useful if the only purpose is to win. However, in relationships and by extension society as a whole, winning is more than simply disabling your opponent; the relationship and the benefits derived from it are more important than declaring an individual victorious. It makes me sad to see politics, religion, international affairs, business and social structure defined by the words from the Buffalo Springfield song, For What it’s Worth, “…mostly saying hurray for our side.”

I have at numerous times in my life been described as intimidating and confrontational because I tend to not back away from a good fight. While the concept is not often understood, I think disagreements are a healthy part of our communications diet. Though for me it is never about defeating another person or their ideas. I don’t need to win, more than anything else I want to be heard in a fair, attentive and complete airing of my grievance, feelings and/or idea. I operate by my own set of fighting rules. They are designed to preserve the relationship regardless of the discussion’s outcome.

Here are my rules:

  1. What are we fighting about? This is about ideas, feelings and perceptions. It is not about the character, parentage or background of my sparring partner; it is therefore off limits to introduce any of those things into the discourse. If anyone says, “That is how you are, you always say that, or you are too stupid to understand.” the action has gone out of bounds, play need to be stopped and resumed back in the middle.
  2. Everyone must participate equally. You must allow your adversary to have their full say. You cannot interrupt while they are speaking. In fact you may find an advantage in asking, “Is that all” before you reply. It is obvious that a person is not listening when they are forming a response before the other has even finished speaking; blurting it out makes only the point that a person not engaged in dialogue.
  3. Listening and hearing are not the same things. It is helpful to restate the other person’s opinion to first clarify that you heard it correctly and secondly to hear it coming from your own mouth. As speakers, the words in our head may not always match what passes our lips, or the other person may have other social connotations on our vocabulary. As we repeat the words the original speaker may pick up on our emphasis and inflection to understand emotional responses that the neither anticipated nor intended. The first person can then clarify their message. The other person gets their turn and the process repeats. Many disagreement end right here with one person saying, “Oh, if that is what you meant I agree.”
  4. Sometimes you win more by losing than you do by winning. Relationships and society as a whole involve much more than one person or group of people being right. Love and respect can often overcome the flaws in any concept or perception. Personally, I am much happier living in a relationship or culture where I feel loved and respected than a reality where I am always right.