Follow a Strategy

In real life, unlike in the movies, a fight between a martial arts master and an attacker takes about three seconds. That's because the master has spent years practicing strategies that minimize violence by maximizing effectiveness. Having a strategy for conflict is a way to keep your own interpersonal battles brief, clean, and useful. Here's one that helps in almost every argument.

First, vent "hot" anger; act on "cool" anger. Conflict creates anger, and anger creates a strong "fight" reaction. Acting on this impulse will help you avoid ulcers and feel better—but do it before, not during, a confrontation. I've had clients spend hours in my office yelling, swearing, and kicking a heavy bag (part of my karate equipment) as they connected with years' worth of pent-up rage. This reduced their emotional pressure so that they could fight calmly and powerfully in more volatile environments.

Second, tell the person exactly what's upsetting you. This information must be very precise and concrete. For example, instead of saying, "You don't respect my individuality," you should pinpoint actual behaviors: "When I expressed my opinion at the party, you said, 'You don't really believe that,' and went on to tell everyone what I did believe—as if you knew better than I did! I felt incredibly devalued and angry."

Third, describe exactly what you need to feel better. This is the most important part of healthy conflict strategy, the place where you take responsibility for helping your friend or loved one know how to meet your needs. "Let me be me!" is a useless demand because it doesn't specify any clear action. Instead, give instructions like "Next time you disagree with my opinions, go ahead and say so, or ask me to explain where I'm coming from. Don't tell me what I think, especially in front of other people."

Fourth, explain what the consequences will be if your needs are not met. In case the other person won't agree to your terms, you must be prepared to do whatever is necessary to meet your own needs without their cooperation. "If you keep dominating me during conversations, I'm going to call you on it, no matter where we are or who's watching. Then I will walk away."

It's important that the consequences you describe are what psychologists call logical and natural. (For example, screaming hysterically at someone who wants to drive drunk is not a logical and natural consequence; confiscating the car keys is.) Don't make overblown threats, and always follow through. Crying wolf creates diminishing returns—you'll have to bluster ever more ferociously, with less and less success, leading to lengthy, ineffective conflict.

The Paradox of Peace

After years of karate training, I noticed an odd paradox: The more comfortable I became with fighting, the less I felt compelled to do it. This effect spread far beyond the dojo. I had clean, positive battles with everyone from my academic advisors to my best friend, and felt closer to each person as a result.

One day I told my karate teacher that I didn't feel like sparring. I had no motivation to fight. The sea of fear and anger I'd contained when I set out to learn martial arts had gone dry. I felt completely confident that I could defend whatever was precious to me, and completely uninterested in proving it.

"I see," he said, and smiled. "You have become a warrior at last."

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