Gail and I have been married for thirty-three years. She is my lover, my best friend, and my coach. But a few days ago we had a fight. It was a doozy.
It’s not important what it was about. It was one of those issues we have stumbled over previously. But I will admit that it was my fault. I ambushed her and let it escalate beyond what the circumstances warranted.
Thankfully, it ended well. Primarily, because Gail was patient, refusing to react to my rant. This was enough to end what Emerson Eggerichs calls, “the crazy cycle.” (If you haven’t read his book, Love and Respect, you must do so. It’s the most practical book on marriage I’ve read.)
Weary—and feeling a little foolish—we asked one another’s forgiveness and restored the relationship.
As I was reflecting on that experience today, I thought to myself, How can we avoid slipping into this same conflict in the future. I wrote down five lessons I want to remember for the future.
- Clarify our expectations up front. Most conflicts are born out of a misalignment of expectations. In this particular argument, I had a set of unexpressed expectations that Gail failed to meet. If we had discussed them before the day began, we would have likely avoided the problem altogether. But, she didn’t know, because I hadn’t bothered to articulate them.
- Assume the best about each other. This is especially difficult in the heat of the moment. It is easy to impute motives. But, realistically, your spouse does not get up in the morning intending to make your life miserable. You have to give your spouse the benefit of the doubt, and assume that he or she is well-intentioned.
- Affirm the priority of the relationship. The most important asset you have as a couple is the health of your relationship. You don’t want to win the battle but lose the war. Near the end of our argument, I finally came to my senses. I said, “Honestly, I don’t know who is right or who is wrong. What I know for sure is that I love you and that trumps everything.” She quickly agreed.
- De-personalize the problem. When you square off against one another and make it personal, it gets ugly. If you are not careful, you end up cornering your spouse and leaving them no other option than to react or retaliate. Instead, you have to move to their side of the table, and work on the problem together.
- Listen more than you talk. When you get angry, it is easy to rant—to give expression to your emotion. This is almost never a good idea. Instead, if you want to be understood, you must seek to understand. (Thank you, Dr. Covey.) This means trying to see the other person’s point-of-view. Ask a question, and then ask a follow-up question.
What does this have to do with leadership? Everything. If you can’t lead yourself, you can’t lead others. And if you can’t learn to manage conflict with those closest to you, how can you manage it with those who have less of a stake in the outcome?