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How To Fight Fairly

From suburban parks to professional stadiums, team members follow pre-established rules when playing baseball or football. Boxing has the Marquis of Queensberry rules that turn what might have been a melee into a sporting event. Precedents, codes, policies, and regulations govern courts of law. Even war has the Geneva Convention.

Soccer, of course, has rules by which the contestants play, but the grandstands can be quite a different matter. Some European soccer fans disregard the rules of social order, and the result is chaos and rioting. The situation in these soccer grandstands is similar to what can be found in many families. Without a structure to help family members resolve their conflicts, differences often result in arguments (at best) and abuse (at worst). Adopting rules helps to create an orderly way of discussing differences.

Developing Rules of Engagement

“Fair fighting,” a concept introduced by Dr. George Bach, introduces a set of rules that make reasonable discussion possible. It does this by prescribing a format that allows the parties to listen to one another as they express their feelings and concerns in a calm and forthright manner. The ultimate goal is for each to understand the other.

The rules of fair fighting:

  1. Bar physical and verbal abuse.
  2. Disallow offensive labeling of others’ ideas, character, or behavior.
  3. Exclude assumptions about another’s thinking or motives (including talking for one another).
  4. Ban putting the relationship on the line when you are not having your way in the discussion.

The parties need to agree in advance on a specific set of rules to follow and must establish these rules when calm. The goal is for the discussion to be effective rather than give either party an opportunity to “get even,” so “drama” is considered counterproductive. When the rules are set, they should be written down so there is no confusion later.

Here are some ideas to consider when developing your rules of engagement:

  • Decide when. Identify a good time for your discussion. Avoid times when tired, or when children may be listening, or when stress may be looming. If it is a time when you are both relaxed, it is likely to work better.
  • Decide where. Find a neutral location for your discussion. Avoid discussions in your bed or in locations where you are likely to be interrupted.
  • Decide what. Agree on the topic or the problem for discussion beforehand.
    1. Limit the discussion to a single topic or problem. Related issues make it too complicated for clarity.
    2. Focus on the present situation. Past history can raise the emotional barometer.
    3. Make a short specific statement about your concern. Vague and lengthy statements are hard to follow.
    4. Calmly state your feelings about the situation. Most feeling words are variations on one of these themes: mad, glad, sad, and scared. Again, if you can’t name your feeling calmly, delay the discussion until you can.
  • Decide how. Use active listening skills to move toward the goals of understanding and compromise, as follows:
    1. The person presenting the concern begins by making a full statement, including content and feelings, without interruption.
    2. The second person restates his or her understanding of the first person’s statement, without interruption.
    3. The first person either agrees that the second person adequately restated the concern or clarifies the part that was not understood.
    4. If necessary, the second person restates the part that was clarified.
    5. When the first person finally agrees that the second person understands, the second person has the opportunity to respond.
    6. The first person restates until the second person is satisfied that the first person understands.
    7. This active listening process continues until both parties are satisfied that they understand each other.
    8. When each truly understands the other’s concerns and feelings, it is likely that some options or middle ground will emerge that both parties can live with. The art of compromise is facilitated by the idea that each party gets some of what he or she wants, but not all.
  • When a rule is violated, complain about the violation. If it is not immediately resolved, declare a time-out. Agree on a visual or verbal sign as a time-out signal. Use healthy strategies (taking a walk, meditating, moderate exercise) to calm down. Reschedule for a time when both parties have calmed down.
How To Fight Fairly

Stanley J. Gross, Ed.D

APA Reference
Gross, S. (2020). How To Fight Fairly. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 5, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 17 Jan 2020 (Originally: 17 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 17 Jan 2020
Published on Psych All rights reserved.