When I was going through pre-marital counseling with the pastor who would perform our service, he shared four rules with my wife to transform our communication. About two years later, working at a 501c3, I was asked to do some marriage counseling by a couple that was in real trouble. I had no idea what to do, so I shared those four rules with them and asked them to return in two weeks. My plan was that I would do as much research as possible to help them. The area that we lived in at the time was light on marriage therapists. These rules helped them. Over the years, I have added two rules and changed the material a bit to make it my own.

Years later, I would become a counselor specializing in relationship therapy, and these 6 rules would become foundational to the information I would teach. I teach them to couples, corporations, and anyone who will listen to me. They are the cornerstone of my section on healthy communication in my book, The Emotionally Secure Couple, which can be bought wherever quality books are sold. In this post, I want to share them with you and hope they will help you be a great communicator.  They form the acronym BADFIT to be helpful. Over the years, I have had people tell me they don’t like that word, but I typically tell them that if they don’t use these rules, their communication will be a bad fit for their goals related to their relationships.

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These rules are easy to use but extremely powerful. I have seen them help numerous couples create healthy relationships. These couples often were on the brink of divorce when they began implementing these rules. They are not a matter of skill or ability. They are simply a matter of choice. Anyone can follow them. Our loved ones will feel heard, valued, and safe when they are followed. In fact, it’s something of a cascading effect. If you are following these simple (but often difficult) rules, you will find that your relationship begins to build momentum toward each person being heard, valued, and safe. These rules keep you from attacking the person. They empower you to discuss deeply emotional and powerful issues without attacking or destroying each other. They allow you to process. Furthermore, they allow you to find a way to negotiate through your conflict. They tell your partner, “Even though I’m mad, I love you. I want to work this out with you. I want our relationship to be healthy and work in a way that brings us closer together no matter what.” Invariably, when I have worked with couples, those who have embraced these rules have improved their relationship, and the couples who have not embraced them have continued to struggle with their relationship. These rules can be followed by anyone. They can do everything that I mentioned above. What they cannot do is simply remove the anger from a person. We need to look at anger like being wet. If someone has water dropped on him, he is still wet regardless of how he reacts. In a similar way, when anger begins coursing through a person’s body, it’s not going to just stop going through him. It’s going to continue. To an extent, people can learn to self-soothe and calm down more quickly over time. Still, the best way to measure a person’s growth is based on what they do when they are angry. Be Intentional—Choosing your actions instead of allowing your actions to choose you. Always avoid always and never say never—Avoiding the traps of sideways conversations. Does it have to be a problem?—Realizing it may not be a problem at all Facts only—Dealing with what you know versus what you think you know Issues, not people—Attacking the actions while building the person up Today’s news—Dealing with the issue in front of you and staying focused You only need to remember the acronym: BADFIT. When we fail to follow these six rules in our communication style, we will find that many, if not all, of our relationships will be a “BADFIT” with all apologies to my grammar-minded friends. The best part of these six rules is that they are a choice.

Rule 1. Be Intentional

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So many people believe they cannot help how they react in a relationship. I will often hear, “I just cannot help it; that is how I feel…” in sessions. I will often agree that that’s how they feel. I will quickly challenge the idea that they have to act in a destructive way simply because they’re angry or frustrated. Be intentional about everything you do in your relationship, especially when you are working to build emotional security. This one seems to be common sense, but so often it is not. So many of us live in a completely reactionary world. We do very little to teach anyone how to regulate their emotions or to help them do the opposite of what their emotions tell them to do. We almost live as though we are enslaved to our emotions. We’re not slaves. We have to accept two facts when it comes to our choices. We are entirely responsible for our actions and cannot blame others. Too often, we choose reactions and then blame our partner for that choice. A man once told me that he could not help himself when he became angry and that he had to yell at his wife or kids. They simply needed to get on board with the program, and everything would be fine. He wouldn’t have to yell at them if they would be more agreeable to his plans and do what he wanted them to do. “You have no idea what an emotional fifteen-year-old girl can be like,” was one of his favorite quotes. This idea is hogwash. That is to say, it is as useful as the soapy suds from washing hogs. It has zero value. Our feelings are a bit of a different animal. We may often experience something that creates an emotional reaction in us that generates intense feelings. These feelings are often like passing showers in the springtime. They are intense with a lot of thunder and lightning, but we do not want to utilize them in cultivating our crops. In the same way, we cannot use feelings to cultivate ground that is fertile to grow emotional security. In sessions, I often offer clients a deal. If they can make me yell at them, I will give them a lifetime of free counseling, and they can refer someone to me for the same deal. The only stipulation is that they cannot physically touch me. I’ve never had anyone succeed. I am in control of me. Period. Almost everyone instinctively knows this truth. Even the guy who tells me he “has to yell at his wife or kids” will often admit that he wants to yell at someone at work but manages to keep the expression of his anger to a minimum. It is the expression of our anger that is often destructive and detrimental to our loved ones. I believe that even in the midst of anger, you can choose to do things that cultivate emotional security. That is the basis for these six rules of communication. Often, we feel threatened in some way or we feel hurt during an argument or disagreement with a spouse or loved one. The often false belief that it will always be like this is exasperating the moment. This is negative, irritating, and painful. At this point, all rational reasoning goes away. Not because it has to go away but because we have trained our bodies for it to go away. We have created muscle memory that signals us to let loose with our words when we reach a certain frustration point. Suddenly… It’s okay to call names. It’s okay to swear. It’s okay to attack the person’s character. It’s okay to say things we “don’t really mean.” Except that it is not okay to do any of these things. Even in the midst of our anger, we need to control these things. That’s why the guy who “has to yell at his wife or kids” can refrain from yelling at his boss because he (wrongly) believes that the consequences of yelling at his boss, namely the loss of his job, will be worse than the consequences of his abusive behavior toward his loved ones. Exploders are not the only ones who act like they are slaves to their emotions. Hunters, as I call them, are the most obvious ones who simply react. They’re also people who shut down (rabbits). Eventually, they may explode, emotionally sit out, or both, but initially, they withdraw. They punish by not talking. They ignore. When I meet with them, they want me to believe that they cannot help it.

But I cannot believe that. I refuse to believe that. Rather, I affirm that they can help themselves. They can choose to interact in a way that isn’t destructive. They can simply state what happened and how they felt about it without attacking the person. They do not have to yell. They do not have to swear or call names. They can engage other people to build the relationship, not destroy it. This skill can be learned and, quite frankly, has to be learned. We can control our impulses. The question is always how? First, we need to have a plan. Think through your last two or three major disagreements with your partner or spouse. My guess is that they probably followed a pattern from beginning to end. In fact, my guess is that for many of you, there came a point in the conversation or argument when you intentionally decided to set the fire. You purposely set it off because you were upset, scared, hurt, or frustrated—or all of the above. You reacted out of muscle memory. A response is what is needed in almost every fight that couples have. By using a response, they can mitigate the tension that is inherent in every conflict in their lives. This involves foresight. Write down your most common response when you are fighting that is destructive. Can you identify the thought process that leads you to that statement? If so, write it down as well. Now we plan. Write down what you will say the next time you have that thought process. Focus on what you will do, not only what you won’t do. If you are normally a name caller, you might write down, “I will focus on behaviors in my next conflict. I will not call names.” If you know the specific behavior that will probably irritate you, you can also write that down. You might want to consider role-playing through the conflict. I know it will feel a little weird at first—standing in your living room or bedroom practicing a fight—but feeling weird is a small price to pay to develop your skills in navigating the circle of conflict. BADFIT is simply a guide map for how to better handle your conflict. The three core questions tell you the target you are shooting for in all conflicts. If you can make the target of answering those three questions in the affirmative for your loved one, traversing conflict will be a positive for your relationship. Ultimately, what you say and do in a conflict situation in your relationship is up to you. You can choose to talk about anything without adding fuel to the fire. It is difficult. It is hard. It is doable. There is a cheat code that can help you achieve this in your relationship. It is difficult. It is hard. It is doable. You can give your partner permission to call you out when you violate one of the six rules. In other words, if you are attacking her, instead of talking about what she did, you should give her permission to point out that you are attacking the person, not the issue. If you are jumping from one point to the next without actually giving time for a solution to the first problem, you should give your husband permission to point out that you are not staying on track with today’s news. This “calling out” will be so frustrating at first, but it offers you real-time accountability. Yes, you will probably become angrier—at first. Yes, you will want to scream or run away depending on your natural bend, but eventually, those responses will go away, and you will become a conflict ninja. Being intentional is the lynchpin that holds everything else together when you are working on building your relationship. Without intentionality, all the best planning in the world will not help you respond correctly. A Word about Failing: You will fail as you try to change your interactions through conflict. I guarantee it. Change is hard. It takes time. You have to come back to it over and over again. An often overlooked aspect of being intentional is getting back up off the floor and trying again. Being intentional might mean that you ask for forgiveness. It might mean that you forgive your partner—again. Being intentional means that you put your relationship above everything else, including how you feel in the moment.

Next week, we’ll look at more rules, specifically rules 2 and 3.

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