This week, we continue our journey through the six rules of communication. I recommend starting with parts one and two, if you’ve not read them yet. Today, we’ll explore how to engage in conflict once we have identified that there is a problem that needs addressing. I love these ideas because they have been invaluable in my personal relationships and in supporting others through challenging times. By following these principles, you can navigate conflicts more effectively and strengthen your relationships. Remember, the goal of engaging in conflict is not to win but to understand each other better and findaa resolution that respects both parties’ needs and perspectives. In short, to build emotional security.

Let’s look at rule 4.

4. Facts Only

When you engage in conflict, it is imperative to deal in facts only. Dealing with only the facts is one of the hardest skills you can develop as a human being. It’s not that I think most people are liars; I think that most people assume they are right even about what they are assuming.

This is a really important distinction. Think about how many times you and your partner have had a fight when things went really wrong, really quickly. Usually, something is said, and your partner reacts to what you think you understand the person to be saying. You take what they say and run out seven or eight evolutions in your brain—making interpretations and assumptions the entire way. Often, the response is based on the conclusions of those evolutions, not on what they actually said, and rarely on what they meant.

This is the difference in discussing or arguing over what we know versus what we think we know. Often, we respond to what we think we know.

Erica: I’m frustrated that the trash didn’t get out today.

Joe: (Thinking she’s frustrated at him) I had to get to work early today. Why didn’t you do it? I can’t do everything around the house, you know . . .

Do you see the inherent problem with how Joe reacted? He immediately assumed that Erica was frustrated with him. The truth is that she might be upset and frustrated with him, but he doesn’t know that. He’s dealing with an assumption, not a fact. Because he’s arguing from his assumption, he’s becoming more defensive, which will almost always prompt him to use words that cause his spouse’s defensive levels to increase. It is relatively easy to see how this fight could move all over the place and both parties feel like they were simultaneously right and yet, have no real idea what they were fighting over.

Let’s look at another way Joe could have handled this conversation:

Erica: I’m frustrated that the trash didn’t get out today.

Joe: You’re frustrated because we have trash piling up? That sucks.

Erica: Yes, this whole new day just messes my schedule up.

Joe: Are you frustrated with me, or just because the trash didn’t get out? (Joe asks this because in their family, Erica has always been the one who takes out the trash, and yet, Joe was tempted to assume that Erica was frustrated with him.)

Erica: No, I’m just upset because I have no idea how we will get all this trash out of here.

Joe: Yeah, that stinks . . . uh no pun intended . . .

In the second conversation, Joe uses the Mirror Method to make sure he understands what is Erica’s true source of frustration. He doesn’t react, rather he responds in a way that allows him a means to diffuse his own defensiveness as well as actively working to show empathy to Erica regarding her frustration.

I get the sense that many times, when someone is frustrated, it has little or nothing to do with their partner. However, the frustration works like a prime of explosives. When your spouse senses that you are upset, they begin to feel the tension of that frustration, and they react. They begin to defend themselves, and then something sets off the spark, and the fight begins.

Dealing with only the facts allows us a method to make sure we are responding to what is actually happening without being enslaved to react to what we think is going on. It gives us the means to be proactive in our arguments without being caught up in reactions to things that might not even be a problem. Of course, it is easy to illustrate what happens when our assumption is wrong, but what about when it’s right? What do we do when we think we know what our spouse is really upset about, but we’re uncertain?

Simply put: we do the same thing. We don’t assume we know until we actually hear them say it. We can only deal with facts as we know them. If your partner hasn’t said something, then you don’t have facts to deal with at this point.

Let’s pretend that Erica was upset with Joe because she thought he was going to take out the trash. What might that conversation look like in regards to our “facts only” component?

Erica: I’m frustrated the trash didn’t get out today.

Joe: You’re frustrated because we missed the trash and now it’s going to pile up?

Erica: Yes.

Joe: Are you frustrated with me?

Erica: Yes, I thought you were going to take it out before you left for work.

Joe now has facts to respond to in a way that helps solve the problem. Maybe he has a good reason the trash didn’t get out, maybe he doesn’t, but he has done the work necessary to respond to the facts. He doesn’t have to be defensive, nor does he have to get to the end of the argument and wonder what the whole thing was about. He might say something like the following:

Joe: Well, I’m a little confused by that. Did you tell me you were expecting me to take out the trash and I didn’t hear you? You normally are the one who takes out the trash so I just assumed you would continue doing it. Should I adjust that assumption?

Notice here that Joe isn’t blaming. He’s expressing his confusion and the assumptions that he was operating out of. He’s further asking Erica if he should adjust those assumptions and alter his actions. This is the bones of a great conversation, even though there is frustration and confusion in it. He may have been feeling somewhat defensive, but he was able to hold two divergent feelings in tension: feeling defensive and feeling confused. His confusion probably created some of the defensiveness he was feeling, so his response was to seek clarification.

This is also an excellent response when we are being told about something wrong with us. I think it is especially true that we tend to get defensive when we are being told we did something wrong or there is something we need to change. The more defensive we are, the more likely we are to react and go on the offensive in one way or another. By using the Mirror Method to ferret out the actual facts of the situation, we are more likely to solve the conflict rather than set fire to the other person’s emotions.

What Happens if We Disagree on the Facts?Photo by Marek Piwnicki on Unsplash

You’ve followed the steps, and you both still disagree on the facts. This is probably most common when we find ourselves in the classic “he said, she said” disagreement.

When this happens, first accept that there is a disagreement. Problems often develop when I ask couples to define the nature of the disagreement. In part, this is because in our modern parlance, we use words we don’t actually mean. We say, “What you said was . . .” when we really mean, “How I interpreted what you said was . . .” This is so common and so destructive.

Kristy and Jeremy came to see me for a variety of issues. There had been infidelity and enough hurt to pass around a few times over. They had four children, all girls, and they were trying to piece their marriage back together. Their worldviews had drastically changed over the years and their belief about how to engage conflict had devolved. Of course, I was asking them to pull those scabs off and go after the potential pain and payoff of engaging the conflict. They recently had a severe disagreement that had actually begun two weeks before our session. On their way to our session, the smoldering fire had resurfaced so that they had walked into our time together rather heated.

I asked them what was going on, and words poured out in a torrent of verbal vomit as they both scrambled to explain their side of the story. After a few moments of clarifying questions, I asked them to begin discussing it with each other. I almost always make each person wait to respond until after the first person is done talking for at least the first evolution of the conversation. For clarity, I refer to one person making a statement and the partner or spouse responding as one evolution. After the first evolution, I may just let the conversation run for a few moments if I believe it is therapeutically beneficial as I did in this case.

During their conversation, it became clear that they were arguing over what Kristy felt she said versus what Jeremy thought she said. He repeatedly said, “Well, that’s what I heard!”

As I’m sure you know, that conversation will burn a long time and rarely get anywhere. At some point, they must agree to disagree. The conversation does not have to end there. They could both ask how they might do better at clarifying the next time something similar comes up.[1]

Find Clarification

Many times, the disagreement is over the meaning of the words used, not the words. We think the words they used mean something different than what they thought they meant. When we strive to deal with facts only, we work to ensure that we are only responding to what the person is actually saying, not what we think they may be saying. If our interpretation of what they are saying is not an easily made and literal interpretation, then we should utilize the Mirror Method to make sure our interpretation is accurate.

In the situation of Jeremy and Kristy, Jeremy was already dialed up because he was feeling the pressure of believing he had failed because of a past situation. He knew that this was a stress point for his wife in the past, and they had talked about it. He had come up with ways he could do it better, and that night, those better methods had simply not been implemented. He was already primed to be defensive and when his wife showed obvious signs of frustration, he immediately defended by attacking. In fact, at one point in our session, she asked him why he was yelling and he said, “Because I’m mad!” As he sorted out what he knew versus what he thought he knew, Jeremy realized he was actually more frustrated with himself and the kids. His anger with his wife was minimal.

What Do You Do When Your Spouse Is Mad at You?

This brings us to the third way to deal with the facts only: what do you do when you know your spouse is mad at you?

By now, I imagine you’re getting the idea that we do the same thing as the other two scenarios. If you know your spouse or partner is angry with you, it is important to still deal with the facts. When we know we are wrong, we are most tempted to be defensive, and more importantly, we are most tempted to “be right.”

When I’m talking about this principle in a session, I often tell clients that I am not calling anyone a liar; I’m simply saying that, as humans, we are never more tempted to stretch the truth to “be right.” This obviously puts the relationship foundation of love, trust, and respect in danger. It is important to deal with only facts no matter how the conversation is going because that allows us to stay on topic (an important principle dealt with in the rule called “Today’s News”). When we use this method to stay on track, we will be less likely to have aimless arguments that only seem to hurt our partner and damage our relationship.


When we are caught in conflict, we can be quite tempted to exaggerate what we know or we can state things that we feel as facts. Sometimes, even though we legitimately feel something, that doesn’t mean it’s true. This rule can help us communicate more clearly and safely, building Emotional Security in those situations.

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