In the 7 Habits of Conflict Zen®, I described conflict zen as “the centered, balanced, intentional response to conflict that most people want. It’s the kind of response the minimizes relational debris, makes you feel good about how you handled it, and exponentially increases creativity for individuals and groups.”
Breaking the bickering habit is one of the ways to move closer to conflict zen in your home and work relationships. And because it takes two to bicker, the bait provided by the other can make breaking the habit a bit harder to pull off.
Breaking the bickering habit is possible with the commitment of one person in a pair or group, and more possible when everyone involved agrees to change the habit together. How do I know? This is one I’ve had to work on in my own life and marriage, and which still trips me up on occasion.
Why we bicker
Psychologists and counselors might answer this differently, but here’s the mediator’s take on bickering:
- We bicker because we’ve avoided having the difficult conversation that’s underlying the squabbling.
- We bicker because a problem in the relationship hasn’t really been attended to sufficiently. And like the snake under the rug, the unaddressed conflict pops out in all sorts of other moments.
- We bicker because we know one primary way to argue: take a position, stick to it, and stick with it over time, like Dr. Seuss’ poor Zax.
Why bickering is a problem
Bickering once in a while isn’t a problem. Bickering regularly is, because:
- Each squabble leaves a few tiny pieces of emotional debris. Over time, quite a pile can build up and the relationship can suffer.
- It can become the way you do conflict, the way you disagree. Patterns are hard to break – not impossible, but much harder when they’re well ingrained.
- It’s harder to leap out of bed with joy for the day ahead when you know that day has too many unpleasant moments waiting to find you.
- It contributes to the conflict spiral, that pattern of escalating frustration and distance that marks a relationship in real trouble.
- It can ruin your day. Your year. Your decade. Who wants to look back on a life filled with bickering as one of the hallmarks of daily existence?
Breaking the bickering habit
The approach I outlined in Kicking the Criticism Habit applies to bickering, too. But because bickering is often a joint habit, it’s best if both of you work on breaking the habit together. Here are some additional pointers:
- Find and agree on a “pause button” for the conversation. It’s got to be a remark or gesture that both of you know will stop you momentarily, won’t inflame, and you’ve agreed upon in advance. My husband and I use the simple, “Time out.” Either of us can invoke it and both will pause and redirect once it’s been invoked.
- Center yourselves. Help your mind remember how to respond with love instead of venom or bitterness by answering your own centering question.
- Take the time to talk out what’s underlying the bickering. Track back what the bickering’s really about and talk out the things that matter instead of squabbling over the things that don’t.
Breaking the bickering habit with a little help
Breaking the bickering habit habit will be a featured topic in my spring Conflict Zen® retreats. If you’re part of a pair that’s stuck in a bickering rut, you can even come to the retreat together (there will be a couples and group discount).