Rules Of Engagement

Full and effective communication is the most important single factor in any human interaction.  This is especially true in a loving relationship.  It is easy to overlook the fact that the information that is being communicated, even non-verbally, does not tell the whole story.  Nor is it necessarily the most important factor in determining the net outcome of an interaction.  The motivations of each individual and the purposes each is trying to serve often have far more impact than the information being exchanged.

This is especially true when people respond emotionally to finding themselves at crossed purposes with each other.  The intents and purposes of the participants become especially critical as such conflict escalates toward unmanageability.

It is important to realize that the intentions and purposes underlying the tactics are often unrecognized by the individual who is acting them out.  This does not mean that they are in any way unknowable, but rather that most of us become blind to certain motives in certain situations.  In other words, unless we choose, consciously and willfully, to look for and at our real motives at the time, we are unlikely to see those motives in their truest light.  In fact, if someone else points them out to us, and particularly if it is someone who has been cast in the role of an adversary, we are likely to go into a knee-jerk defensive posture.  This is particularly counterproductive with individuals who believe that “the best defense is a good offense” or “might makes right”.  Then animosity and even violence are never too far away.

While there are a great many traps for us to fall into,  there are even more ways in which to prevent them.  This does not mean that these ways and means will be used effectively in a given situation.  Practiced sincerely over time, however, even those who are most prone to counterproductive tactics can learn to deal with almost anything that comes up in the relationship.

This does not mean that everyone always lives happily ever after.  Sometimes, when a relationship has outlived its value, the best thing to do is to alter it radically, or even dissolve it.  In such cases, the goal is to reach unanimity as to the outcome and the reasons that necessitate it.  Doing so through a process of interaction that all participants feel good about is important too.  This does not mean that everyone has to happy at every juncture.  It does mean that there is an absence of rancor, bitterness and blame.

This leaves great latitude to support a wide range of emotions and their expressions.  It would be almost inconceivable that a couple who have just decided to divorce after 20 years of marriage would feel no sadness at all once the decision had been reached.  Nor does it seem likely that neither of them would have had any moments of strong emotions other than joy during the process.

What follows are rules for relating which, if followed persistently and sincerely, will improve the quality of any interaction in which you find yourself.




The Rules

1.       You must know what you want.  This is not always possible, especially at the outset.  It is also very common that what you think you want has very little to do with what you will actually be happiest with.  In such cases, the first order of business is to arrive at the truth about what each person actually does want from the process.  If you think you already know, double check.  If you really don’t know, find out.

2.       Whenever possible all parties involved must agree on the same set of rules.  You can still improve the quality of interaction even if you are the only one who is following the rules but you must be very skillful to get the same quality of result.

3.       Each individual must agree to follow the rules even when others do not.  In other words, believing that someone else is breaking the rules is not sufficient reason to abandon them yourself.

4.       Name calling is never acceptable.  In is nearly impossible to improve the quality of an interaction by making remarks that you have reason to expect will be interpreted as insulting.

5.       Making and expressing judgments about yourself and others is not allowed.  Judgments are moral, ethical or other pronouncements such as, “You are a bad person” or “He doesn’t deserve to live.”  This is only one step removed from name calling and at least as destructive to any useful outcome.

6.       Each individual is totally and solely responsible for their own feelings and reactions.  Phrases like “You make me angry” are contradictory to this rule.  The one who feels the feelings is the one who is responsible for them.  Period.

7.       All emotions must be expressed.  This seems to contradict rule 6, however it does not.  For example, “Stop intimidating me”, can be restated as “I feel intimidated when you do that.”  In the latter version, the speaker is owning the feeling of intimidation and simply identifying it with an action of their partner.  Feelings like this must be resolved, though not always instantly, but in any event they must first be expressed.

8.       Everyone has a right to change.  It is fruitless to try to deny anyone, even yourself, the right to change.  We are all changing in one way or other virtually constantly.  Over time these changes add up to significant alterations.  The obvious application of this rule is in cases where someone has changed in some way that someone else finds troublesome.  The same principle applies equally to situations where a person expresses the intention to change in a way that their partner believes they will prove to be too difficult to achieve or will cause some other kind of problem.  If the intent is expressed to change, it must be honored as a valid intent.  The question of its sincerity or practicability may be questioned, but not blatantly refuted a priori.  If the seriousness of the intent is in doubt, some way of ensuring it or limiting possible damage in the event of failure may be in order.

9.       Each individual must sincerely believe that the success of the process takes precedence over all other purposes.  The principle behind this rule is illustrated in the question “would you rather be right or happy?”  Restated, “Would you rather have this work or ‘win’?”

10.   In every interaction, either everyone wins or everyone loses.  The principle here is that if anyone loses, we all lose.  Only when everyone wins does any individual win.  Winning here is defined as the feeling that you have achieved what you really wanted to.

11.   Compromise is never necessary.  This sounds absurd at first blush, but it isn’t.  Compromise involves giving up something you genuinely value just to come to terms.  It is a form of losing and if even one person compromises, everyone loses.  A “fair compromise” is one in which the losing is spread evenly among all participants.  It also means that there are no winners.

12.   Each person bears responsibility for their own adherence to the rules and for pointing out the violations of others.  This rule is necessary but very volatile.  It is easy to abuse the rule by attacking everything someone says as a violation of the rules (which is, of course, a violation in itself) thus igniting World War III.  It may be helpful to identify the specific rule that is being violated, how, and why.  The greatest protection from abuse if this rule is the sincerity of those involved.  One who really wants the process to succeed will not make accusations frivolously.  Conversely, they will take such assertions seriously and respond with honestly and gratitude.

13.   Anyone has the right to ask anyone else “what are you feeling right now”.  The other party, has however, the option of finishing what they were saying first but not declining altogether.  “I don’t know” or “Nothing” are not valid responses.  If you really don’t know, you’d better stop everything and find out.  If you are really feeling nothing, then you are closed down emotionally in a strong defensive bunker and should deal with that directly before continuing.

14.   You can’t deal with an emotion that you are not feeling at the moment.  For this reason, you should avoid trying to deal in any substantive manner with feelings that you are not presently experiencing.  Doing so is at best useless and at worst misleading and destructive to the purposes at hand.

15.   Saying you’re sorry does not constitute a confession of blame.  You can be genuinely sorry that someone else is suffering without being the cause of that suffering.  If you feel sorry about something, say so and know that you have not entered a plea of guilty in the process.

16.   Successful relating is a team sport, not an individual one.  You are in this together and the success or failure of the process is up to everyone, not a single individual.  If you make it an individual event, everyone with their own agenda, you will more than likely be in a dog fight that no one can win.

17.   Digression to irrelevant subjects is not allowed.  Most of us has at one time or another resorted to creating a distraction to avoid or at least postpone some anticipated unpleasantness.  If someone asks you a question for which you have no answer, or none that you are comfortable sharing, you may find yourself saying something like “Oh look!  There’s Halley’s comet.”  Anything to change the subject or create a break in continuity that will give you time to think or make it more difficult to get back to the same place afterward.  Feeling a sudden urge to visit the bathroom or realization that you forgot to make an urgent phone call, baste the turkey, or feed the dog, all qualify as unacceptable digressions.  If you really do have to do something, it can almost always wait a minute or two until you have faced the present “crisis”.

18.   Never ascribe motives, thought or feeling  to anyone else.  Most of us are lucky to know precisely what we ourselves are really feeling, thinking or intending at a given moment.  To pretend that you know the thoughts, feelings or motives of another is ludicrous.  Questions like “What are you feeling?”, “Do you feel angry?” or the assertion “I think that you are angry about that.” are all acceptable.  They do not accuse, label, brand or judge the other person.  Even in the last case, you are expressing a feeling or opinion, not a pronouncement.

19.   Right and wrong have no relevance.  The rightness or wrongness of a feeling, thought, attitude, or act is not germane to the process.  The single purpose is for the process to succeed and everyone to win.  If you feel that you are being misquoted or that facts are being misstated, then you should say so.  but in no case is it useful to say things like “I know what’s wrong with us: you!” or “The trouble with you is…..”.

20.   Listen with both heart and mind. Your partner needs to be given an opportunity to be heard, and so do you. That is just as true if what is being heard seems absurd or untrue. If you were in complete agreement, something else would be happening in the first place.





The tricks and techniques available to us are limited only by our imagination.  Here are a few to prime your creative pump.


1.       If you seem to wind up talking at the same time, use an egg timer or similar device to regulate who has the floor.  When you get the floor, start the timer.  No one else is allowed to interrupt until the timer has expired.  Then you pass the timer to the next person.  There can, and often should, be exceptions such as asking a clarifying question or correcting a misstatement fact.  Any exceptions should be agreed upon in advance.  Exceptions can be terminated by anyone at any time.

2.       If you find yourself starting to panic or knee-jerk, stop for a moment to get yourself back on track.  Anyone can be caught unawares by a question or some other emergence.  Before you start shooting from the hip, give yourself time to look at what is happening, especially your feelings.  This is an extremely effective way to prevent deterioration or even collapse of the dialogue.

3.       Some form of meditation before starting can get you off on the right foot.  This needn’t be any kind of formal procedure.  It can be even better if it involves all parties.  For example, you can simply stand or sit face to face, looking at one another, perhaps holding hands and spend a couple of silent minutes thinking about the purpose (as stated above) for being there together.  Think about what you would like to outcome to be for everyone and then visualize them happy with it.


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