As director of the Harvard Negotiation Project and author of "Beyond Machiavelli: Tools for Coping With Conflict" and other top-selling books on mediation, Roger Fisher usually spends his time counseling government officials and corporate leaders about how to get along with each other.
But many of the same principles apply in reconciling family crises, Fisher says.
He advises couples to begin with a premise of unconditional communication--"that is, you want to listen and talk without preconditions." Take the "oughts" out of all dialogue of this kind, Fisher suggests. And sit beside one another, not opposite, where confrontations are likely to seem magnified.
A useful tool in reconciling any difference, Fisher says, involves taking a pad of yellow paper and, on the right side, writing down exactly what the other person said. On the left side, "write what you assume they were thinking." Similarly, Fisher reduces misunderstandings by using a "ladder of inference," which is basically a sophisticated version of the children's game of telephone where a message is passed from person to person. In this exercise, "one person tells the other, 'when you said so-and-so, I interpreted it to mean such-and-such.' "
Fisher also urges individuals to speak only for themselves, "to talk about the effect on me, as in 'when that happened, I felt demeaned and put down,' not 'you put me down.' "