My wife, Margaret, and I were married in June 1969, and like most couples, we naively believed that nothing but smooth sailing lay ahead of us. Of course, it didn’t take long for us to find ourselves in the kinds of minor disagreements that all couples experience, especially when they’re first adjusting to married life.
Like most people, I thought I was right nearly all the time, and I let Margaret know about it. I’ve always been a good talker, and I can be pretty persuasive, so I used my skills to win our arguments. We never yelled or screamed at each other. It was always very rational and controlled, but I always made sure I won. The problem was that with my approach, Margaret always had to lose.

And I truly didn’t realize that winning at all costs could eventually jeopardize our marriage, until one day when Margaret sat me down, shared how she felt when we argued, and explained what it was doing to our relationship. It was the first time I understood I was putting winning the arguments ahead of winning the relationship.

From that day I decided to change. Realizing that having the right attitude was more important than having the right answers, I softened my approach, listened more, and stopped making a big deal out of little things. In time, the wall that had begun to form came down, and we began building bridges. And since that time, I’ve made a conscious effort to initiate connection anytime I’m in conflict with someone I care about.

Let’s face it. Because of their personalities, some people are inclined to use a hammer, even when something gentler will do. That’s my natural inclination. But now, when tempted to use overkill, I try to temper my behavior using the following four Ts. You may want to embrace them when you find yourself in a similar situation.

1. Total Picture.

Do you come to conclusions long before the problem has been laid out before you? That’s a common occurrence for most of us. To keep from hammering people with answers before they finished asking the question, I’ve trained myself to follow this process:

  • Listen,
  • Ask questions,
  • Listen again,
  • Ask more questions,
  • Listen some more,
  • Then
  • Respond.

I find that if I slow myself down, I’m more likely to respond patiently and appropriately.

2. Timing

When you act is as important as taking the right action. Even knowing when not to act can be important. Noted hostess and writer Lady Dorothy Nevill observed, “The real art of conversation is not only to say the right thing in the right place, but to leave unsaid the wrong thing at the tempting moment.”

It seems to me that the most common cause of bad timing in relationships is selfish motives. For that reason, when little things bother us, our number one objective must be putting our personal agendas aside and building the relationship. Once you’ve examined your motives, then you need to ask yourself two timing questions: 1) Am I ready to confront? That’s a pretty easy one to answer because it’s really a matter of whether you’ve done your homework. The second is harder: 2) Is the other person ready to hear? If you’ve laid a relational foundation, and the two of you are not in the “heat of battle,” then the answer is more likely to be yes.

3. Tone

The writer of Proverbs stated, “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” Haven’t you found that to be true? People often respond more to our attitudes and actions than to our words. And many petty conflicts occur because people use the wrong tone of voice. The next time someone says something to you in anger, respond with gentleness and kindness. In response, the other person is likely to tone down, if not soften, his attitude.

4. Temperature

As tempers flare, people are prone to dropping bombs when using a slingshot will do. And that can cause a lot of trouble because the size of a problem changes based on the heat applied to it. In general,

If the reaction is more heated than the action, the problem usually increases.

If the reaction is less intense than the action, the problem usually decreases.

That’s why I try to follow a self-imposed guideline that I like to call the Reprimand Rule: Take thirty seconds to share feelings – and then it’s over. Anytime we let a little thing create a big reaction (longer than 30 seconds), then we’re using a hammer.


Psychologist Abraham Maslow once observed, “If the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail.” That might work with some issues, but it’s a terrible way to treat people. Relationships require more judicious treatment. Pay attention to the Four Ts in conflict, especially regarding the little things, and you’ll be more likely to solve the problem while preserving the relationship.

Adapted from Winning with People

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