A Bad Cold. A Surprising Conflict Lesson from Reality TV.

Posted by on Jun 8, 2012 in General, Interpersonal Communication | 6 comments

For your next argument, get out your toolkit. Make some repairs!

You’re the Kardashians’ audience?”

“Be careful. You’ll lose brain cells if you keep watching.”

In conversations on Twitter where I let two tweeps know that I am a fan of the Kardashians, this was the response.

So am I really ready to risk a year-plus worth of what I think is solid blogging credibility to devote a whole post to The Kardashians?

You bet I am! Before you close out, let me set the stage for you…

First of all, as important as my earlier topic this week–anxiety and depression–it’s time for a little levity, right?

Second, I have been nursing a cold inherited by a 4-year-old for a good 10 days now. I had a few hours on the couch, which never, ever happens in my world.

Finally, say what you will about how the Kardashian family reached their fame, who Kim divorces/dates, or how they promote themselves. I find that the sisters and the mom are super-business savvy and, of course, their money just blows my mind. But, what I marvel the most about this family, and what I am going to focus on in this blog, is their interpersonal communication skill.

Roll your eyes… go ahead… but I’m going to use this family as a communication model in my interpersonal communication class in the fall for the conflict management section. We can all learn something from the episodes called “Who’s Your Daddy” and “Everybody’s Wigging Out.”

Okay, in case you are totally scared, let me wax academic again: In grad school, I studied (and still study) Dr. John Gottman, a leading researcher in marriage and relationships, who, conveniently, hails from the University of Washington (remember, I teach in Seattle, though I studied Gottman at UNLV). When I took grad-level interpersonal comm, I wrote a paper on marital dissolution.

(Yeah, happy topic, I know!)

Anyway, in an old TV show Gottman aired called The Love Lab, he watched couples fight. In addition to analyzing physical signs of distress, such as the individual’s heart rate (each would wear a monitor), Gottman counted the number of “repairs” that spouses used in the midst arguing. A repair is a validating word or phrase that says, “Hey, in the heat of this argument, I may hate you, the ground you walk on, and the way your hair sits atop your head, but I am going to say something that shows that I do care about the overall health and well-being of this relationship.”

The “something” might be using “I” language, taking ownership of the problem, saying something like “I want to work this out” or “I understand where you’re coming from.” Essentially, anything somewhat positive with nonverbals to match that shows you do have the other person’s feelings in mind. Repairs are the direct opposite of what many people do in fights, which is go for the throat and escalate the situation. Ever have a fight that went like this?

Partner 1: “You didn’t do the dishes last night when I asked you to.”

Partner 2: “So? I was tired. You didn’t do them either.”

Partner 1: “Yeah? Well, you never do the dishes, and you don’t really do anything around here… ever! And you know what? I’m really sick of your attitude.”

Partner 2: “What are you saying? You don’t love me anymore?”

Partner 1: “I don’t know what I’m saying. I just don’t like that it’s always a mess around here and you don’t seem to care.”

Partner 2: “You didn’t really answer me, so I guess that’s my answer.”

See where this argument is going? Around and around, but no concerns are being validated or clarified. Neither partner is really being heard.

Let me get back to the Kardashians (you thought I forgot about them, didn’t you? No such luck!).

Example #1:

Mom Kris tells Kourtney that she needs to include Kim in buying for their Dash stores (Kourtney feels angry that Kim isn’t more involved). Kourtney replies: “I’ve always been a control freak. You do have a point.” (Admits her role in the situation. Validates her mother’s perception).

Then, when she confronts Kim, “I never thought you cared. That’s why I never would ask you when I went to do the buying.” (Calmly states her point of view).

Kim: “I’m going to make myself more available.” (States her intention; doesn’t counter-blame).

Example #2:

Upon publication of Kris’s memoir, rumors surface that Khloe is not a true Kardashian (Okay, this post had to be a little out there!). Kris wants Khloe to take a DNA test; Khloe vehemently opposes. The family argues–admittedly a pretty benign version for reality television.

In a day-after lunch between Kris and Kim, Kim (again, kindly and calmly) calls her mom out: “I think you … feel like maybe ‘I don’t like that people are saying this about me.’ … I think she thinks that you’re trying to sneakily do it for her, but it’s really for you.” (Uses ‘I’ language–doesn’t blame, but says what she observes about the situation).

Kris responds candidly, “I do want it for myself. I realized that. That’s why I can’t sleep at night.” (Takes responsibility for her feelings).

Example #3:

Kris’s son Rob is searching for his first house. Kris is too busy to house-hunt, but suggests that step-dad Bruce Jenner goes instead. Rob loves Bruce, but doesn’t want him involved in this task. He comments during a dinner that “he has no father figure” like his friends for house hunting (even though Bruce has been in the family for 21 years). When Rob walks away from the dinner table, Bruce leans over to Kris, who is texting, whispers how hurt he is by the remark. Kris is oblivious. Later, Kourtney confronts her mother’s frenetic pace: “You’re not present in the moment. The other day, Rob said something that hurt Bruce’s feelings at dinner. You normally would have picked up on that and noticed and didn’t.”

Kris replied, “I obviously want to make it right.” And she does… by talking to Rob and explaining that he couldn’t possibly remember how from age 3, Bruce was always there for him.

Example #4:

Rob confronts Bruce privately. He stammers at first and Bruce is clearly a little cool, but the conversation between them is, to me, quite incredible.

Rob: “I wanted to apologize. … You thinking I’m not appreciative of you. I am. More than you even know.” (Sincere! Not a harsh start-up… states specifically what he thinks Bruce might be thinking).

Bruce: “Well when I heard you say that you didn’t have a role model after your dad passed away… I’ve kind of been there from the beginning. … When you hear that, it just kind of hurts, that’s all.” (Bruce doesn’t mince words. Admits how Rob’s words made him feel with sincerity.)

Rob: “From a guy who took four kids when you married my mom, that, alone, says enough. … I’m also sorry for being really dismissive of you and not taking your opinion on the housing situation. … There are just certain things that I’m just used to Mom’s decision because I’ve just been raised by her doing things since day one.” (Rob explains his position so Bruce can understand the context).

Will you agree with me that any of these conversations could have gone very, very badly in about 0.1 seconds with just one off-tone or one negative word? Absolutely! I could have been guilty of it and maybe you could have, too. I repeatedly find the Kardashians’ commitment to positive communication within the family (except for all the texting–but that’s rampant everywhere)  quite impressive.

I’m not recommending that you run over to your DVR and start recording the show or anything, but I will ask you to think about John Gottman’s idea of “repairs” in your next argument. Think about how you can own your part of the disagreement, validate someone else’s feelings, talk about your perspective by using “I” language, or simply be direct and sincere in your apology.

Bottom line? Let your communication partner know how much they mean to you.

In other words, borrow some Kommunication like a Kardashian.

(I’m sorry. I just couldn’t resist.)

It’s okay to comment and let me know that you think I’m taking too much Sudafed.


  1. Fun post, Ellen. Useful info, too. (So, did Khloe not take the test?) :)

    • Hi, Laura,

      Thank you! I had a lot of fun writing it :-) .

      She did NOT take the test. Is that a spoiler? Oh, wait… I didn’t encourage people to watch, right? ;-)

  2. Your students are going to love this lesson. First, it is an important lesson about conflict and how to handle conflict productively. Second, it’s a popular culture reference they are totally going to get. Love or hate the Kardashians – they are part of our pop culture conversation!

    • Hi, Michelle,

      I KNOW! I think it will be so much fun!!!! I marvel at the way this family protects each other’s feelings. I recall episodes where Kim and Khloe were having ongoing tension and you could tell that this was a very uncomfortable place for both of them. I’m glad to see that they’ve recovered.

      Thank you for writing. I agree! The family is part of our cultural conversation!

  3. Ellen, your instincts were right when you described “Kommunication like a Kardashian” as horrible! But something had to ground this piece – it is such a revelation to read your insight into something as disposable as a reality TV program. We are informed by the relationships that we’ve experienced, and for you to look at the Kardashians, see their commitment to “repair” and to share that example with people is really a special gift. Many of us who blog a lot would LOVE to be able to share such rich insight with an audience just once, but it’s par for the course for you. Phenomenal post. I think you should repackage and pitch this post specifically to HuffPo.

    • Okay, so Jim, my husband wanted me to title the piece “Kommunicating with the Kardashians” and I couldn’t bring myself to do it :-) . Really, you share these types of insights all the time. I know… I’ve read them about Michael Symon, Restaurant Impossible, and even Joan Osborne–and so much more! Who gave me the idea to blog about pop culture, anyway? Um, that would be you! It took me a while, though.

      Seriously, I do think my students have a lot to learn from this family. Even though they fanatically text, they do seem to be able to call each other out on even that in a respectful, face-saving way that I find impressive. Maybe students will see that there is still a place for face-to-face communication. Or, kommunication :-) .

      Oh, and HuffPo? Done and done. Your advice is never lost on me!


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