STEP AWAY FROM THE NEED TO BE RIGHT
I remember arguing with my cousin over how many “oohs” were in the chorus of the song “She Drives me Crazy” by Fine Young Cannibals. These days, a simple internet search can get you the lyrics or even access to the song so you can listen to it and discern the truth. We didn’t have such a luxury in the 80s. We argued for hours and listened to the radio in hope that the song would come on so we could count the “oohs.” Finally, it did. Guess what? She heard 3 “oohs” and I heard 2 in which the second “ooh” spanned two notes. We never agreed on the matter.
The above story is mild, but how many of these little disagreements turn into full-blown arguments in our relationships? How easily can a dispute over song lyrics turn to “you can never just agree with me” or “you know my hearing is better than yours, why can’t you just admit there are some things I do better than you”? The first tip is likely the most difficult, but also the most effective: step away from the need to be right. This also includes the need for someone to agree with you or change their mind so that they not only see it your way, but see it as the only way.
Consider the following Q&A:
Question: If you’re right, what does that make the other person?
Question: Who likes to be wrong?
Answer: No one.
Question: What happens when someone feels like they are being told they are wrong?
Answer 1: They see your point and move on. Yes, this actually happens sometimes, but often times requires clear evidence to which you may or may not have access….like an phone call to Roland Gift, the lead singer of the Fine Young Cannibals, to determine whether they sang two or three “oohs.”
Answer 2: They get defensive, and try to defend their stance by convincing you of their point or persuading you that you are wrong. This can be almost fun if you stay on topic, but it can get very ugly very quickly depending on how far you stray and how personally a person takes the implication of being wrong. When talking to couples who frequently argue, this response is most common.
Answer 3: The person backs down, because they are tired of arguing. They agree or move on to just end the fighting (a.k.a., “shut you up”). Usually the “winner” feels pretty good about their persuasive abilities and the “loser” can be annoyed, resentful, or detached.
Answer 4: The person backs down, because you have accessed an old wound. Some people maintain a core belief that deep down they are wrong or that there is something wrong with them. In arguments, these people sometimes turn defensive as in answer 2, but sometimes the fight validates this sense of wrongness and the person turns toward old (often subconscious) self-deprecating habit. Sure, you may “win” the argument – but at what cost? Your loved one now feels like they have always felt: wrong, bad, or insignificant.
In most cases, insisting on personal correctness never leads to productive problem-solving. When you find yourself insisting you are right, experiment with backing away from the need to be right. Perhaps, you agree with something the other person said. Or maybe you pose some questions like: Does it matter? Is it possible we are both right? Can we solve this problem without engaging this argument?
DON’T COME TO ABSOLUTE CONCLUSIONS ON YOUR OWN
When entering a negotiation or working toward a compromise, do not approach the collaboration with the notion that you have the best and/or most reasonable answer, solution, etc. I often hear this from clients, friends, etc. A couple needs to come to a decision. One or both think(s) a lot about the topic and possible solutions. That one person or both people come to the discussion with a clear idea about how the couple will proceed. Unless both people have the same idea, or one really doesn’t care about the outcome, the collaboration almost always turns into a heated debate.
Using a specific example, imagine a couple sitting down to discuss childcare options. Like a healthy-communicating couple, they set an appointment for this important conversation. “Mom” has been thinking all week about the options, and determines an excellent course of action that includes alternatives schedules, a nanny on Mondays and Tuesdays, and exactly how each can approach their boss about the topic. “Dad” also thinks about possibilities, and comes to an equally wonderful conclusion that he would prefer if “Mom” stayed home. If “Mom” and “Dad” enter this conversation believing compromise or collaboration means convincing the other of their resolution, the conversation will likely be unproductive or at least argumentative.
When walking into a negotiation, do not walk in with an absolute conclusion, solution, answer, etc. to a problem. If “Mom” and “Dad” decided to discuss childcare options on Friday night, it would be prudent to not enter the conversation with a clear outline of exactly how you want to proceed. This act leaves no room for collaboration. My typical recommendation to these types of situations requires that each member of the dyad to “check their emotions at the door” and enter the conversation with an open mind. To have the most constructive conversation, “Mom” and “Dad” might want to consider brainstorming (with pen and paper!) all possible childcare options. They then can discuss pros and cons of every option. They first eliminate those options they are both unwilling to consider. They also can identify the options they prefer. Considering the preferences, they can further discuss how they might handle each obstacle. The conversation may get emotional at times. If feelings become overwhelming, it may be helpful to schedule another time to revisit the conversation and come to a conclusion. Again, the most important element of this problem-solving approach is to have an open mind and recognize that the solution may not be perfect.
If you started off discussing your concerns about the current dog-walking schedule, why on earth are you now talking about your feelings being hurt in 2011 when you spent Christmas with his family instead of yours? Staying on topic may seem like an obvious tip for healthy communication, but it can be quite difficult. Gottman’s kitchen-sinking, cross-complaining, and overgeneralizing are the arch nemeses of staying on topic. They also often occur when people do not feel they are being heard in the conversation.
Have you heard the phrase “everything but the kitchen sink”? The notion refers to discussions in which people start with one topic and then drift into others, ending up with a laundry list of complaints that arise whenever a disagreement occurs. The conversation bounces from whose turn it is to walk the dog to hurt feelings in 2011 to your 25th birthday that went awry to the first time you met his mother in 2002 to the quality of the relationship with your high school sweetheart to how he is just like his dad….etc. There is NOTHING PRODUCTIVE about kitchen sinking.
Cross-complaining occurs when Person A makes a complaint or request of Person B. Person B doesn’t respond to the issue mentioned by Person A, but instead makes a complaint about Person B. Person A may suggest “it was your turn to walk the dog this morning,” Person B may say, “well you never feed him when you should.” Cross-complaining can also relate to the insistence on “being right,” as it often occurs when one person does not want to acknowledge the truth in what the other is saying, and remember what I said about the need to be right?
Overgeneralizing occurs when you view a negative even as a never-ending pattern. Overgeneralizations usually start with “you always” or “you never.” Again, to stay on topic with regard to a single incident can help defuse an argument before it occurs. Instead of saying “you never listen to me,” stick with the specific incident that caused you to feel unheard.
Similar to staying on topic, is sticking with what’s being said. This means, do not make assumptions, do not try to read the other person’s mind, and do not expect the other person to read your mind. If you say “I’m fine,” expect the others person to treat you as though you are fine. If your partner says “I think you look great,” don’t read into the comment and conclude otherwise. If you want to say something, don’t stay silent because you assume the other person will not understand
STOP PLAYING THE BLAME GAME
Here’s a not-so-secret thing about the Blame Game: it’s not actually a game and no one thinks it’s fun.
You get into the car to drive the kids to school in the morning. The battery is dead. You notice the dome light has been all night and drained the battery. You replay every minute of the previous day and conclude that your wife turned on the light when she went to the car to retrieve her coat. You become furious at her absent-mindedness. You run upstairs, kids in tow, to explain to your wife how wrong this behavior was and how everyone will now be late. She then insists she did not turn on the light and that it must have been something you did.
In her book “Hold Me Tight,” Sue Johnson calls the Blame Game “Find the Bad Guy.” She writes the following:
“The purpose of Find the Bad Guy is self-protection, but the main move is mutual attack, accusation, or blame. The starting cue for this pattern of responses is that we are hurt by or feel vulnerable with our partner and become suddenly out of control. Emotional safety is lost. When we are alarmed, we use anything that promises to give us back this control. We can do this by defining our partner in a negative way, by shining a black light on him or her. We can attack in reactive anger or as a preemptive strike.” (p. 68)
If you find yourself playing the Blame Game, it can be helpful to first recognize aloud in civil conversation (when you’re not arguing), that you and your partner tend to engage in this communication pattern. Attempt to identify it when it begins, and then work to stay on topic and discuss the issue without finding fault.
In other words, don’t be mean. When confronting the person with whom you have deciding to share life full of love and compassion, try your best to be kind. Do not call each other names, do not threaten your partner, do not deliberately attack areas of personal sensitivity (a.k.a., push buttons), and do not insult your partner. If you find you are mean to one another when disagreeing, try discussing this problem when calm. You cannot control your partner’s behaviors, so start with yourself. If your partner calls you a name, you do not have push buttons back. If your partner threatens you with violence, leave the house and/or call the police. Gottman found that mutual contempt in a relationship strongly predicts divorce. If you and your partner cannot be kind to one another, it would be advisable to seek counseling.