Is it more important for me to correct their misstatements or to stay present and listen?
Would I rather be right or engage in genuine dialogue?
Am I judging or listening?
Many times a day we may walk past an acquaintance and say, “Hi, how are you?” The other person smiles, says, “good and you?” And we likely respond similarly. Are we both always good? That’s a rhetorical question of course. A few years ago I was taking a walk on my way for a cup of coffee. I encountered a parking attendant with whom I was familiar outside of a neighborhood restaurant I frequented. This gentleman and I had a number of engaging conversations in the past and so I asked the predictable, “How are you doing Jacques?” He smiled and said, “I can’t complain.” I smiled back and continued on my walk.
Moments later I had a thought. His answer might suggest two different things. Either Jacques has nothing to complain about or he literally couldn’t allow himself to complain, emphasis on the word, can’t. I wondered which was the case. In a few minutes, coffee now in hand, I reencountered him. I explained to him that I wasn’t sure if he meant all was well or that he was uncomfortable complaining. It took quite awhile to break through his resistance until he finally said, “I don’t share my struggles because no one would be interested.”
I explained to Jacques that when I asked how he was, I did care and truly wanted to know. When we greet one another and robotically inquire as to how we’re doing, without either party answering honestly, it becomes an exercise in inauthenticity. We act as uncaring strangers. We cut ourselves off from human interaction. We can do much better than that. Jacque’s belief that no one would care is of course false. I did. It may be that many wouldn’t care, but why preclude those who might?
To be true to yourself, you need to be authentic. Without going into details, your answer might sound like, “I’ve had better days.” That opens the door to a genuine interaction. You never know what might evolve from that. But at the least, you’re being honest with yourself. It’s really important to be authentic no matter what you expect from another person.
Early in my career as a therapist, I found myself feeling frustrated in my ability to assist a couple with whom I was working. They were tirelessly mired in argument and it was like watching a Ping-Pong ball being knocked back and forth, only no points were being won or lost. This kind of flailing about represents the low point in so many of our relationships. I was searching for a way to help them slow down and listen to each other – to get past their gridlock. In the midst of one session, I reflected for a moment on how I might approach their impasse differently. I’ve learned that when I pause, get out of my own way and set my intention for an insight, it often appears. This was such a moment.
It came in the form of my asking the husband, John, (I’ve changes their names of course to protect their confidentiality) “Can you try to find just a small percentage of what Barbara is saying that you might agree with? Let’s look for just 5% you can acknowledge, and temporarily suspend the 95% you’re sure she’s wrong about.”
I was asking John to go against the grain and act counter-intuitively by neither defending himself nor trying to score a point. I explained to John that he wasn’t pleading guilty or surrendering, the goal was simply to establish a repartee so that they could hear each other. He finally managed to affirm one of his wife’s complaints and took ownership of a particular action.
I noticed that Barbara barely paused, as she was about to go right back into the argument. I raised my hand gently, suggesting to her that she reflect for a moment about how it felt to be at least partially validated. Somewhat begrudgingly she offered, “I appreciate your caring about my feelings and seeing that you did hurt me.” I then asked Barbara to validate some part of John’s issues with her and as she did so, they began to turn the corner. Their energy began to shift. A new technique was born for me—one that I now call “The 5% Rule.”
Even if you disagree with the vast majority of what you are hearing from the other person, you can ordinarily find some small content that you can acknowledge. We typically marginalize if not ignore this part because our automatic default is grounded in the right vs. wrong battle. Out thoughts seek to refute rather than confirm. Even though we say we care about each other we don’t act lovingly.
If we break free from the insane goal of winning an argument and try to find something in what the other person is saying that we might concur with, the results can be astonishing. After all, if you need to “win” that means the other person must “lose.” How do you think that works out in relationships?
Once your partner feels heard and moreover affirmed, he or she may be in a far better position to take in what you have to say. Timing is essential here. You cannot just say, “Yes, but…” That is part of the process of invalidating. Instead, affirm something, pause, and let the conciliatory spirit fill the space that would otherwise be occupied by the noisy back and forth of argumentation. That shift now becomes fertile ground for a meaningful transition and constructive exchange. If you rush to reframe or assert your own position, your affirmation appears disingenuous.
Affirming the 5% in no way means that you have to abandon your position regarding the 95% with which you disagree. You have simply laid the groundwork for the other to take in what you have to say. This process permits us to halt our addiction to being reactive and move toward being responsive. The success of this approach allows both parties to behave with compassion and empathy, cooperating rather than competing. The goal is not to win but to care. You can immediately apply the 5% Rule in your communications with others—whether it’s your intimate partner, a friend or relative or a business relationship.
Once you’ve found that small part of the other’s issues that you can validate, they’ll likely feel heard and may then open to what you have to say. What you want the other person to hear is very important! But you need to set the stage so to speak so they can take it in. From there a healthy communication might emerge. We must interrupt the compulsion to be right and our default to being reactive. When we react in an adversarial way without pausing to reflect we are just as the Ping-Pong ball. Our reactions –by definition — are not well considered or purposeful.
The 5% Rule is just the first of many steps on the road toward attaining excellent interpersonal skills. Developing these tools allow our relationships to prosper. Just as relationship skills and emotional intelligence ought to be core educational requirements, communication mastery should be the bedrock of any life that aspires to happiness, success, and fulfillment. It’s vital that we learn the necessary nuances and skills of communication so that our words may actually be heard.
To experience truly effective communication, which rarely occurs, we need to make sure we’re actually talking about the same thing. If you assume that the words or phrases you’re using mean the same thing to both of you, you’re making a mistake – I can assure you. Establishing a shared meaning is essential to have a coherent conversation.
Coherent communication doesn’t require agreement, but simply a shared meaning. We need to know that we are, in fact, talking about the same thing. How often do we pause and thoughtfully ask the other person what he means by the word or words he is using? As I was walking by a restaurant near my home one day and saw a parking attendant with whom I was acquainted, I asked, “How are you?” He smiled and said, “I can’t complain.”
As I continued my walk, a thought occurred to me: he might have meant either that he had nothing to complain about or that he literally wasn’t giving himself permission to complain. On my return home, I ran into him again and genuinely inquired which meaning I should construe. It took quite some time for him to admit that he believed that no one would care to listen to his complaints, so he wouldn’t bother. “I can’t complain” was now clear to me. I explained to him that when I ask, I truly do care and perhaps he might make an exception to his rule. Typically, I wouldn’t have inquired and never would have come to know this side of him.
To pause and ask people what they meant by the words they’ve just spoken is remarkably respectful. Respect comes from the Latin respecere, which means “to look again.” That is precisely what shared meaning demands – looking again at what the other intends in his or her articulation. We need to check in and confirm that we are on the same page. Read more
In my last post, Silence: A Relationship Killer, we explored the ruinous consequences that intentional silence has on relationships. Silence is antithetical to healthy communicating. Very often people may resort to silence because they anticipate that what they need to say will fall on deaf ears or, worse still, invite an angry reaction. Anticipating that roadblock, we may choose silence. There is a better way, however. Let’s look at how we can navigate these sensitive communications successfully.
When we initiate a challenging discussion, it’s more than likely that the other party may not truly be listening. Their negative reaction may be triggered by specific words or topics, our tone, or body language, but it is most likely anchored in the memory of past impasses and unresolved conflicts. More often than not, the other person appears to be defending their territory and preparing their rebuttal while we’re still trying to articulate our thoughts, and vice-versa of course. Your sentence may not be complete before the other person’s reaction has begun. The futility of not being heard becomes a primary reason why people may default to silence. Read more
Over the many years that I’ve been practicing therapy, I’ve found that couples that are struggling in their relationships often succumb to the default mode of silence. Sometimes, it’s one person who defers to the unspoken, and at times it’s actually both. In either circumstance, such silence – not a healthy pause or meditative break – speaks to the absence of verbal and emotional intimacy. Unless we’re communicating on levels of extra sensory perception or body language, words are the only tools available to us to communicate let alone resolve our issues. There’s little sense to being in a relationship and resorting to silence. Not only does it sabotage the lifeline of a healthy coupling, it chokes your expressive needs.
When you can express what you’re feeling – in the moment that you’re experiencing it – there’s much less likelihood that you’ll act out on that feeling. Problematic feelings that go unexpressed tend to percolate and boil over – they take on energy of their own, and the ensuing conflict hours or days later may have little correlation to the original emotional insult. When this occurs there’s little chance of being validated, as there may be little correspondence between your hurt feelings and the disruption of the moment.
Telling someone that you feel angry, and explaining why you do, will ordinarily sever the reactive state of being angry or acting angrily. Furthermore, the non-verbalization and suppression of your feelings will – over time – result in substantial resentment, with the accompanying behavior that we might expect. If you don’t share your problematic feelings, there is a great probability that you’ll act out on them, in any number of unrelated ways. Having done so, you now become the problem in the other’s eyes. We’ve now entered into a negative spiral of silence and struggle
If communication is indeed the heartbeat of relationship, it’s little wonder that most relations are on coronary care. Once again we are confronted with another absurd reality. Our culture deprives us of the most fundamental education that we require to succeed in our relationships. Learning the subtleties and nuances of meaningful and effective communication are the cornerstones of successfully relating.
In effective communication, which incidentally is a very rare event, we need to first establish a shared meaning around the words, constructs and ideas that we are discussing and then further that meaning in a coherent flow of dialogue. Such a skill set enables relationships to thrive, businesses and organizations to be more productive and nations to create and sustain peace. What could possibly be more essential?
In the previous post we looked at how dominant the motif of seeking to be right is in our culture. It is one of the most singular influences on our behavior and our relations. Now we’ll turn our attention to understanding just how this prevailing compulsion to be correct came into being.
The way that we see reality is very influenced by what is known as Aristotelian thinking. Aristotle’s philosophy held that things were or were not, is or is not. This duality very much filters how we picture reality operating. This is known as either/or thinking. It structures our beliefs into a very simple posture. We therefore know of something only by including its opposite.
One of the most prevalent – and damaging – themes in our culture is the need to be right. It’s one of those essential memes that we take for granted. It is so deeply embedded in our belief system and in our collective psyche that we never even pause to consider it. It would really serve us to inquire why it is so compelling. Before we begin to look at that, let’s just reflect on how it impacts our lives.
From the more personal and mundane battle over who said what in the midst of an argument to the larger issues of politics, religion, abortion, health care, gun control or climate change, being right is mandated. It quickens our pulse, causes us to shout and can sever relationships. It is the raison d’etre for most acts of hatred, violence and warfare. Read more
Learning to remain present and not get drawn into the right or wrong argument requires a willful intention to come out of the groove of an old habit. Typically, in a contentious discussion or argument defending oneself is a trigger reaction. We react defensively and then in turn blame or attack. This type of exchange seems mindless and bears little chance of success. Both people feel invalidated and the chasm between the two only widens.
Yet, even in the worst of adversarial encounters, there are a few charges that might make sense to us. However, our thoughts filter these out as we seek to bolster our argument and not detract from it. Having done so, we remain mired in the ping-pong match that takes us nowhere and invalidates one another. Read more
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