Mel Schwartz, LCSW

#124 The Five Percent Rule and Other Ways to Get Past the Argument

In The Possibility Podcast with Mel Schwartz episode number 124, I take a look at why arguments trap us in the need to be right, how that drive to be right hamstrings communication and intimacy, and most importantly, how to move past the argument and re-establish truly empathic communication in the relationships you care about.

Listen to learn about…

  • The five percent rule
  • Shared inquiry
  • Coherent communication
  • How to mitigate anger

In the episode, I provide a few examples from my therapy practice, and have a brief interview with my guest, Claire, who brings her own struggles with conflict to the table.

Be sure to leave a comment with your own thoughts and questions!

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Transcript of The Possibility Podcast with Mel Schwartz #124

MEL: Hello everybody and welcome to The Possibility Podcast. I’m your host Mel Schwartz.  I practice psychotherapy, marriage counseling, and I am the author of the book The Possibility Principle, the companion to this podcast. I hope to be your thought provocateur and I’ll be introducing you to new ways of thinking and a new game plan for life.
MEL: Today we’re going to look at why we’re so driven to be right, what inclines us toward arguments in our relationship, and how that leads to the death knell of vitality of relating. We’re also going to look at a couple of techniques that I’ve developed, which I’ll be sharing with you as to how we can break through that impasse.
MEL: In marital counseling or couples counseling, when I see couples engaged in argument, I sometimes find myself stopping and asking them, would you rather be happy or would you rather be right? Although everyone says I’d rather be happy, not a moment passes until we default into the right versus wrong battle.
MEL: We’re kind of hardwired in a way, although I hate that expression wired because we are not machinery, but our nature, our acculturation is to try to win. After all, if I’m right, that means you have to be wrong. How do you think that’s going to work out in a relationship? It’s an insane way of operating.
MEL: This need to be right is rooted in either or thinking. The need to win an argument assures that no one’s actively listening. We’re not learning anything. We’re not validating, having compassion or empathy, and it’s destructive, of course, to romantic relationships. This compulsion to be right sidetracks our lives and then impedes our happiness. The need to be right is antithetical to enjoying empathic and compassionate relationship.
MEL: I’m going to share a number of stories with you in my work as a therapist. Long time ago, when I first began practicing, I was working with an older couple and every session would kind of look the same. She would come in and start to complain about her husband, indicting him and throwing the book at him about everything. I would intervene and say, listen, I’m not the judge and this is not about right or wrong. We need to turn towards your perceptions and feelings. And no sooner did I intervene, she would go right back into her assault.
MEL: I think it was about the third session that we had when I realized I needed to do something different. I was not all that experienced yet in this practice of therapy. So I paused and I said to her, Emily, you’re a hundred percent correct. I agree with you completely. You win. John, you’re absolutely wrong. Emily is right. You wanted me to render a verdict. There you have it.
MEL: She paused. He looked unfounded. A moment or two went by and she started to go right back into the assault. I stopped. I put my hand up gently and said, you won. The debate is over. Now what are we going to do?
MEL: I’m not proposing that we made great progress then, but it was a detour from the right versus wrong battle. As I began to notice my frustration in my attempts to assist couples with whom I was working, I needed to develop a new approach. I was watching as couples were tirelessly mired in their argument and listening to them was like watching a ping pong ball being knocked back and forth. Only nobody was scoring any points because no one was listening. I was searching for a way to help people slow down and listen to each other and to get past their gridlock.
MEL: Some years later, after that first anecdote that I shared with you, I was in the middle of a session reflecting again on how I could help people approach this impasse differently. I began by asking the husband, let’s call him Joseph, Joe, can you try to find a just a small percentage of what Helena is saying to you that you might agree with? Let’s just look for arguably 5% that you can acknowledge and try to temporarily suspend the 95% that you’re sure she’s wrong about. I was asking Joe to act counterintuitively by neither defending himself nor trying to score a point. I explained to him that he wasn’t pleading guilty or surrendering his point. The goal was to simply establish a rapport so that they can begin to truly hear each other.
MEL: Their energy started to coalesce as they moved away from the competition of being right into a collaborative effort to empathize and connect. It began to shift back toward connection moving away from the separation that was driving the argument. I found that I had started a new technique for me. I now call that technique the 5% rule.
MEL: If you can affirm that there’s 5% and of course I’m just making up the number five, but if you can find some small part of the other person’s argument that you can agree with, in no way have you abandoned your position regarding the 95% you disagree with. You’ve simply laid the groundwork for them to take in what you have to say. You’ve disengaged from trying to win an argument and the energy can shift. The 5% rule permits us to halt our addiction to being reactive, which we’ll be talking about in just a bit. And it moves us toward being responsive, present, listening. The next time you’re engaged in a disagreement or a confrontation, challenge yourself to resist the argument and search for a small piece of what the other person’s saying that you can affirm. Once the other person feels heard and validated, he or she will be in a better position to take in what you have to say.
MEL: Timing is essential here. If you rush to reframe or assert your position, then your affirmation will appear disingenuous. You can’t just say, yes, but, going right back into the argument. That is actually the process of invalidating. Be cautious about yes, but. Instead, validate something, pause, and let the conciliatory spirit fill the space that would have otherwise been occupied by this noisy, mindless back and forth argument. That shift of energy now becomes fertile ground for a meaningful transition and a constructive exchange.
MEL: Remember, even if you disagree with the vast majority of what you’re hearing, you can usually find some small content to acknowledge. Ordinarily, we marginalize or ignore the small part because our default position is grounded in winning the argument. We have a cultural mandate to be right, regrettably, and so our thoughts automatically seek to refute the other rather than confirm. Even though we say we care about each other, we don’t act careingly. If you need to win, the other person has to lose. How does that work out?
MEL: You know, we may say to each other, I love you, but it’s challenging to act lovingly. To act lovingly requires that even if we hear something that we feel defensive about or we think is wrong, that we temporarily put that aside to care for the other. The success of this 5% rule allows both people to behave with compassion and empathy, to cooperate rather than compete. Remember, the goal is not to win, but to care. You can immediately apply the 5% rule in your communications, romantic, close, intimate relationships, a friend, a relative, or in your business dealings. What you want the other person to hear is vitally important, but you need to set the stage they can take it in.
MEL: Let’s talk a little bit about how we can set that stage. When I need to express something that I think is going to be difficult or challenging for the other person to hear, if I anticipate they’ll be reactive or defended, I have found that devoting a few sentences as a preface can be very helpful. One of my clients once referred to this technique as foaming the runway. In other words, you can set up the discourse to better succeed by setting the stage. If you think about it, sometimes runners will stretch before they run in a baseball game, pitchers warm up before actually getting into the game, we study before taking a test. Well, just as importantly, we need to ease into a challenging exchange rather than simply dive in.
MEL: It may sound as simple as this, I’m having a problem and I’m wondering if you can help me. Or, I’m confused about something. Can you try to help me understand? Another approach that’s successful is I have something on my mind that I really want to talk to you about, but I’m anticipating that you’re going to be upset and angry, so I don’t know what to do. You see, you’re inviting the other person in, and that will tend to mitigate or lessen their tendency to be reactive. When we do this, you’re enrolling the other person and you’ve invited them into a provocative topic, lessening the chance of them being reactive.
MEL: This technique moves both people into the field of what I call a shared inquiry, very much the opposite of the debate and the argument. To experience really effective interaction and communication, which regrettably is an exception, we need to establish something called shared meaning about the words and ideas we convey. I call this coherent communication, which doesn’t require agreement, but simply shared meaning. I’ll give you some examples.
MEL: One day, some years ago, I was walking by a restaurant near my home and I saw the parking attendant, Jacques. I was kind of friendly with Jacques and we used to shoot the breeze now and then. I asked him, how are you? He smiled and said, I can’t complain. I continued walking. And as I did, a thought occurred to me, Jacques could have meant either he had nothing to complain about or he wouldn’t give himself permission to complain. On my return home, I ran into him again and I asked him which meaning he intended. It took a long time for him to be able to share with me that what he meant is that he couldn’t complain, was because nobody would be interested. That’s what his belief was. I explained to him that when I asked him that question, I truly did care and he might make an exception to his rule. If I hadn’t bothered to confirm what I can’t complain meant, I would have assumed all was good in his life and we wouldn’t have connected.
MEL: Sharing our meaning is an integral part of emotional and verbal intimacy. To pause and ask someone what they meant by the words they’ve just spoken is also deeply respectful. Respect comes from a Latin word, I think it’s something like resposir, which means to look again. That’s what shared meaning is. It’s not dashing past each other, but taking time to go slowly. You see, what someone thinks I’ve said is actually more important than what I was intending. The disconnection between my meaning and what I intend and someone else’s interpretation can disrupt the entire exchange.
MEL: There’s a quote from Abraham Lincoln that I’m fond of. We all declare for liberty, but in using this word liberty, we do not all mean the same thing. How true. We take for granted that our words convey what we’re intending. In my experience as a therapist, I’ve come to see that this assumption is wrong. I’m still stunned by the impact of miscommunication.
MEL: Dave and Karen were in a relatively new relationship, but finding themselves mired in disagreement. In the middle of an argument, in a session, Dave proclaimed to Karen, I can’t do this anymore. Karen became noticeably agitated and I asked her what she was feeling. She actually began to cry and said, I can’t believe he’s breaking up with me. I turned and asked Dave, is that what you were saying? Dave looked unfounded and said, not at all. I meant I can’t do this arguing anymore. His expression, I can’t do this anymore, was open to interpretation. By the time we exchanged a few sentences with each other, there’s often a misinformed understanding of what’s happening. Neither person is sharing the same conversation. Our own internal monologues have branched off as we react to a word or a phrase, which is not necessarily what the other person was intending.
MEL: I’ll give you an example. Another one. It was my first session with Jerry and Diane, a long time married couple. I asked them how I could help them, what brought them into therapy. Not much pause, Diane said, he has no idea how to be intimate. Jerry immediately tightened and shot back. I have no idea how to be intimate. I have no problem at all with intimacy. It’s you that does. If I hadn’t intervened, it would have reprised a familiar battle and they would have paid little attention to my presence. They were so deeply entrenched in their right versus wrong argument, but they hadn’t identified what they were truly talking about.
MEL: After a pause, I broke in. I said to them, I’m not at all sure what you each mean by this word intimacy. Can you take a moment and tell each other what this word means for you? After some reflection, Jerry explained that intimacy for him ranged from physical affection all the way to sexual intercourse. As he was speaking, Diane looked incredulous. She said, you must be kidding me. That’s not at all what I mean. I encouraged her to go further.
MEL: Not surprisingly to me, she spoke of intimacy as sharing deep feelings and thoughts with each other. Once we exposed this essential misunderstanding, they were able to engage each other in a meaningful exchange about their needs and preferences.
MEL: Let’s turn to how we can lessen and mitigate our tendency to be reactive, which is so disruptive. If our goal is to understand and connect rather than to win, we have to witness and suspend what our thoughts are telling us, at least temporarily. When we react to someone’s words without pausing to reflect, to inquire, to see shared meaning, we’re stuck in an old groove of reactivity. As a result, we’re not only reacting to each other in the moment, but to a whole history of our lifetime of experiences and interactions with each other. Reacting is spontaneous. It’s instantaneous. We can learn to see our reaction, and that’s what I call being responsive. The distance between the reaction of a millisecond and a thoughtful response of a moment or two can be monumental. It’s like the difference between blasting your horn or tailgating someone who cuts you off or learning to keep your hands on the wheel. The fraction of a moment in which you suspend your reaction provides a state of potential, of possibility to facilitate a meaningful discussion. Reacting to observe your reaction helps you not become the reaction.
MEL: Take anger, for example. If I notice that I’m feeling angry, but stop myself from acting angrily, I can communicate how I feel in an appropriate way. But if I react and become angry, my angry words and actions are going to make the situation worse and create worsening results. That spirals us down in which our ensuing actions then shine a spotlight on my behavior. If I’m acting angrily, then the spotlight’s on me. But if I said, I’m feeling angry and I want to explain to you why I’m feeling angry, that is an altogether appropriate communication. It’s an opportunity for discourse. The next time you feel the urge to defend yourself or your position, here are some questions to ask yourself.
MEL: What is the other person trying to convey? Let’s not take their words literally. What’s their intention? You should also ask yourself, is it more important for me to correct the other person or to stay present? In couple sessions, almost without exception, the need to correct small, irrelevant points of information is mind boggling. He may say, you know, I called you two times yesterday, and she will interrupt and say, no, it was three times. Is that correction necessary?
MEL: Think about what you’re hearing that you think is a misstatement or inaccurate and choose to stay present and ask yourself, is this correction necessary? Then ask yourself, would I rather be right or do I want to learn and understand and be compassionate and care? Am I judging or am I truly listening? Watch your thoughts. Are they acting a literal way where they’re telling you the truth? Objective truths mislead us. What we want to do is to seek a subjective experience of how we’re each feeling. To not become reactive, train yourself and ask yourself, what am I feeling? Then you can communicate the feeling. You don’t have to be the feeling.
MEL: Hi there. Welcome to the show. What’s your name?
CLAIRE: Hi, I’m Claire.
MEL: Claire, where do you live?
CLAIRE: In Southington, Connecticut.
MEL: Not too far from me. You have a question or two that you’d like to ask in regard to communication?
CLAIRE: Actually I was reading your literature about getting into arguments and I have had some difficulty with communicating. When someone says something that automatically really puts me in a situation where I feel like I’m being attacked or it bothers me, I automatically go on the offense and I’m finding that that type of communication is not working that well for me.
MEL: Not surprisingly. If you go on the offense, we know the other person won’t be listening. So the moment that you feel yourself becoming reactive, pause, just give yourself a moment to notice what you’re feeling and try to communicate the feeling rather than the fact. Can you give us an example of what might happen in exchange to make you feel reactive?
CLAIRE: I was in a relationship and in the relationship, it was the holidays coming up and my ex-boyfriend was invited to a dinner and he said, well, you’re invited to the dinner, but your kids can’t come. And basically he said it like that. And as soon as he said that, my pine needles went up and I reacted to what he said. And what I said was, what do you mean? And I already had a tone in my voice when I was addressing that.
MEL: So what got in the way of your being able to be curious about why instead of being aggressive?
CLAIRE: A lot of times the way I would handle a situation would be very different. And if I was invited to a dinner and I knew that the person that I was going to invite, like their family or their kids were not invited, I would automatically address it. And I felt that by him not saying anything, that it was just insensitive of him to not bring it up right away. So I took it offensively.
MEL: That’s understandable. I’m sure we could all relate to that. So in that exchange, when you were feeling triggered, when you’re feeling your button being pushed, take a moment, pause and share what you were feeling with him. So that might sound like, boy, when you put it that way, I felt myself feeling defensive. I felt myself getting upset. So let me ask you, why did you put it that way and why is it that my kids wouldn’t be invited? See, that way you’re detaching from your thought and feeling. You’re seeing it and you’re communicating it effectively. Instead of becoming angry or upset, you’re sharing, that made me feel upset when you said it that way. Can you tell me why? That’s a healthy, effective communication. Because then it will be up to him for him not to be reactive. But you’re not part of the problem then.
CLAIRE: What do you do in a situation where I am able to detach from my feelings and I am able to address it without reacting and still the results are the same? What do you do in that situation? So he just says, well, they’re not invited and this person didn’t invite them. And that’s basically it.
MEL: Well, then you want to be authentic, which is, well, I feel badly about that. I’m not sure if I feel okay with that. Did you ask if my children could join us? You ask questions. You don’t make accusations, but you’re seeking information. When two people can inquire together, that’s healthy and informative. If we operate from assumptions and anger and criticism, we’re going nowhere. So I would ask him some questions.
CLAIRE: I guess it is hard even like as I’m listening to you and you’re saying, ask some questions, like I can already feel the tone in my voice as I’m asking those questions. So that is a really challenging concept to me because even if I say, did you ask if my children were invited, I need some strategies on how to actually change the tone of my voice with that.
MEL: Okay. So I could make up a lot of different stories. Like he was too shy to ask. He has a problem asking people for things. So the key is not to personalize something that maybe shouldn’t be intended as personal. I would only know if I should personalize it by asking questions like, how come you didn’t ask? Or were you uncomfortable asking? Did you feel like that was imposing on them? That might be the answer. And if that was the answer, then that might enable you to look at that exchange differently.
CLAIRE: Okay. Thank you for helping with that. I think kind of separating from my feeling and really taking a minute to think about how it’s making me feel and then asking questions is going to be helpful.
MEL: Excellent. So pause, notice what you’re feeling, and then in an appropriate way, communicate the feeling not in an aggressive or accusatory way, but the way where you’re really inquiring, you want to know.
CLAIRE: Okay. And also back to that same situation, if he is feeling that’s an imposition, then from there, my theory is when you’re in a relationship that the person’s feelings that you’re with are more important than imposing on somebody else. So I would want my partner to make a different decision in terms of what he’s going to do with that dinner. So that’s where the whole thing turns differently.
MEL: Well, of course, that’s a fine balance because there may be times when what you’re looking for and what you want treads on their own integrity and what feels okay with them. And that’s the place where we want to have nonjudgmental dialogue with each other. So we can truly understand what’s happening. We don’t want to turn it into a debate, a right or wrong argument, because then you both lose.
CLAIRE: Got it. And it oftentimes would become like a character attack. And I think both of us got into that same situation because we would start to say, well, I wouldn’t do it that way. So that must be wrong that you’re doing it that way. And I wouldn’t do it that way.
MEL: Exactly, Claire. My truth is not the universal truth. We need to leave room for my truth and your truth and try to sort it out. So I hope that helps.
CLAIRE: I think it does. I mean, I have another situation that just happened recently with a friend that I wanted to show.
MEL: Sure, go right ahead.
CLAIRE: And this is a lifelong friend and she has a habit of not answering texts, even when I’m asking questions or inviting her to do things or not getting back to me with phone calls. And over the years, I’ve become accustomed to it, although it has really hurt my feelings. And I’ve tried different ways to address it. But I’m trying to now use some of the strategies that I’m learning from you to address the situation. So recently, I texted her maybe 10 days ago, didn’t hear from her. And then I called and I made sure nothing was wrong. Nothing was an emergency. And she said, oh, no, I was just busy. I didn’t get back to you. And I said, well, you not getting back to me made me feel like you don’t care. It made me feel really insignificant that you didn’t get back to me. And she profusely apologized and then went into all the series of reasons why she didn’t get back to me. And I ended up getting into an argument with her about why those reasons were not realistic.
MEL: At that juncture, you both went too far.
CLAIRE: Right.
MEL: When she started to go into all the reasons, you might want to stop her and say, look, I just wanted to let you know how I feel. Historically, when you don’t get back to me and it takes a long time. I’m sure you have your reasons why. I just wanted to share how I feel. And I hope you care how I feel. And just leave it there.
CLAIRE: Yeah, I think I have to stop the conversation earlier. But I did take the step to to let her know how her actions were making me. Thank you.
MEL: We’ve covered a lot of territory today in a brief amount of time. So I’d like you to take an opportunity to let the sink in. You can find in far greater detail many of these messages in my new book, The Possibility Principle. And if you have further questions about this, feel free to send me an email at mel at mel Schwartz dot com. We can discuss this further. Remember, communication is the heartbeat of relationship. It’s also the heartbeat to self-esteem and authenticity. Have a great day.

I hope you enjoyed this episode of the Possibility Podcast. I welcome your feedback on this and any episode. Please send me an email at mel at or leave a comment in the show notes for this episode at If you like what you’re hearing, please take a moment to rate and review the show at Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. Your reviews really help boost the visibility for the show and it’s a great way for you to show your support. Finally, please make sure to subscribe to the Possibility Podcast wherever you listen to podcasts and that way you’ll never miss an episode. Thanks again. And please remember to always welcome uncertainty into your life and embrace new possibilities.

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