Mel Schwartz, LCSW

The 5% Rule — Breaking Through the Argument

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.”

The 5% Rule – Finding Content you can Acknowledge

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?

Allow your Partner to Feel Heard and Affirmed

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.

More from Mel

The Possibility Principle: How Quantum Physics Can Improve the Way You Think, Live, and Love

Interactive Online Workshop: Mastering your Communication Skills: Breaking Through to the Other Side

Podcast 101: Invest in Yourself: Taking Down Your Walls

Podcast 99: Thriving in Spiritual Relationships

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Michael McGlynn

Hi Mel, I hope you are well. I continue to enjoy your insightful articles

Matthew Selznick

Thanks Michael.. Hope to keep them to you

Dawn Vincent

Hi Mel

Thanks for this article. I have a couple who are stuck in the ping pong phase. This approach looks useful.

Matthew Selznick

Hope this Helps Dawn. You might want to read other posts on this subject as well


Really this is the early step that I’ve referred to with Pareto’s 80/20 “rule”. If you think about it 20% of that 20% is 4%; well pretty close to 5%. [Remember Pareto’s rule is NOT a law, it is a guide.]
All that aside, I couldn’t agree with you more. Breaking the conflict is getting out of the “myth of pure evil” (see J. Haidt/R. Baumeister). If the other person is not wholly evil then our position on the moral high ground is weakened and we might start to see more of reality.
Keep up the great work.

Matthew Selznick

Thanks for your great insights

Matthew Selznick

Absolutely agree

Joanne Sgrignoli

“The 5% Rule” brought to mind “The 5 Second Rule,” for when food is dropped on the floor. As you can imagine, I found it comical for just that initial moment.

However, having read what the 5% Rule entails, it makes perfect sense. I know the “ping pong ball” effect, but refuse to play. It’s almost like getting rid of hiccups by taking 7 successive sips of water. We have to interrupt the spasm and to get it to stop.

If only we could be more reasonable and willing to engage with one another in this way, we could begin to take steps forward – one at a time. I was blessed to have a mother that brought my brother, sister and I up to do this. She was way ahead of her time and I referred to her as my E.F. Hutton.

It’s so good to read your insightful, logical and respectful approach.

Lawrence Klein

Excellent article: Are you familiar with Steven C Kassel, MFT ? This is from HIS Website:
Interpersonal Biofeedback is a promising new area of study and clinical practice. It is a hybrid of two evidence based therapies, Biofeedback and Psychotherapy, where information of physiology, such as heart rate, heart rate variability, brain waves, hand temperature, sweat gland activity, and/or respiration are given back to more than one person at a time to help them learn how to tone down nervous system arousal or better tune-in to one another. The first research paper that appeared was in 1978, by family therapist and theorist Michael Kerr, in which he discussed biofeedback may be used to help families.

Hope you find this interesting
Best Regards

Matthew Selznick

Hi Lawrence,
Not familiar but will check him out.

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