Mel Schwartz, LCSW

The 5% Rule

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.

I’ve developed a technique in counseling that at times is effective in transcending this problem. I request that while the other person is talking, you search for however small a percentage of what they are saying that you might agree with. Even if you disagree with the vast majority of their protestations, you can ordinarily find some small content that you might begrudgingly concur with. Rather than refuting the 95%, try acknowledging the 5%. The results can be astonishing.

Surprisingly, you have just validated the other individual. Now that they feel listened to and heard, they may be in a far better position to take in what you have to say. Timing is essential here. You cannot say, “Yes, but…” That invalidates. You must validate and pause and let this conciliatory spirit fill the space. The common ground for coherent exchange is now set in place. By affirming the 5% it in no way means that you have to abandon your position about the 95%. You are not necessarily surrendering your position. You have simply laid the groundwork for the other to appreciate what you have to say.

This may sound altogether counter-intuitive. But I assure you it works.  Once you’ve found the 5% that you might agree with and reflect that to the other person, the pathway is opened toward a sensible and respectful dialogue. Once a genuine dialogue ensues, it would be likely for both people to modify their interpretations and beliefs as new understanding unfolds. The purpose of such encounters is to be generative. If we’re not learning, we’re stuck!

What I’m proposing is that we interrupt the compulsion to react and move toward being responsive. If we react we’re stuck in the old groove; if we reflect and respond we’re communicating with respect and dignity.

React or respond?

When we react to others’ words without pausing to reflect, we are indeed stuck in the old groove of thought and feeling — not being present. The reaction tends not to be well clarified or purposeful. Taking time to reflect on the others words serves several purposes. First, it creates a respectful energy of listening. Pausing to consider and inquiring as to shared meaning honors the other person. You may choose to disagree with their thoughts or feelings, but nevertheless you pay tribute to the dialogue but pausing to reflect.

Furthermore, by taking a moment and avoiding the impulse to react, you may reframe or shift your perception about that which you’ve just heard. Instead of oversimplifying, you might invite a bit of complexity into your consideration. It may not be black or white. There are always multiple ways of looking at or interpreting an exchange. The difference between the reaction of a millisecond and the thoughtful response of a moment or two may make all the difference. This thoughtful pause helps assure a more meaningful communication.

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Lakshmi G

hi Mel,

Thanks for your sound suggestion. Planning to implement for a week; I will let you know how it works.

Lakshmi G


Please do let us know how it goes Lakshmi


American culture is just so filled with righteousness! everyone is big and in charge and such an individual. The sooner everyone realizes we are all the same the world will be an agreeable place.

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