How often have you had a fight that felt like a tug-of-war, with each of you pulling as hard as you can for a different position? If you are like most people, fights like this don't feel good. And, not only do these fights feel particularly bad, but they also are usually quite ineffective at changing either person's mind about the issue at stake. One of the reasons this approach often fails is that each person is fighting so hard for his or her position that the other position seems like it is not being taken seriously. Typically, each side digs in deeper and deeper, leading to increasing escalation and/or distance.
Fortunately, there is an alternative. It falls into the category of "easier said than done" but can be extremely helpful in making progress toward greater closeness despite differing positions. In my experience, the first major shift is to recognize that what might seem obvious to us, perhaps even "the Truth", might be an assumption or belief that might not be the only valid way of seeing things. Most of the time, what we believe makes sense to us - it seems logical to us that we would believe it. However, the same is true for the person in front of us who seems to be holding a very different belief.
The next shift involves making room for more than one perspective, belief, or set of assumptions about an issue. Sometimes, the best we can do is to be curious about the other person's position. We might start out without any idea why someone would hold such a different belief, but if we are curious and open to exploring the issue, we have a better chance of understanding both the other person's belief and our own. Some examples of possible differing beliefs are:
- Whether to ask for directions when one is lost
- How to share chores around the house
- Who should get up in the middle of the night when a baby is crying
- What to do when a child misbehaves
- How to make someone feel loved
- How safe it is to turn to a loved one for support
Often, we are quite firm in our one beliefs, to the point of assuming (sometimes without even thinking about it) that no other point of view could make sense. So, it could be quite interesting to find enough curiosity to explore a different belief about the same issue.
The final shift involves having and sharing more than one perspective on an issue. If each person is able to do this, there are potential at least four positions being shared, two of which are likely to share some agreement. Now, instead of being completely opposed to one another, there is some shared agreement, as well as disagreement. Here are some examples:
- I realize I could ask for directions, but the last time I asked someone, they told me the wrong way to go, so I'm not sure it's worth it
- Part of me realizes it would be good to do the dishes now, but there's a show I really want to watch on TV now
- I know the baby is crying and it's my turn to get up, but I'm so tired and have to get up early
Just acknowledging more than one point of view can lead to more productive discussions, particularly when the person we are disagreeing with or having a problem with joins in and also shares more than one point of view:
- It makes sense that you wouldn't want to ask for directions after that, but we are also really late and maybe it's worth the risk
- I know you want to watch the show, but are you really going to do the dishes later if you don't do them now or are you asking me to do them?
- I know you're tired and would rather I got up, and part of me thinks it would be easier if I just got up, but I have a meeting tomorrow, too
It's often difficult to change the behaviors we are used to, especially in real-time, when we are already frustrated and upset. However, even if you don't remember to try this out during a particular argument, it is often possible to revisit the issue afterward, when things are calmer, sharing multiple points of view.
One of the challenges in sharing more than one point of view is how to share our point of view in a way that doesn't seem to invalidate the other point of view. Sometimes, it may be the words we use and other times it may be the tone of voice that signals that we aren't really taking one of the points of view seriously. The first step is to make sure that we really are at least a little open to the possibility of another point of view. If it seems like we are only pretending to look at another view, the better to disprove it, that is likely to be noticeable.
Finally, as many therapists and counselors have learned in their training, "but" often seems to discount whatever came before it, while "and" tends to allow for multiple possibilities. This doesn't mean that "but" is always evil and that "and" is always helpful, but it can be helpful to notice how often we use "but" in an argument, how we are feeling when we say it, and how it is being received.
Old habits can be hard to change, especially when we fall back into well-worn patterns so quickly during a fight. If you are interested in getting more help,
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