Just Listen

The secret to getting through to anyone, anywhere, anytime

It's Not Familiarity That Breeds Contempt. It's Intimacy.

You can't step on someone's toes if you're walking in their shoes.

Jakub Zak/Shutterstock
Have you ever had the experience of asking an intimate partner or child (especially a teenager) a question and having it turn uncomfortable, if not downright frosty?

Why is it that it is sometimes easier and more comfortable to talk to a business colleague, friend, or even a stranger than a member of your immediate family?

Maybe the difference is that colleagues, friends, and strangers don't expect you to read their minds and gratify their wishes or fulfill their needs without their having to ask you. However, there is something about personal and certainly intimate relationships in which one person presumes that that is exactly what you're able to do, what you should do, and even what you should want to do as a way of demonstrating that you care. (Learn more here.)

This may also explain why some marriages between people from different cultures, religions, or races have a better track record than those within such groups. When you're married to someone from a different background, you may be less likely to expect them to automatically know your wants, desires, and needs.

On the other hand, people from the same culture, religion or race, can get along very well, if both parties have a deep respect for their shared values and norms and when those deeply held beliefs can override each person's personal self-centered, self-serving, and selfish demands and needs.

Not long ago, I asked a friend who was married for the third time (and whose wife for the second time), what he felt was the secret to a happy and lasting marriage. They were from the same race, culture, and religion so they were seemingly set up to presume all kind of things about each other.

What my friend told me was that because he and his wife knew that they were capable of failing at marriage (not just once, but twice, in his case), they set ground rules for disagreements that they both respected and followed—and that they agreed were more important than either of them being right. The need always to be right had cost each of them prior marriages, and they did not want to repeat the experience. One sample ground rule was never to use the words never or always in an argument. Another was that if they hadn't resolved a disagreement within 24 hours, they both had to agree to let it go—holding onto grudges had also contributed to their prior failures and they realized that unresolved disagreements have a way of returning. If and when they did, they'd have a fresh 24 hours to try to resolve it. (Discover more such rules and tips in my book, Just Listen.)

If you'd like a single, one-size-fits-all tip to improve your relationship, consider this: The next time things escalate between you and your partner (or child) ...

  1. Say to yourself, "I'm reacting, and if I act on it, I will probably make it worse."
  2. Take a deep breath and pause.
  3. Put yourself in the other person's shoes and then ask yourself, "What's it like for my partner (or child) right now?" You might discover that they're as frustrated or even more frustrated with you than you are with them.
  4. Tell the other person that you just put yourself in their shoes and want to know if your conclusions are correct.

These steps will stop you from presuming things about the other person and, hopefully, from being wrong about them. You will also discover that you can't walk in someone else's shoes and step on their toes at the same time.

Mark Goulston, MD, is the author of the new bestselling book Just Listen: Discover the Secret to Getting Through to Absolutely Anyone.

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