Stop Dreaming, Start Doing

What research (and reality) teaches us about goal-directed action

Why Being Right Can Be Wrong For a Relationship

Three ways to build stronger, happier relationships in life

In 1951, two football teams showed the world why our relationships often falter. Dartmouth and Princeton took to the field for the last game of the season. Princeton had a lot at stake, having not yet lost a game that year. Their All-American quarterback, Dick Kazmaier, had made it to the cover of Time Magazine and was about to play his last college game. Everyone was watching.

The referees worked hard to cool tempers and minimize injuries, but nonetheless the play was rough. Kazmaier left after the second quarter with a broken nose and a concussion. Dartmouth lost its quarterback soon after with a broken leg. When the game ended, Princeton had won, and both sides were enraged. Who was to blame for the rough play? Turns out it depends on whom you ask.

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Two researchers took interest after papers from both states starting running stories slamming the other team’s behavior. How could it be that they all watched the same game, yet held such drastically different perspectives on what took place? After an extensive study[1], the conclusion was clear. There were many versions of the game, each being “true” and believed to be reality, according to the individual who perceived it.

People selectively hear and see what matches their beliefs and experiences. They then lace each action of the event with meaning, and seek validation from those around them. When Dick Kazmaier, the All-American Princeton quarterback was injured, Dartmouth players saw the event as an accident. His teammates and fan base saw it as a vicious attack. Like a lawyer building a case, the story of villain and victim emerges. Who is playing each role depends on who is telling the story.

Holding on to your version of the truth is human. In fact, according to the dissonance theory[2], the mind will seek out supportive information whenever possible to avoid unpleasant feelings associated with being wrong. Making mistakes can bring about shame, guilt, embarrassment, even regret. On the other hand, always being right can be very wrong for a working relationship.     

There will come a time when you don’t see eye-to-eye with a colleague, spouse, friend, or child. But remember that conflict doesn’t have to be a battleground where one party wins and the other loses face. Research shows that conflict can be an opportunity to bring both parties closer together by giving them an opportunity to express important concerns, and find working solutions[3]. Here are some key psychological challenges to be aware of when you are out of sync in a relationship, and suggestions on how to overcome them:

Challenge: The Color of Your Lens

Feelings about a relationship will act as a perceptual filter. Those currently unsatisfied in a relationship tend to perceive the other individual’s behavior as “intentional, blameworthy, and selfishly motivated”[4]. Even positive actions can often be viewed in a negative light.

Suggestion:  Find common ground before engaging in further commentary. If both parties are clear on the other individual’s intentions and intended outcome, the mind is less likely to attribute actions negatively or take the conversation off course. 

Challenge: The Mind Uses History as Ammunition

What you remember from the past shapes how you behave in the present.[5] Those experiencing negative feelings towards an individual are more likely to retrieve similar memories from their past. [6] This can create a sequence or bucketing of events into a negative storyline about the relationship and person. 

Suggestion: If you notice yourself recalling a list of negative memories, work to remember moments where you felt connected and cared about the person. Share them during the conversation. This will help to minimize negative sequencing, and maintain connection during the conflict.

Challenge: Negativity Has the Winning Hand

Human beings remember the negative comments made far more than anything positive about the exchange. Evolutionary psychologists believe this is a hard-wired defense mechanism that ensures we are paying attention to negative signals that could put our survival or well being at risk. In his research, John Gottman (1994) found that stable marriages consistently had 5 times more positive behaviors than negative behaviors during an exchange. Negative behaviors include criticisms, put-downs, contempt, defensiveness, and hostility.

Suggestion: Use confirming or validating messages during conflict. This can minimize harm to the relationship and produce positive, stronger relational bonds between the two parties.[7] Positive behaviors include showing approval, validating the other’s perspective, humor, and seeking understanding of the partner’s point of view.

The lessons from the 1951 study are just as relevant today as they were 62 years ago. When faced with conflict, human beings tend to embrace their own perspectives and hold on for dear life. When you find yourself internally building a case against the offender, remember you have a choice that can determine the outcome. You can be right, the other can be wrong, or you could both walk away with a stronger relationship than you have now.

 

[1] Hastorf, A., Cantril, H. They Saw a Game: A Case Study.

[2] Hart, W., Albarracin, D., Eagly, A., Brechan, I., Lindberg, M., Merrill, L. Feelings validated versus being correct: A Meta-Analysis of Selective Exposure to Information.  Psychological Bulletin, 2009, Vol. 135, No. 4, 555-588.

[3] http://family.jrank.org/pages/312/Conflict-COUPLE-RELATIONSHIPS.h...

[4] http://family.jrank.org/pages/312/Conflict-COUPLE-RELATIONSHIPS.h...

[5] Carrere, S., Buehlman, K., Gottman, J., Coan, J., Ruckstuhl, L. Predicting Marital Stability and Divorce in Newlywed Couples. Journal of Family Psychology, March (2000), Vol 14, No 1, 42-58.

[6] Bradbury, T.N. & Fincham, F.D. (1987). Affect and cognition in close relationships: Toward an integrative model. Cognition and Emotion, 1, 59-87.

[7] Johnson, K. L., and Roloff, M. E. (2000). "Correlates of the Perceived Resolvability and Relational Consequences of Serial Arguing in Dating Relationships: Argumentative Features and the Use of Coping Strategies." Journal of Social and Personal Relationships 17:676–686

 

Christina Curtis is a leadership and executive coach based in Colorado.

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