You both see forest and trees: For every topic there’s a conversation to be had within it or about it. For example, sometimes you and your partner disagree within a particular topic, and then zoom out to “talk process” about your disagreement. We all have the capacity to zoom into the tree details and out to the forest big picture. You behave within your habits but you also have habits of thinking about those habits.
There aren’t just those two levels: …and your habits of thinking about your habit of thinking about yours habits, like when one of you says “I think we process too much.” Life would be simpler if there were just two levels-- just the details and the big picture. But of course it’s not like that. The trees aren’t the lowest details and the forest isn’t the biggest picture. For example, you can be defensive, but you can also be defensive about accusations that you are being defensive, and then defensive about accusations that you’re being defensive about being defensive. These infinite levels of analysis would by comical if they weren’t also frustrating. So what’s the right level of analysis?
There’s no one right level: There’s plenty level-chauvinism in the air: “Focus on the details, don’t generalize!” “Focus on the big picture, don’t nit pick!” We praise people for being detail oriented or conversely, big picture thinkers. We criticize people for being micro-managers or conversely, having their heads in the clouds. We dismiss people as “not seeing the whole picture” and flatter ourselves by thinking we do. In fact, none of us see the whole picture and anyway, the bigger picture isn’t always better. Nor are the details. Sometimes a detail makes a big difference; sometimes the details distract from the big pattern that makes a big difference. There is no general rule about what’s the best level of analysis.
People’s attention gravitates to the levels that feel most fruitful, and away from the levels that feel less fruitful: Fruitful, however doesn’t just mean productive in solving real problems. We may claim we’re paying attention to the levels of analysis that matter but sometimes we just pay attention to comfort-zone levels and avoid discomfort-zone levels.
You and your partner both have your “go there” and “don’t go there” zones: None of us are comfortable visiting every level of analysis. We all intuit the right and wrong levels to focus on, and we also gut-cling to comfort zone-levels and avoid discomfort-zone levels.
You have compatibility in your go and don’t go there’s: Partnerships are strengthened by their common intuitions about the right levels to attend to and ignore. Novelist Edith Wharton says: “The real marriageof true minds is for any two people to possess a sense of humoror irony pitched in exactly the same key, so that their joint glances at any subject cross like inter-arching search-lights." Keys here can be thought of as levels, as when you and your partner see someone do something quirky and smile at each other as if to say, “there he goes again,” focusing intuitively together on the general habit.
You will have incompatibilities in your go and don’t go there’s: No matter how compatible you are, sometimes you’re intuitions will steer you toward different keys or levels. Compatibility in how you negotiate these incompatibilities is crucial to your success.
The three lubes of good relationships: Your partnership’s sustainability depends on 1) Your levels-compatibility, 2) Your compatibility in negotiating the incompatibilities, and 3) Your ability to give each other space to attend to your preferred levels independently.
Humor helps: Levels are comical even though they are frustrating. Lubricate your levels-negotiation with irony and self-effacing irony. (See irony as love lube)
It’s harder to negotiate incompatibilities with someone who doesn’t understand 1-9: Such people are more likely to pull rank, declaring with absolute authority that your level preference is inappropriate, immoral or wrong. These are the kind who are defensive about their defensiveness about their defensiveness, and with them there’s no negotiating levels.