- Seemingly insignificant issues can turn into big fights because they represent something larger than you think.
- Understanding what something represents allows you to have more productive conversations.
I’ve gotten into too many arguments about the tiniest things. Seemingly insignificant issues like leaving an empty glass on the counter, the fastest way to drive to a restaurant, or the proper way to fold a towel have led to arguments longer than I’d like to admit. I know I’m not the only one.
On the surface, these kinds of arguments seem petty or silly. Yet when people don’t resolve arguments, big or small, they can ruin a relationship. I’ll help you understand how these disagreements devolve so you can stop bickering like an old married couple and have more productive conversations.
Take a look at the three images below:
By themselves, they’re just colors arranged into a rectangle. But these flags symbolize something much more complex.
If you're in the U.S., I imagine you’ll react strongly to at least one of these flags. They might represent any or all of the following to you: pride, shame, love, hate, power, and freedom. They can elicit an infinite number of other emotions.
The third flag represents my mother’s home, Thailand. It’s made of the same basic elements as the other flags, just arranged differently. It probably doesn’t mean much to the vast majority of readers, but to me, it symbolizes community, family, and tradition.
Given your connections to these images, or lack thereof, would you care if I turned those flags into toilet paper? The idea alone might make you upset, angry, or disgusted. On the other hand, you might find it funny or enjoyable. Or a third possibility is that you don’t care at all. The range of possible responses illustrates why certain things drive you mad but don’t seem to bother other people.
When you get into trivial fights about seemingly insignificant issues, it’s not really about the issue you’re arguing about. It’s about what those topics, ideas, or opinions represent to you. If someone is always late, leaves trash in your car, or steals bites of your food, those moments might bother you because they represent disrespect.
If someone leaves the toilet seat up or turns down the thermostat, those actions might irritate you because they symbolize being unheard. And if someone uses the last of your gas, drinks, or toilet paper and doesn’t even offer to replace it, it could make you feel like they don’t care about you.
Knowing what is driving the disagreement for you can help you have a different type of conversation instead of falling into the same old argument. Follow this simple two-step process to facilitate a more productive conversation:
- Identify what the problem symbolizes to you.
- Have a conversation about what the conflict symbolizes instead of a conversation about the action that started the problem
For the first step, you may have to talk about the problem, read more about it, or reflect on your own experiences to better understand what’s really bothering you. This step could take ten seconds or ten days. It’s not always easy to figure out what something represents because the possibilities are endless.
In order to narrow the options, it’s helpful to explore potential connections between the problem and your past, family, friends, or expectations for the future. It can also be helpful to consider patterns in your reactions. When else have you felt similar levels of anger, sadness, or frustration?
After you identify what the problem symbolizes then, you can elevate the conversation. When communicating it to others, explain what the problem represents and why it is important to you.
I’ll give you a few examples to illustrate this. If someone you’re close with always talks during a movie, and it’s making you upset, you can describe this by saying:
- “I used to want to be an actor, and I like to watch movies in silence because I think it’s disrespectful to talk while we’re watching. It’s like talking in the middle of a live performance to me.”
- “My brothers used to always talk over me when I was a kid, so it makes me feel ignored and angry when you talk during the movie. Can we watch and talk after?”
- “Can you please not talk during the movie? I worry if you don’t listen to me when I ask you for something small like this, that you won’t listen to me when I ask you for something that’s more important.”
When describing your experience, choose words that are specific, like disrespectful, ignored, or unimportant, and avoid words like good, bad, or not OK. The more vague your words are, the greater the chances of being misunderstood. Be as concise as you can be. You don’t need to give a ton of information to get the main point across. You want to be clear and intentional with your words.
Use this technique to start the conversation. You never know what the person is going to say after you ask them to change. Maybe they just needed you to explain a little more, and it’s no big deal for them to change. But they might have their own connections and symbols to the problem that the two of you will have to talk through.
People create meaning from their own experiences. You can turn conflict into a conversation by focusing on what something represents instead of its surface-level facade. Use your powers wisely and let the little stuff slide.