Did you ever have a fight that you really didn’t want? It doesn’t have to happen ever again. It may take some practice, but it will work. And, by the way, it will help you with any kind of negotiation or conflict resolution in any place, almost without exception. I’ll even tell you about the few exceptions.
The cause of arguments and fights is a lack of mutual, empathic understanding. When empathy is not engaged, then people revert to a self-protective mode and become judgmental. The result is a bad feeling on both sides and no happy ending.
Here is how empathy so commonly gets bypassed. We all tend to want to get to the “bottom line,” the solution that will resolve the conflict. That's exactly the wrong thing to focus on, at least at first.
Imagine that you are feeling short-changed. You dare to say something about it: “I don’t think you are paying your fair share.” Your partner is immediately on the defensive and begins to present a case for why he/she did nothing wrong. You don’t agree, but your partner isn’t even listening to the counterargument. From then on, things escalate unless someone decides to break it off. Either way, nothing is decided.
If that was a business negotiation. It might result in a compromise, but it wouldn’t leave either party feeling good. What is missing is an understanding of the others' motivations, likes, and dislikes.
Why have each of you taken the position you have? This isn’t unfamiliar. We all want to be understood.
When you really feel that you understand the other person and they understand you, then it is completely natural to be willing to give and take. In fact, the bottom line becomes easy rather than hard. A happy compromise becomes quite obvious.
So here’s the rule: You are not allowed to say a word about any possible solution until you have a thorough understanding of the other person’s feelings and feel equally understood by them. Until then, you have to keep working towards that understanding.
Of course, that is a tough rule, but if you can’t achieve understanding, then you may not have a good outcome. So here’s how to get there.
Understanding feelings is quite unnatural for many of us, especially men. Humans are often not used to understanding their own feelings and would rather fix (can you see the premature bottom line coming?) a problem than understand feelings. They may even have principles against delving into feelings, so it may require some teaching or even convincing at the outset that understanding each other is really the best way to arrive at a win-win. solution. After all, winning is about feeling. It means feeling good about the outcome, and that only happens when you understand and feel understood.
How to do it is to “interview” the other person about his or her feelings, and when you have a thorough understanding, then ask if the other person would like to hear about your point of view.
How to Interview for Feelings
Rule 1: Follow your natural curiosity about why. Why is that important to you? Why is it sooo important? I wonder what makes you feel that way?
Rule 2: Recognize an incomplete answer and keep asking. “Because.” Or, “I just feel that way” are not good enough. Those are off-putting non-answers. “Maybe you haven’t thought about it, but I really want to understand how important this is to you and why."
Rule 3: Be aware of what you still don’t know. “It’s just how I am.” And you respond, “Yes, I hear that, but I’m curious about how you got that way because it does seem to be a big deal for you.” When I really ‘get it,’ then I’m sure I’ll feel more ready to value your point of view and even make a compromise."
Rule 4: Wait till you understand before you ask if your partner would like to understand you. They will be feeling better, so they will usually say, "Yes."
“You know, I think it’s because I am constantly worrying about money. I worry that we’ll run out, even though I know it’s not realistic. And I worry that you aren’t as careful as I am. I always try to limit what I spend, partly to have some left and partly to set an example. I’ve been resenting your spending for a while but didn’t dare say anything about it. I didn’t understand why you felt that was a good way to use what we’ve earned. Now I do get where you are coming from.”
This is beginning to sound like someone ready to compromise. It took a lot of work to get there, but ending the conversation short of that level of understanding would surely have left underground resentments seething and an unhappy ending.
What are the exceptions? Some people are really dedicated to not knowing their own true feelings. Narcissistic people have trouble admitting to being less than perfect. People whose feelings are too fragile may not be able to cope with full honesty. Young people who are not yet ready to grow to the next level may not be able to look at themselves honestly without judgment. They may need help in getting to the point where they are happier owning the truth than hiding from it.
Everyone else will benefit right away from your having the patience to hold back and keep asking till you get to a full, empathic understanding of your partner’s feelings.