The Very Best Gift You Can Give
Give it on holidays and every day, to your loved ones, and to yourself.
Posted Feb 14, 2018
Yesterday a delightful young couple, let's call them Vickie and Tom, came to my office for their first session of marriage therapy. They weren’t sure what had happened, but while both Vicki and Tom got along great with their many friends, with each other they too often bickered. They loved each other. Yet the incessant arguing wore them both down. What was wrong?
The tip-off came to me early in the session. I asked them to discuss with each other a simple question, something like what had triggered their mutual decision to come for marriage help. Tom talked to me. Vicki talked to me.
“Talk with each other,” I encouraged them, rolling my chair back several feet so I would be less tempting to look at or speak to.
Vicki said a sentence or two to Tom. Tom said nothing in response. They both then looked again at me.
Something clearly made talking together feel too uncomfortable to risk, and talking with a third person more appealing. What was going on?
Over the next several interactions I kept encouraging Vicky to address her comments to Tom, Tom to look and speak to Vicky, and dialogue between them to flow. No luck. I soon saw why.
“I was frustrated when our daughter wouldn’t stop banging on her drum,” Tom mentioned.
“No,” Vicky replied. “It wasn’t a drum. Just an old pot that we don’t use any more. ”
“But I don’t care,” Tom said back, sounding irritated, “if it was the man in the moon she was a banging on. The noise was too much for me…”
“But you don’t mind noise when you are the one making it, like when you are hammering on a woodworking project,” Vicki answered back.
“I sure don’t like,” Tom retorted, “when you are hammering on me.”
End of discussion.
What’s wrong with this picture?
Tom and Vicky’s dialogue, even in this short snippet, totally clarified their problem. Unknowingly to both of them, Vicky and Tom repeatedly negated each other.
Look back on their dialogue. How often do they negate each other? You can count the negations by counting the number of times they use either but or no. Vicky and Tom both had become masters of knee-jerk negating.
But works like an eraser, erasing whatever came before. Or you can think of it as the delete key on your computer. Bye bye to whatever your partner just said when you start your reply with but. Or equally problematically, when you use but in the middle of a sentence: “Yes, I agree with you that ___ but….”
Negating with but shifts dialogue from cooperative into adversarial mode. Change from replying with but to consistently responding with listening for what makes sense, for what you can agree with, in what others say. You then will find it relatively easy to respond with the gift of appreciative, agreeable, additive dialogue. Instead of negating what you hear with but, you will be able to agree and then continue by adding your thoughts with and or and at the same time. These word changes flip a potentially adversarial conversation into a cooperative and even mutually appreciative one.
Can you find two more major collaborative dialogue errors in the above short dialogue?
While the knee-jerk negations of what their partner said struck me immediately, I soon realized that two other patterns were inviting Vicki and Tom’s mutually argumentative stances: the don’ts and the you’s.
Which would you rather hear from someone you are talking with?
- I don’t care
- I agree.
And which of the following two options would you rather hear?
- You don’t mind the noise …
- I don’t mind the noise …
Hopefully you feel that the first option in both cases exemplifies a problematic verbal pattern. The second option in each pair by contrast conveys a positive, comfortable, friendly stance.
What makes the difference?
“I don’t like … “ is a sure way to start off on a wrong foot, especially when you are talking about a sensitive subject with your loved one. Flip the don’t like to a would like, or to any positive sentence-starter including I agree, and the whole tone will change.
Start a sentence with the word you and immediately your partner is likely to slide into defensive mode. That’s a natural reaction, and a basically healthy one. It’s for you to talk about what you think, feel and have done or will do. If you want to switch the focus to your partner, ask, don’t tell.
Instead of “You feel…”. Or “You think that …”. Or “You should have..” ask “How do you feel…?” “What do you think about….” Or, Express what you yourself think, feel or could do: “I should have…” I-statements offer clean information. You-statements turn the dialogue toxic.
The single best holiday—and every day—gift you can give
Vicki and Tom deserve major credit. While they had no idea what had been causing their frequent irritability and arguments, they knew that they could do better—and they sought help to figure out how.
Any day of any week in any year, you too can make a decision to figure out what triggers irritation and frustrations in your interactions with your loved ones. Note the patterns in all your relationships—with children as well as with the adults in your family, and even with friends and work colleagues.
Help is easy to find. Start with noting when you or the person you are speaking with become irritated, hurt or defensive. Next, figure out what the problematic speaking pattern might have been. Lastly, practice a better alternative.
You might want to start by noting the three patterns clarified in this post. In addition, for further coaching, check out my book, workbook and website all called Power of Two. Explore also other books on the communication skills that can enable you to enjoy smooth tension-free relationships.
What is love?
Love is expressed through dialogue. Talking together shares both information and affection. Love especially gets conveyed by listening, that is, by hearing with your good ear. The good ear listens for what's right with what others say; the bad ear listens to negate. You give a gift of love every time you appreciate what's valuable in others' perspectives.
Expressing your thoughts and listening —like throwing and catching a ball —work best when you have the requisite skills and then practice, practice, practice.
We are not born knowing these skills. It helps if the parents in the home you grew up in modeled the skills, talking with each other respectfully, appreciatively, without negating and arguing. At the same time, it's never too late to change your dialogue habits. And a little learning can go a long way.
What might happen if you were to give yourself and your loved ones the gift of a commitment to become a master of the skills of collaborative dialogue?
To yourself? Yes! Do you respond to your own thoughts and actions with criticism, negating with but? Do you slap negative labels like dumb or stupid on what you just thought or did? Notice if your attitude toward yourself tends toward the negative, based on "don't this" and "you shouldn't that" instead of self-accepting.
Pay attention to the tone as well as the words that emanate from you. Does your tone sound critical? Irritated? If instead your tone is consistently cooperative, supportive and even appreciative, you are on the right track. You will experience a flow of well-being. You as well as all the folks you interact with will be blessed by your gift.
So give yourself and others the gift of skills for positive, loving interacting. Then happy birthday, merry Christmas, happy Valentines day, happy wedding, happy anniversary—and happy life!