The 5% Rule—Breaking Through the Argument

There's a way past the senseless argument that destroys our relationships.

Posted Apr 03, 2016

Rocketclips, Inc./Shutterstock
Source: Rocketclips, Inc./Shutterstock

Early in my career as a therapist, I found myself feeling frustrated with my inability to assist a couple with whom I was working. They were tirelessly mired in argument. It was like watching a Ping-Pong ball being whacked back and forth, only no one was winning or losing. This kind of flailing about represents the low point for so many relationships. I was searching for a way to help them slow down and listen to each other—to get past their gridlock. In the midst of one session, I reflected for a moment on how I might approach their impasse differently. I’ve learned that when I pause, get out of my own way, and set my intention for an insight, it often appears. This was such a moment.

It came in the form of my asking the husband, John (I’ve changes their names here):

“Can you try to find just a small percentage of what Barbara is saying that you might agree with? Let’s look for just 5% you can acknowledge, and temporarily suspend the 95% you’re sure she’s wrong about.”           

I was asking John to go against the grain and act counterintuitively by neither defending himself nor trying to score a point. I explained to him that he wasn’t pleading guilty or surrendering—the goal was simply to establish a repartee so that the pair could hear each other. He finally managed to affirm one of his wife’s complaints and took ownership of a particular action.

I noticed that Barbara barely paused, as she was about to launch right back into the argument. I raised my hand gently, suggesting instead that she reflect for a moment about how it felt for John to at least partially validate her. Somewhat begrudgingly she said to him, “I appreciate your caring about my feelings and seeing that you did hurt me.” I then asked Barbara to validate some part of John’s issues with her—and as she did so, they began to turn the corner. Their energy began to shift. A new technique was born for me—one that I now call The 5% Rule:

Even if you disagree with the vast majority of what you are hearing from the other person, you can ordinarily find some small content that you can acknowledge. We typically marginalize, if not ignore, this part because our automatic default is grounded in the right vs. wrong battle. Our thoughts seek to refute rather than confirm, to win rather than understand. Even though we say we care about each other, we don’t act lovingly.

If we break free from the futile goal of winning an argument and try to find something in what the other person is saying that we might concur with, the results can be astonishing. After all, if you need to “win” that means the other person must “lose.” And how do you think that works out in relationships?

Once your partner feels heard and, moreover, affirmed, he or she may be in a far better position to take in what you have to say. Timing is essential here: You cannot just say, “Yes, but…” That is part of the process of invalidating. Instead, affirm something, pause, and let the conciliatory spirit fill the space that the noisy back and forth of argument would otherwise fill. That shift now becomes fertile ground for a meaningful transition and a constructive exchange. But if you rush to reframe or assert your own position, your affirmation appears disingenuous.

Affirming the 5% in no way means that you have to abandon your position regarding the 95% with which you disagree. You have simply laid the groundwork for the other to take in what you have to say. This process permits us to halt an addiction to being reactive and move toward being responsive. The success of this approach allows both parties to behave with compassion and empathy, cooperating rather than competing. The goal is not to win but to care. You can immediately apply the 5% rule in your communications with others—whether it’s your intimate partner, a friend, a relative or a business colleague.

Once you’ve found that small part of the other’s issues that you can validate, they’ll likely feel heard and may then open to what you have to say. What you want the other person to hear is very important—but you need to set the stage, so to speak, so that they can take it in. From there, a healthy communication might emerge. We must just interrupt the compulsion to be right and our default to being reactive. When we react in an adversarial way without pausing to reflect, we are just like the Ping-Pong ball. Our reactions—by definition—are not well considered or purposeful.

The 5% Rule is just the first of many steps on the road toward attaining excellent interpersonal skills. Developing these tools allows our relationships to prosper. Just as relationship skills and emotional intelligence ought to be core educational requirements, communication mastery should be the bedrock of any life that aspires to happiness, success, and fulfillment. It’s vital that we learn the necessary nuances and skills of communication so that our words may actually be heard.

Sounds True
Source: Sounds True

This article has been excerpted from Mel's new book, The Possibility Principle.


Mel Schwartz, LCSW MPhil is a psychotherapist, couples counselor, corporate consultant, speaker and author practicing in Westport, CT., and Manhattan. He works with clients globally by Skype. Mel earned his graduate degree from Columbia University.  He has written The Art of Intimacy, The Pleasure of Passion and The Possibility Principle: How Quantum Physics Can Improve the Way You Think, Live, and Love (Sounds True, Fall 2017). Mel’s authored 100+ articles—read by more than 1 million readers—for Psychology Today and his blog, A Shift of Mind

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