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Relationship Resilience During COVID-19 Confinement

This is an ideal time to learn breakthrough communication skills.

Even in the best of times, dealing with relationship conflict and frustrating communications can feel overwhelming. And we are certainly not in the best of times.

With most couples and families now confined under the same roof, discord and tensions can surface far more easily. Opportunities to take breaks from one another have evaporated. Yes, we can retreat to separate laptops, phones, or televisions, but the lack of social diversity may create greater tension. For many people, this may feel like being in a pressure cooker with the heat always on.

If a crisis creates opportunity, then perhaps this is the time to learn some critically needed communication skills. With nowhere to retreat or hide, the opportunity for relationship growth may now be an urgent necessity. Let’s begin.

The Need to Be Right

Why is it so important to be right? Our instinct to defend ourselves and be right literally destroys the fabric of the relationship. Think of it this way: If I need to be right, then I need to vanquish you and make you wrong. Now how is that going to work out? This win-lose scenario is nonrational and doesn’t work. It assures discord.

In couples counseling, I might ask, “Would you rather be right, or would you rather be happy?” Of course, both people claim they’d choose happiness, but within moments, the retreat to winning the argument prevails.

We turn our relationship into a debate, and no one is listening. This causes the withering of affection, love, and respect.

Is Anyone Listening?

The need to win an argument assures that no one is actively listening. Our words are like ping-pong balls being whacked back and forth. Nothing thwarts our ability to remain present and truly listen as effectively as hearing the words, “You’re wrong.” Tell someone they’re wrong, and you’ve guaranteed your words will fall on deaf ears.

Feeling loved, cared for, and validated is nullified by the drive to be right. The need to be right, to win at all costs, is antithetical to enjoying empathic and compassionate relationships. It doesn’t exactly sound like the stuff of friendships, let alone romantic relations. So how can we break through this mindless impasse?

The 5 Percent Rule: Turning Conflict Into Collaboration

I can recall, early in my career as a therapist, finding myself feeling frustrated by my inability to assist a couple with whom I was working. They were mired in a ceaseless argument, venting at each other with neither person listening to the other. I was searching for a way to help them slow down and listen to each other, to get past their gridlock. 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.

Intuitively, I asked the husband, John (I’ve changed their names to protect their confidentiality), “Can you try to find just a small percentage of what Barbara is saying that you might agree with? Let’s look arguably for just 5 percent of what she’s saying that you can acknowledge, and temporarily suspend the 95 percent 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 John that he wasn’t pleading guilty or surrendering; the goal was simply to establish a repartee so that they could hear each other. Validating something you’re hearing sets the stage for a vital shift in energy. He finally managed to affirm one of his wife’s complaints and took ownership of a particular action that she found offensive.

As he shared this with Barbara, she barely paused, as she prepared to go right back into the argument. I raised my hand gently and suggested that she reflect on how it felt to be at least partially validated. Somewhat begrudgingly, she said to John, “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 coalesce. A new technique was born for me—one that I now call “The 5 Percent 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. Even though we say we care about each other, we don’t act lovingly.

If we break free from the insane 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.

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 would otherwise be occupied by the noisy back-and-forth of argumentation. That shift now becomes fertile ground for a meaningful transition and constructive exchange.

Slow Down

If you rush to reframe or assert your own position, your affirmation appears disingenuous. First, you need to validate, then pause, enabling you to have the opportunity to share what you want to with a much greater chance that your words will be heard.

Affirming the 5 percent in no way means that you have to abandon your position regarding the 95 percent 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 in being reactive and to 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 Percent Rule in your communications with others—whether it’s your intimate partner, a friend or relative, or a business relationship.

Once you’ve found that small part of the other’s issues that you can validate, they’ll likely feel heard and may then be 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 they can take it in. From there, healthy communication might emerge. We must interrupt both the compulsion to be right and our default mode of being reactive. Our reactions—by definition—are not well considered or purposeful.

Talk Feelings, Not Facts

Arguments are comprised of facts. It’s far more helpful to retreat from facts and simply share how you feel. Feelings, by definition, are subjective and beyond the scale of right vs. wrong. Try sharing how you feel, and if the other person rejects or invalidates you, simply ask, “Do you care how I feel?” This moves us into the heart of the relationship, far from the courtroom antics of right vs. wrong.

The 5 Percent Rule is just the first of many steps I’ll be sharing toward attaining mastery of interpersonal skills and emotional intimacy. 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.

Stay tuned for the next steps coming soon.

In the coming weeks and months, we'll be addressing many of the challenges confronting us. I’ll be offering new ways of thinking, enabling us to overcome them. I welcome you to join me in this participatory, interactive experience. Please feel welcome to email me with any questions.

The 5% Rule was excerpted from my book, The Possibility Principle.