“You know, if she would just listen to me we wouldn’t be having this problem,” Steve said. He was exasperated. “My wife just doesn’t get it. She always has to do things her way and it drives me nuts!”
Steve is a coaching client (and that’s not his real name). This was a common theme for Steve. On our coaching calls it was typical that he would complain about his wife, his competitive brother or his politically-passionate father. They all shared a position in this family steel cage wrestling match.
Even when he was alone, Steve was busy mentally crafting an argument, finding websites to defend his position, rehearsing his next strike and counterstrike. Even when he was alone, he was in a heightened state of angst, defensiveness and aggression. Being consumed was normal.
So I asked him, “Do you like this?”
“Like what?” he asked.
“Do you like living like this? Do you like how this feels? Do you like the constant debates and arguments and feuding? Does it make you happy?”
He actually took a moment to be quiet instead of launching another defense.
I kept going. “Seriously. Is this how you want to spend whatever time you have with these people? The people you love? What if tonight, something completely unexpected and horrific occurred and they were suddenly wiped off the planet? Would you be satisfied that you spent all of this time and energy trying to prove who was right or wrong?”
Steve was softening. “Of course not,” he whispered.
“So you’re the common denominator here. You’re the one linking all of these struggles together, right?” I asked.
He was reluctant. “That’s right.”
“Then that’s the good news. Because you can take full responsibility here. You can be the one that turns this around. You can be the one that creates something positive instead of leaving these interactions with both parties bruised, beat up and reluctant to re-engage,” I said.
But this tiger wasn’t going to give up just yet. He fired back, “And what? I’m just supposed to let them walk all over me? I’m just supposed to let them win?”
“Not at all, Steve. That’s not what I’m saying. What I’m proposing is sidestepping the whole right vs wrong trap to begin with. No losers. No defeats. Does that sound good to you?” I asked.
With skepticism he said yes.
I recently interviewed Mark Michael Lewis on The New Man Podcast. He’s a relationship coach with 20 years of experience helping folks with this stuff. In the show he described how when we’re fighting over who’s right and wrong we’re just stuck in a trap. Regardless of who is winning, we’re not moving closer to what we really want.
To move things toward a solution, both parties have to come to the table with what they’re thinking, feeling and wanting. I would add that they also need to bring an attitude of “what’s possible?”, too.
One of the big problems of right vs wrong arguments is that we’re distracted by the need to win and prove. And as a result we abandon our ability to speak up for what we want, let our partner do the same and then create a solution with them.
In other words, arguing about right and wrong is like spraying water on the smoke. Speaking up for what we both think, feel, and want hits the fire at its core.
I shared these ideas with Steve as well as the information about Mark’s online course — a step by step process to help you get your head out of your a–, clarify what you want and then learn how to actually talk about it in a constructive (rather than divisive) way.
And then I gave Steve some homework. The next time he caught himself crafting an argument in his head, I had him simply pull out a piece of paper and write down what he’s thinking, feeling and wanting.
Through our talks together we clarified the following:
— He’s assuming that his father thinks he’s an idiot because they don’t share the same political beliefs. He’s assuming his father doesn’t think he’s smart.
— He’s sad and frustrated that they waste their time debating politics. He’s sad that they don’t really know much about each other. He’s hurt that his father doesn’t really know him.
— He wants to spend more time talking about things he and his father both love. He wants to laugh with his father and get to know one another. He wants to make the most of their time together.
This is hard work for Steve. He’s got years of practice making mountains out of molehills. He imagines threats where many of us do not. And yet with awareness and practice he’s making big progress.
And even though a part of him loves the split second of satisfaction he gets when he beats his opponent, Steve realizes “winning” a pissing match just drives him further away from the ones he loves.
But the more Steve — and you and I — are able to bring what we’re thinking, feeling and wanting to the table then it’s much harder to fall into the trap. And it’s much easier to co-create something we all want.
PS Click here if you want more information on Mark Michael Lewis’s Thriving Partnership Step by Step Program.