You Don’t Have to Make the Other Person Wrong, to be Right.
I’m always pondering communication skills. It seems to me that much of the pain my clients experience and cause in their relationships (and mine, too!) can be averted. I help clients to learn new communication skills that help them to speak in a way that is compassionate to each other. Doing this, they build the bridges of cooperation that help them to resolve disagreements without causing alienation and excessive pain.
(Identifying information has been changed in client stories.)
A middle aged man in a polyamous relationship was feeling irritable that his girlfriend couldn’t seem to relax during a date. He wanted to cook her a nice meal, but she kept offering to help. She wanted to kiss on him while he was trying to cook and offer to cut vegetables and set the table. He felt irritated and wanted to say things like “get off me, I’m trying to cook!” And, “why can’t you just sit down and talk to me and let me cook?!” But because he feared that these were too harsh, he held it in, and his irritation grew.
When we look at his inner dialogue, we see that he “makes her wrong” to want to kiss on him, or to offer to help. Luckily, he knows this is hurtful and he restrains himself from saying the words. But he lacks the tools to say what he wants without having to “make her wrong” in the process.
In the short term, he and I worked out how he could express what he wants without making his girlfriend “wrong.” And he practiced saying, “I’d like to cook a nice meal for you. I get great satisfaction from doing all of it, as a gift. I’d like you to sit here, and talk with me while I cook.” He even joked that it would be easier if he said this was a homework assignment from therapy!
The next step in the process was to learn to validate his girlfriend’s feelings (letting her be right) while still expressing what he needs or wants (and letting himself be right.)
For example: “I understand you want to be helpful and it’s one of the things I love about you. You are very giving. And at the same time, I want to do all the tasks related to preparing this meal for you. Is that okay?” (Consent is important!)
In another example, a new poly couple disagreed on whether to cook a big traditional Thanksgiving meal at home, or to go out to eat. Originally, they took opposite positions and assumed one person has to be wrong and the other right, one will win and one will lose. The discussion looked something like this:
Jai - “Going out to a restaurant is so impersonal. I don’t want that. I want to feel together, like a family on the holidays!”
Kevin - “But, it’s so much work! I hate cooking, and the clean up and we’ll have leftovers for weeks. It’s so much simpler to go out. And I wanted to take you somewhere special, that’s the family tradition I would like to start.”
The language being used, “Going out to a restaurant is so impersonal.” and “But, it’s so much work!” suggest the other person’s opinion is “wrong.” This is a common mistake. We think shooting down the opposing argument is just part of trying to elevate our side.
But, if we remove this tendency to make the other person wrong, the conversation looks like this:
Jai - “I want to feel together, like a family on the holidays!”
Kevin - “I wanted to take you somewhere special, that’s the family tradition I would like to start.”
Now look where they were in agreement … they both wanted to feel family togetherness during the holiday meal! Once I helped them to see this, they had a wonderful bonding moment over this and agreed to work together to find a solution that would result in them both feeling this family togetherness.
Then, we explored “how” they each expected their idea to achieve this family togetherness feeling. I emphasized that they both get to be “right.” Jai wanted to prepare the whole meal as a gift for Kevin. Jai wanted the house filled with the smell of good food and hear sports playing in the background and recreate their memories of childhood, homey holiday meals.
Kevin also wanted to provide the holiday meal as a gift, but hates cooking, so he wanted to make it special in his way, by going somewhere nice.
By acknowledging the “rightness,” or the merits, of both ideas and validating the feelings behind them, neither person feels hurt, or ignored. No one was made to feel wrong for wanting what they wanted.
They agreed it was not possible to do both ideas on the same day, so they agreed to compromise. They discussed having two Thanksgiving meals, one on the actual day and one later in the weekend. They also discussed eating out for Thanksgiving and home cooking the Christmas meal. In both cases they discussed alternating year by year to make it fair. They didn’t reach a final decision in the session, but felt they now had the tools and the foundation of cooperation in place to complete the discussion successfully at home.