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Saturday, April 2, 2016

Relationally Speaking, Are You Wiser Than A Fifth Grader?

Meet hypothetical couple "Jen and Sam". 

In their frequent no-holds-barred verbal fights, each operates from the mistaken belief that their spouse is suffering from a pure case of ignorance. Thus each keeps trying to enlighten the other through heated lectures and debates.

But just providing more information is the solution, someone has said, only to the extent that ignorance is the problem.

The real ignorance Sam suffers from is his belief that if he can just get in 50 more persuasive words, he will finally get Jen to see the obvious truth--his truth, of course. And Jen is just as convinced that if Sam were to hear just two more paragraphs of her good common sense, he would finally see the light--her version of it.

All the while, each is hoping for a result that has never happened in their entire marriage--nor in the history of all heated arguments since the beginning of time--that at the end of an intense debate, one of the sparring partners will humbly admit that the other is actually right after all, and will sincerely thank the other for offering them such great wisdom and enlightenment.

All of this is wishful thinking, of course, since a lack of information is neither Jen’s nor Sam’s primary problem. Their main problem is that they are each far too defensive and that they fail to recognize that no two people, even married ones, will ever see everything alike (unless they are clones of each other, which would be terribly boring).

Another problem is the fear each feels of losing stature, respect or power in the relationship, resulting in their reacting from the lower “fight or flight” subcortex of their brain. That’s the part that, whenever we perceive something or someone as a threat, injects an extra dose of adrenaline in preparation for dealing with some major crisis.

But most disagreements are far from being about about real crises. They are just about normal differences and ordinary problems. These can easily develop into crises, though, if the wrong parts of our brains are activated. And when that happens, the reflective, problem-solving, higher brain, the neocortex, is half shut down. The result is anxious and desperate behaviors that turn simple mole hills into huge mountains, with everyone becoming bruised in the process.

Most of us have been there and done that. In all of our arguments, we tend to have two or more speakers and no listeners, which makes them an utter waste of time. No one gains, no one learns, and everyone loses.

What if we were to practice cutting back on the talking, taking turns really listening, and first taking time time to truly understand where the other is coming from and what he or she is needing--whether we agree with them or not? And what if we just observed a time-out whenever things things started escalating, rather than making things worse by going into all-out defensive, offensive, mode?

Most of the time, once we have calmed down and cooled off, we realize that we might actually learn something form the person with whom we disagree, that there might be more solutions out there than there are problems, and that mature, wise adults can find some creative win-win outcomes. 

We can also recognize that being right isn't nearly as important as being friends, and that offering an apology from time to time is a good thing.

Often the best response to a verbal fight is no response at all. Better to politely disengage from it and offer to talk later, after everyone’s had a chance to calm down.

Even a fifth grader should be able to see the wisdom in that.
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