Thursday, May 20, 2010

Fair Fighting

When I have worked with couples in the past, I commonly hear, “We don’t communicate”. Maybe I’m splitting hairs, but it would be more accurate to say, “We're not communicating in a way that brings us leads to more understanding and brings us closer”. (Remember this first paragraph as we go along; it illustrates a very important concept.)

Some time ago, the John Grey book, “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus” was published. I’ve never read the book but it reminded me of what my old teacher used to say. “The fact that we are both speaking English only augments the delusion that we’re speaking the same language.” Does this seem confusing?
Let me say it another way; human communication is inherently ambiguous, (i.e., unclear. See the example in the following paragraph.)

Probably, it seems apparent what a couple “means” when they say, “we don’t communicate…” But that statement by itself leaves a lot of room for various interpretations.) When computers communicate with another computer in binary code, there is no ambiguity. The computer message consists of a series of 1s or Øs. The communication is black or white – there is no grey area. Human communication, by contrast is nearly always grey and ambiguous. Even the simplest human communication is shaded and nuanced by a person’s non-verbal behavior (the roll of eyes, the inflection of a word or hand gestures). And, it even worse than that... let’s imagine that someone says, “We’re experiencing very nice weather.” and their body language and vocal intonation are completely congruent with the statement – a successful communication requires that the recipient of the message correctly interprets the message that was intended. To me, it astounding that two human beings can communicate as effectively as we do! I’m not the least surprised that miscommunication happens as often as it
does. I am surprised it’s not an even bigger problem.

Being Right
Are you dead right?
You’re a human and so am I. There’s no argument there.
The sky is blue and the grass is green. There’s no argument there either.
After all, they’re "FACTS", and we’re all in agreement with them (right?). But why do so many of us have a need to ‘right’ regarding OPINIONS? A man driving in LA is outraged by another driver cutting him off. In his opinion, the driver who cut him off is unbearably rude. “I’ll show him,” he thinks, as he now tries to cut off the ‘rude’ driver. This incident explodes into a full-blown case of road rage, which leads to an accident and the death of the outraged driver. He might have been ‘right,’ but now he’s dead right. Does it make any sense to fight to the death over an opinion? Besides, how could the dead driver be ‘right’ when his behavior was wrong? An obsessive need to be ‘right’ is irrational, but, sadly, very common. For instance, what makes one believe that our neighbors are incompetent to think for themselves and need to be ‘saved’ by our own brand of religion (or view of reality)? And if they refuse to recognize our merciful God, we can always kill them! It’s like an anti-abortionist who preaches about the sanctity of life and then murders a doctor who performs abortions. Why do we kill others for having different opinions?

Some of us get easily upset in the workplace. We insist that others do things the ‘right’ (our) way. Yet, isn’t it more important to do the right thing than do things right? The high divorce rate suggests that married life is another arena for the clash of opinion. Something as trivial as how one’s spouse squeezes the tube of toothpaste is enough to cause anger in some people.

Quick, answer this question. What is the ‘right’ way to squeeze a tube of toothpaste? From the middle or from the end of the tube? Well, half of those who were surveyed in a university study answered, “From the middle,” and the other half said, “From the end of the tube.” So, no matter which opinion you hold, you were not ‘right’ in the mind of half of those surveyed. Can you see how ludicrous, how irrational, it is to demand that others share our opinions?

There are many reasons to give up our addiction to being ‘right.’ First, consider what we are doing when we make pronouncements that you are either for me or against me, or that it’s my way or the highway, or that I’m ‘right ’ and you’re ‘wrong.’ Aren’t we being arrogant, combative, self-righteous, presumptuous, judgmental, narrow-minded, and alienating? Aren’t such attitudes divisive and dysfunctional? Don’t they disrupt harmony and peace and lead to conflict and suffering?

When I insist that I’m ‘right,’ I slam the door of my mind. I remain locked in past beliefs. I stop growing. I have a shallow understanding of the world and limited choice. But if I change my focus from what IS ‘RIGHT’ to what IS, something magical happens. The moment I accept the fact that others have different views and willingly consider them, rather than fight them, I am transformed. Transformed from a prisoner to an adventurer and explorer. By opening myself to all ideas, I open my life to infinite possibilities. And on that day, I discover what it is to be rich.To be dead right is to be dead. To be cut off from the untold riches of life. It is also to be unhappy. For it is impossible to control the thoughts and opinions in the minds of others. So, when they fail to live up to our demand for agreement, we feel frustrated and disappointed. Does it make any sense to follow the road to unhappiness? If the demand to be ‘right’ is self-defeating, why do we engage in it? One reason is the discomfort of uncertainty. Living in a world of uncertainty makes some feel like the earth is crumbling beneath their feet. There is no stability, nothing to hang on to (except their opinions and beliefs). Yet, when we change our perspective and think of uncertainty as surprise, wonder, awe, growth, opportunity, and delight, we can embrace it.

Another reason for tenaciously clinging to our opinions is the fear that changing them would lead to the loss of our identity. But we are not our opinions. We are people who hold opinions and can let them go if we choose to. When we learn from others, we don’t lose our identity; we expand, enhance, and enrich it. A third reason for wanting to be ‘right’ is low self-esteem. Some need to show off their ‘superiority’ to compensate for their feelings of inferiority. They are afraid of appearing stupid and need the approval of others. But the way to grow superior is by opening one’s mind, not by closing it. To awaken from the delusion that our opinion is the only ‘right’ one, all one has to do is study history and the evolution of science. For when we do, we will quickly learn that we are fallible creatures. Even the brightest minds changed their opinions on innumerable occasions. In fact, that’s how they grew so bright, by integrating opinions that at first appeared diametrically opposed. And by willingly adding the opinions of others to their own. They weren’t afraid of accepting new ideas and making mistakes.

Here’s how Lewis Thomas (1913 ~ 1993) explains it in his book THE MEDUSA AND THE SNAIL, “Mistakes are at the very base of human thought, embedded there, feeding the structure like root nodules. If we were not provided with the knack for being wrong, we could never get anything useful done. We think our way along by choosing between right and wrong alternatives, and the wrong choices have to be made as often as the right ones. We get along in life this way.”

When the populace of a certain village was evenly divided on the ‘right’ way to punish a disobedient child, they decided to seek council with the village elder. The spokesman for Opinion A gave his view to the elder. As the others listened in silence, the elder spoke, “You are right.”While maintaining his decorum, but visibly upset, the spokesman for Opinion B said, “But Wise One, you have given your counsel before hearing from me!” He then shared his opinion with the elder. After listening to it, the Wise One said, “You are right.”“But, Honorable One,” protested another villager, “you have just agreed with two opposing viewpoints!” The Wise One turned his way and said, “You are right.”

If I could “make” my patients understand some specific points about communicating, the below ideas would be some of them.

Communication between two or more humans is likely to be marked by expressions of one’s thoughts and feelings. This imperfect communication is likely to be misinterpreted by the recipient of the communication. These communication flaws pile up on each other usually leading to an argument. If couples want to communicate more effectively, I would advise them to frequently confirm whether the other party has received the message that was intended. Imagine going to a foreign country whose language you don’t understand. You probably wouldn’t expect that they would understand you and you wouldn’t be surprised if you were confused by what they say. You would make extra efforts to try to make yourself clear; perhaps you’d bring a translating dictionary. In a similar fashion, we should not assume that another would perfectly understand us – even though we are both speaking English. Perhaps we use a regional expression that is not familiar to the recipient of our communication. Perhaps the other party has a pressing personal problem that distracts them from listening closely. There are hundreds of perfectly normal reasons why communication between two humans will go cock-eyed. For a couple with strong emotional ties (good or bad) there may be thousands of reasons.

Let me relate a story; recently a patient who is quite an expert in the area of computers was explaining to me that now there are various computer platforms. (Windows, Linux, Java etc.) He explained that now, even computers are experiencing problems communicating. In this patient’s profession, they call it "porting". (e.g., the data didn’t port very well to the new computer) In other words, the data was mangled and unusable by the other computer. In human relationships, it might be called an argument. When a couple encounters an argument, it’s safe to assume that there has been an error in communication. There has been a mistranslation. At this point, the couple should back up and try to discover where the communication derailed.

In grad school, we were taught about a concept described as "positive intentionality" – the idea is that basically, people intend to behave in a positive and productive manner. Obviously, those positive intentions all too often get serious mangled in the process of communication but, it’s usually safe to assume that a couple who say they care for each other want to communicate in such a way that something positive and productive results from a communication. The fact that a couple frequently argues is most often indicative of an error (misunderstanding) in the communication process. So, remember, even though we speak English it does not necessarily follow that our communication will be easily or clearly understood. It is your responsibility as the sender of a communication to confirm that the receiver of the communication understood your intentions. If you don’t confirm it, it is your responsibility that you didn’t take the time to clarify the communication. Another comment from my teacher, “It never the audience’s fault.” By this, he was suggesting a play – if the audience doesn’t like the play – it’s not their fault. The problem lies with the one who wrote the play or the performers. So, it is the responsibility of the sender of a communication to be responsible for the effect their communication – not the receiver.

If you accept the premise that communication is an inherently dicey process then it makes sense that “rules for effective communication” might be a helpful tool to reduce the likelihood that miscommunications will occur. At first, couples may balk at the idea of trying to use “rules”. They may complain that it’s unnatural or too complicated. Honestly, while I understand, I think it comes down to whining. If someone experienced a significant injury, physical therapy may be required – and in physical therapy, one exercises the injured part of the body to regain greater functionality. Where we ever got the idea that a relationship should be easy or natural, I don’t know but it wouldn’t surprise me if it was therapists. The truth is, relationships require effort. Of all the things we have, I can’t think of one that doesn’t require some kind of effort to maintain the enjoyment of the possession or relationship. If you’ve ever been at a formal committee meeting or governmental meeting, it’s quickly apparent that there are rules that govern the process of the meeting. The rules are actually written down in a book. The rules are called Robert’s Rules of Order (no relation to yours truly). I haven’t read the book but I’ve been to a lot of meetings.

The chairperson “calls the meeting to order” “old business” is reviewed, “new business” is reviewed, and if an item isn’t on the “agenda”, it gets scheduled for another meeting. Motions are made, seconded, voted on, passed or defeated. The chairperson is there to insure that the meeting is conducted in an orderly fashion. If someone thinks it’s becoming unorderly they will say to the chairperson, “…point of order”. All of this may seem terribly tedious and unnecessarily parochial, but it is done to assure that communication is clear and stays on track. When the next meeting convenes, someone (the secretary) has compiled the “minutes of the meeting”. All of this (and much more) – in the name of clear communication practices.We should take a lesson from this. Communicating is not a simple process. You may know what you believe you communicated but the likelihood that the recipient of your communication receiving it exactly as you intended it is almost never 100%.

Consider the following real-life examples; (By the way, when I refer to patients I work with I usually call them Dick & Jane and rest assured, I always disguise identifying information.)

Example #1
Dick-1, Jane-1 and their child Tim are driving home late at night after dinner with friends.
Jane-1 and Tim (age two) are fast asleep. Dick-1 is alert, on a straight stretch of open road – it’s past midnight, and there are few if any other cars on the road. Dick-1 is speeding – probably 90 MPH.
Jane-1 wakes up, sees the speedometer, and “goes off” on her husband, “Are you crazy? Are you trying to kill us? What’s wrong with you?”
Dick-1 is indignant, he replies in an escalated way, “Don’t tell me how to drive! I haven’t had an accident in 20 years – you’ve had two in the last year! If you don’t want me to speed, maybe you shouldn’t pass out as soon as we get in the car!” The argument continues until they’re home; they go to bed angry and hurt.

Obviously, this communication hasn’t achieved the intended goal. Let’s do what therapists sometimes call a post-mortem on this sequence of events and I’ll tell you what I “think” happened.

  • Dick-1 was speeding. He shouldn’t but he thought it was safe enough.
  • When Jane-1 awoke and saw the speedometer, my guess is that in her semi-awake state, she was SCARED. Frequently, scared people react defensively and we’ve all heard the saying the best defense is a good offense. Jane-1 is scared – she wants Dick-1 to slow down – out of fear, she launches an offense of her husband’s driving. She suggests he’s crazy, that he’s homicidal and that something is wrong with him. None of this helps Dick-1 understand that his wife is afraid.
  • Dick-1 interprets that he’s under a surprise, unwarranted attack and launches a counter-attack in an attempt to get Jane-1 to deescalate.
  • Jane-1 is now scared and hurt. She believes that she expressed her alarm and fear and instead of slowing down, her husband is arguing with her. She is hurt and feels betrayed – apparently, her husband doesn’t care that she’s scared and in fact chooses this occasion when she’s already upset to criticize her.
  • Dick-1 believes he was just minding his own business when he was blind-sided.

I suppose we all wish at times we could rewind time and re-do something. If Dick & Jane could have done something different, and if I were some grand cosmic puppeteer, here’s what I would have changed. When Jane woke up, I have her tell Dick about her fear, “Dick, I’m really afraid and scared.” My guess is Dick doesn’t want to scare his wife – my guess is, he’d slow down fast. My guess is, it wouldn’t have escalated into an argument leaving each feeling distant and misunderstood. My point (in case you haven’t picked up on it yet) is that people are not “naturally” good communicators. They become good communicators through some education and practice, practice, practice.

Example #2
Dick-2 & Jane-2 come to see me. They’ve been separated for a bit over a year. Their concern is some behavioral problem with their child. As they talk with me over several visits, it seems to me they really like each other. I asked them, “By the way, why did you separate?” They related the following:

  • About a year prior, during an argument, Dick-2 thought he was getting too angry and it seemed to him that the argument was becoming to destructive so he said, “I’m leaving.” To Dick-2, this meant he was going for a walk to cool down and get a better perspective.
  • Jane-2, thinking he meant he was moving out was shocked that he was ending the relationship over a fairly minor argument but said, “FINE- don’t come back!”
  • Dick-2 was shocked that Jane was ending the relationship but wanted to respect her wishes.

They had lived apart for over a year due to a misinterpretation of wha was being said. I’ll never forget the look on their faces as it quickly dawned on them what had happened.

So, class, what lessons do we take from this? (Don’t say Dick & Jane are morons… we’ve all done similar things.)

The lessons are:
  • Communication is ambiguous and requires practice to do it well.
  • If there’s an argument, it usually indicates a misinterpretation of communication

If a comment is not likely to bring you closer; don’t say it.
I’m pretty sure this next one can be blamed on well-meaning but really dumb therapists. There’s an idea floating around that if you have a thought or feeling, you should be “honest” about it and say it. This is really bad advice. We all have thoughts and feelings – but not all of them are fit for being expressed to others. You may think I’m really ugly – but how will that help anything by you saying it.

Example 3:
Dick-3 & Jane-3 have been married for years. Regrettably, Jane-3 had an affair. Dick-3 finds out – there’s a horrible rocky period for months but they decide to stay together and Jane ends the affair. Months later, their sex-life is flat. During a visit with me, Jane announces to Dick that the “other guy” was “bigger” than Dick-3. I was horrified. Dick-3 was devastated. Jane-3 said, “Well, shouldn’t I be honest?”

The answer to Jane-3’s question is: NO. Not about that. Communication is permanent. You can never “take it back”. You can’t unring the bell. How could her “honest” comment ever bring them closer? Dick-3 will never forget those words. Like you, I’ve been in my share of arguments. I have a mental picture; I’m standing in front of a burning house. In one arm, I have a fire hose with water. In the other arm, I have a fuel hose with gasoline.

Which should I use?

Hmmm… gee, I know I should use the water but the “bad-Rob” want to turn on the gas a see the house really blaze. In an argument, we are usually faced with a choice we can say things which will predictably pour gas on the fire – or we can say something that will help. If we can’t think of what will help it’s better to say nothing instead of using the gas. You can even say, “I’m confused right now – I need time to sort this out – I don’t want to make things worse – so for now, I’m not going to say anything.”

More communication is not always better.

Have you ever heard of the rule of holes? It says, when you find yourself in a hole the first rule is to stop digging. In a similar way, people sometimes have the idea that if they are in the midst of an argument they need to communicate more to get out of the argument. This is not true. What’s needed is a different kind or type of communication. Sometimes it’s better to stop – go to separate rooms for 15 – 30 minutes before continuing. Sometimes it should be stopped ‘till the next day. I tell my patients that even professional boxers (who train all day) only fight for three minutes per round. Then they sit and rest for a while. When I work with a couple, I often tell them to drop further conversation about the “problem” until the next day. I tell them, “I’m envious of veterinarians who can put those plastic collars on animals to prevent an animal from biting at stitches that have been put in.” Sometimes things need to be allowed to rest or heal. Dough needs time to raise – paint needs time to dry and sometimes we need time to consider things that have been said or time to sort out how we feel about something.Here then are some of my “fair fighting” rules. (Keep in mind that if you haven’t been practicing these for a while, it will be nearly impossible to stick to any of them for more than a short period.)

  • No surprises. Here’s a frequent scenario; Jane has been thinking about an annoyance for a while – maybe hours or days. Maybe she’s even rehearsed in her mind what the conversation will be like. Dick, on the other hand, has been doing something else. Maybe he’s been at work doing whatever he does. When he gets home, Jane says, “There’s something we need to talk about….” and goes on to lay out her concerns. Dick has been blindsided. He hasn’t had the benefit of advance notice. Maybe he’s had a horrible day. Maybe he has a headache. Maybe he’s coming down with a stomach virus. My point is this; don’t spring a conversation on someone. I suggest that you tell them you’d like to discuss something and it’s a “7” (Use a 1 – 10 scale. A 1 is an almost completely insignificant concern, a 10 is a possible deal-breaker i.e., potentially divorce, a 5 is important but is what you might consider an issue of “average” importance.) Then the other person can say, “I’m willing to discuss it, but can we do it in an hour after I wind down?”
  • Don’t try to resolve a conflict in one discussion. Too many couples I see try to resolve big issues during one conversation. Usually I’ll suggest a big concern needs to have 4 – 5 conversations. This allows each person to strongly state their views – listen to the views of the other – then drop it. In a few days, have another conversation about it – then drop it. Do this several times allowing time in-between to consider what has been said.
  • No crisis tickling. An example of this would be during an argument Dick says to Jane, “Maybe I should talk with an attorney.” Here, Dick is tickling a crisis. He’s implying that he might be exploring a divorce – without saying it.
  • Stick to the topic. Too often a couple will begin trying to resolve one issue and then start going tangent to other unresolved issues.
  • No name-calling. Need I say more?
  • Keep it brief. As I’d previously mentioned, an argument should never go on for more than 20 or so minutes. If it goes on longer than 20 minutes people are getting exhausted and there’s a greater likelihood that someone will resort to dirty fighting.
  • No arguments if someone is under the influence. I’ll say more later about substance use but it’s never a good idea to argue when someone is under the influence – even a little. Don’t do it. Walk out if necessary. (I’ve worked with couples for over 20 years. I’ve seen too many people that get thrown in jail or do something else stupid because they were arguing either with someone who was under the influence.)
  • No one is “right”. This is a pet peeve for me. It seems that everyone I know (including me) believes they are “right” and if others don’t agree they are either stupid, wrong, dishonest, mentally ill or misinformed. The truth is everyone sees things from a unique perspective. Because they see it differently from you doesn’t make them (or you) wrong. This is just the way you (and they) see it. Insisting on being “right” will result in you being very lonely.
  • No mind-reading. Dick says to Jane, “I know what you’re thinking (or feeling).” This is crazy making. You may believe that the other person is thinking or feeling something but you are not Kreskin.
  • No triangling. This means bringing a third party (Your kid, his/her brother or parents, a friend – anyone that you personally know.) into the conflict to take sides.
  • No violence or implication of violence.
  • No invoking of the past. Stay focused on the issue at hand. Stay in the present
  • No fighting after 10PM
  • No blaming. Determining fault usually doesn't change anything.
  • Acknowledge when feeling defensive.
  • If you know you are wrong, promptly admit it. It’s amazing how many couples have trouble with this seemingly obvious rule.
  • When the argument ends, each person states the solution as understood.
  • Check for leftover feelings and resentments when the fight is over. (If necessary schedule ANOTHER time to address these.)

And remember, there are no winners, no right-and-wrong. Only mutually acceptable solutions.

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