Even with the best intentions, certain issues can lead to arguments. When this happens we can become impatient and defensive, we feel not heard and believe that we are worlds apart from agreeing. Even in the most difficult of conflicts, there are similarities we can draw on, but we don’t always see them, why?

When an issue is close to our heart, be it at work or in our personal lives, we tend to over-identify with it and see it as an extension of ourselves, especially if we have been advocating it for some time. We then raise it, consciously or not, driven by a need to deliver a message or convince the other person and we therefore approach the conversation from a place of competition rather than cooperation.

This over-identification leads us to defend our respective positions with varying degrees of tenacity; any contention is seen as a personal attack on our values and identity, and interruptions become rife. However well the conversation had started and was meant to go, it is now careering towards a brick wall as we continue to make our points ever more loudly and forcefully, to no avail.  I have witnessed various cases in which two people are saying the same thing from different perspectives without realizing it; or are talking at cross purposes because they are so intent on winning, that they are not listening to what each other is actually saying.

In those moments, it is useful to remember that we have a lot in common and ultimately share some basic needs.

Namely the need to be:

  • Heard
  • Respected (including how we are spoken to and for our views to be acknowledged)
  • Understood

This is why so often in discussions and arguments, we say “You’re not hearing me”, “That’s not what I said!” and so on.

Starting any discussion from this premise can also lead us to understand our tangible needs. For example, we may need our colleagues’ support and cooperation for our project to work, or we may need our spouse or child to do their share of the housework and so on.

Understanding tangible needs requires focused listening, rather than storing a retort in our heads or interrupting to say it. Being focused means asking questions that provide us with more clarification about what is actually being said and lead us to joint problem-solving.

Imagine two people arguing over an orange. Both people are staking claims on the fruit. To resolve this one might suggest simply cutting it in half, the other may suggest that the person who first lays claim on it gets it. Or one may ask the question, “Why?”.  By asking ‘why’, one person explains that they need the orange for its zest and the other says that they need it for the juice. The initial solution of cutting it in half is thus no longer feasible.

In the case of our work proposal, by explaining to our colleagues why and how we need their support, would open the communication in a way that would incorporate a joint exploration of how this would occur, rather than simply focusing on making a convincing pitch of our project.  The same can be said for asking our spouse and/or family for more contribution around the house; explaining why, would open communication and mutual problem-solving much more so than dictates.

If a conversation is going wrong and getting heated, suggest taking a break and returning with a mutual wish to hear and understand one another in a respectful manner. Once that’s established, focus on asking the questions that bring you closer to understanding.

Such as:

  •  “Why are you saying this?”
  • “What do you need?”
  • “How do you propose we could do this?”

Establishing needs helps us understand how to approach the problem, together. We no longer have to agree, nor to be right, we just need to find a way that best suits most of our needs (be prepared to let go of some of these and be willing to meet some yourself). Done in this way, we no longer have to convince one another of something, or to start off seeing the conversation as an impending struggle and we thus shift from conflict to cooperation.

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