John Gottman has rightly discovered that, when couples fight, what they fight about is seldom the problem. It's more a matter of how they go about it. Why are some couples able to discuss even thorny issues with patience and goodwill, while others end up arguing bitterly, maybe even over something as trivial as what to have for dinner? When conversations become confrontations and conflict becomes combat, we need to learn to have a different kind of conversation. I don't mean changing the subject. I mean changing the endgame.
When we argue, we usually have an agenda. The conversation has become a contest and we're "in it to win it." We want to get our way or prove our point or persuade our partner that we are right. So, we debate and dispute and refute and rebuke. When our partner speaks, we certainly aren't listening. We're thinking about what we are going to say back. We are formulating our rebuttal.
No wonder we end up angry, upset and misunderstood.
The next time you find yourselves headed down that road, make a U turn. Change the conversation. Instead of listening to debate or disagree or argue, listen to learn. Forget about solving the problem (at least for the time being). Postpone persuasion. Become curious. Become interested. Be a learner and suspend judgment. Don't give advice. Hold your opinions and just hear all that you can about your partner's point of view. Learn why it matters to her. Learn how he came to see it that way. Often, when we feel strongly about a matter, there is a story behind it, rooted in our personality or our upbringing. If we can begin to appreciate differences between us, then we can accept them instead of trying to change them. Differences are not deficiencies.
Now, some disagreements indeed must be settled. Often, you have to make a decision (do we go to the mountains or the beach on vacation? Do we buy the new carpet or the new kayak?) But the decision comes after the discussion. Understanding comes before solutions. When your partner understands you and you understand your partner, when you both feel heard, solutions have a way of "coming to themselves."
So, try to listen the way Dr. Dan Siegel suggests. Think of the word COAL. Listen with these four things in mind: Curiosity, Openness, Acceptance and Love. Change the conversation. Learn to listen to learn.