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Last week I suggested that the best way to renew a strained partnership is to work on yourself. I suggested I must lead with my best self to begin with the assumption that I have done something to contribute to stress or a breakdown. It takes my best, because the lawyer in me habitually turns all my attention to the other’s egregious acts. My inner lawyer has a “confirmation bias,” readily finding all the evidence that supports his inner conviction that it’s somebody else’s fault. That inner lawyer (aka, ego) magically keeps me from even seeing — let alone evaluating, not to even mention believing — that I may have played a small, let alone a big part in the strain. Seeing my contribution to stress with a partner is a huge step.
Of course, as necessary as this self-questioning attitude is, it’s clearly not sufficient to set things right — especially when there have been some past hurts. Let me suggest two more steps towards a new start. First, set aside another of your most precious intellectual foundations, by repeating after me, “There is no reality to figure out.” Yup, no reality back there. Here’s why there is not one reality but two*: My partner and I bring totally distinct (1) perceptions, (2) recollections, and (3) mental constructions of exactly what was said/done, at, e.g., what (4) volume, (5) pace, (6) tone; with what (7) word choice, (8) sequence to the exchange; and (9) gestures and key (10) eye and (11) facial movements. And you know there’s more than those (11) factors! We experienced and then recollected two different realities. If you and I had strained our trust, we could both re-construct what we believe happened. But tell me: When you have done this — engaged in “You said….and I said….” — how often have you agreed on the so-called “facts,” the reality? The real fact is that you shared physical space, but you literally saw different things; e.g., for instance, at the most basic level, you saw my face, but you could not even see your own! And figuratively, everything you and I saw was informed by our past, our perceptions, and all kinds of stuff. We each constructed a different version of what “really” happened. And the “really” doesn’t matter any way. It’s the constructions that matter.*
If I can really “get” this practical view of reality(ies) — and man, does it take practice!!!! — then a huge possibility opens up: I don’t have to prove reality was as I say. I don’t have to win that debate. It’s unwinnable. And, the wonderful corollary is: I don’t have to defend my view of reality, because it’s just that — my view of reality. I am 100% correct about what I saw and heard and felt and thought. So, that urgency I have felt in the past when my voice has risen and I have said, “That’s not what happened!” or “I said I was was sorry three times! How could you not hear me;” that urgency to be right is gone. I don’t need to prove anything. (Next week I will write about how to get my partner to understand what I did perceive, construct/think, and feel.)
It bears repetition: If I can really get this — that there’s no reality to prove and defend — then I am poised to do the one thing that can heal the vast majority of divisions between important partners — at work, home, or play. All I have to to is understand what the other saw, heard, thought and felt. That’s it.
(1) Get it.
(2) Tell them what it is I got, using their own words which I have carefully listened to.
(3) Tell them I can see how they would think or feel that.
Test it: think of a boss you were really frustrated with. Isn’t it true that if they had just stopped to understand you, you would have been so much further along? On the other hand, think of a boss, partner, friend who can put aside their (need to be) defensive and can just listen. If they just get it — really get it! — most of the time that is all you need, isn’t it? (Of course, in many cases, when a partner “gets it,” they’ll want to “get it right,” apologizing and/or planning corrective strategies.)
What do you think? Can you accept there’s no reality to prove? And, if it’s not about either/or — either you’re right or I’m right — then you can seek first to understand.
Disagree? Agree? What works for you to make strained partnerships work again,
As you lead with your best self!
*I suspect today’s column is already complicated enough, especially for a Monday morning, but consider an even crazier — and I believe equally defensible view: When I disagree with say, my wife, over a painful miscommunication, there aren’t even just two constructions of reality, there are multiple constructions going on at once. Part of me may be viewing her communication towards me through my self-sacrificing lens, yet I am simultaneously (or alternately) listening to her through my competitive filters, and through my male-oriented filters, and through my “what about me” little boy filters. In other words, neither of us is as solid as we appear, and even our own perceptions or constructions of “reality” are shifting!