You know arguing is painful and doesn’t go anywhere, but you can’t stop yourself. You hear your own tense voice pushing your view and negating the other person’s view. You repeat yourself while getting louder, knowing all the while that it’s not helping. Afterwards, you feel hurt and exasperated. You long for a way through that is easy and connected.
Mostly, arguments like these arise and repeat because neither you nor the other person trust that needs will be heard and honored. Without this trust, you hold tightly to your opinion about how things should go. You think you have the one and only way.
Breaking the cycle of repetitive arguments is simple once this trust is built. When trust is present, you can access collaboration. Let’s look at a few simple steps for building trust and then engaging in collaboration.
Hearing and honoring your needs, starts with you. It’s asking a lot of others to hear your needs when you don’t do that for yourself. You can begin the process of being able to identify and honor your own needs by engaging in a daily self-empathy process. It’s also essential to have consistent interaction with others who can offer care and curiosity about your needs such as an empathic friend, therapist, or mentor. Receiving compassionate attention from others regarding your needs helps you stand in confidence that it’s okay to have needs and express them.
Learning to offer empathy is also essential in building trust with yourself and others. If you haven’t explicitly learned and practiced offering empathy, there’s a good chance that you regularly don’t meet the need for others to be heard and honored. If you are in an intimate partnership, setting aside daily or weekly times to just hear each other with empathy is required for building trust. Because habits to argue, give advice, and problem solve are so strong, it’s best to use a timer to help you stay focused. For example, your partner speaks for three minutes with no interruptions. Then, for five minutes, you offer empathy guesses using the phrase, “Do you feel ______ because you need_______?” and feelings and needs list. Your partner identifies their top two feelings and needs. Then you switch. Creating a safe space in which you are just heard about simple events of your day or things that are going well, builds trust little by little.
When trust starts to build, you will find that you can access collaborative habits of dialogue. With collaboration, you hold the intention to fully know and express your needs and to fully know and hear the other person’s needs. You are aware that from this place of connection to needs, the way forward will be relatively easy, even if you don’t yet see the solution.
Within the practice of fully knowing and expressing your needs there are a couple of key elements to highlight. First, stating your opinion is never an endpoint. When you hear yourself offer an opinion or directive, that’s immediately a cue for you to check in with your needs. You ask the other person to wait to respond until you can identify your need. You might also ask for support by asking them to guess your needs.
When you identify your needs, you put most of your attention there. Your opinions or ideas are held lightly to the side. This ability to release your attachment to your opinion of what’s true or how things should go is supported by a sense of trust that your needs can be heard and honored. Such trust makes space for ways of meeting your needs that you can’t predict.
To fully know and honor the other person’s needs means making empathy guesses. Sometimes it means explicitly understanding what needs are connected to what opinions.
When you are both fully heard regarding your needs and associated ideas, you are ready to move forward with collaboration. It’s helpful to memorize collaborative questions or phrases like the following:
Let’s slow down and make space for creative ideas to bubble up.
Do you have any ideas that would work for both our needs?
I want it to work for both of us.
What do we need to change for this to work for both of us?
I am open to doing it differently from how we planned.
I am confident we can find a way for this to work for both of us.
I am not insisting on having it my way.
Let’s just brainstorm new possibilities first. Let’s make a list of five possibilities without any evaluation of them.
Okay, the two most important needs are ______, let’s stay focused on ideas to meet those needs.
Are we getting attached to meeting these needs at the same time? What if we scheduled things differently?
Help me understand what’s special about the strategy you are attached to?
What are we imagining is an immovable variable in this situation?
What if we…?
The key in a collaborative dialogue is that you are moving forward toward new ideas for meeting needs in that situation. This seems simple enough, but as you start to feel anxious about being heard, past argumentative patterns pull on you like a giant magnet. You want to return to strategies you’ve used in the past (no matter how ineffective) like convincing, minimizing, escalating, etc. Better to call a pause in the dialogue and take care of coming back to center then to continue with anxiety and old habits.
The cool thing about replacing arguing with collaboration is that it’s fun! When you find that collaboration takes you to completely new ideas about how to move forward, you’ll be having fun.
Take a moment now to reflect on the last argument or disconnected exchange you had. Use the needs list to identify your own needs and make guesses about the other person’s needs.