Interpersonal conflict is often perpetuated by each person trying to convince the other: “I’m right, you’re wrong.”
I’m right, you’re wrong — at first glance this looks like a win/lose proposition, but actually it’s a lose/lose. I’m pretty certain I’ve said to every single couple I’ve ever counseled, “You’re both trying very hard to convince each other that you are right.” Followed by, “When you find yourself in convincing mode, stop the conversation. It’s not going anywhere.” In the counseling office this seems obvious. In the heat of conflict it’s easy to lose sight of this truth.
There is something in us that works overtime to create monologues detailing how right we are — why our perspective is the perspective. Perhaps there is an explanation for this behavior related to our evolutionary psychology. Regardless, it is non-productive in most interpersonal circumstances and usually creates more harm than success.
So, what is the right approach to take?
First, do you really understand what’s important to the other person? If you don’t know the answer to that question, find out. It’s the first order of business and necessary for productive conversation. Ask a good open ended question with the sincere desire to learn something. “I’m not sure I understand what’s really important to you,” is a good way to begin this inquiry.
Second, maybe you do know what’s important to the other person, but you’re afraid to acknowledge it because it will weaken your position. That’s a common pitfall in situations of interpersonal conflict. But validation is important to progressing the conversation. To acknowledge, “Yes, I know you’re angry with me for eavesdropping. I would be too if I were you,” does not diminish you or what is important to you. In fact it helps the other person relax a little because they are reassured you really do understand how they feel. It actually helps them reciprocate. It is not an admission that whatever else you have to say is invalid.
Our feelings are always valid, though our behavior may not be appropriate. Once we’ve established emotional validation it allows us to build on that foundation with other information to create understanding. And that is the goal — to achieve mutual understanding, not to have a winner and a loser.