One of the most useful things I’ve learned over the last few years is that it is better to aim for understanding versus winning when it comes to disagreements with the ones we love. For many years — including those competing with my sister for attention and respect and those competing with my ex-husband for most competent and correct— I thought it was better to come out on top of each argument. I had to be smarter, quicker, meaner or more right. Those years were awful.
I learned the hard way that empathy and listening lead to success more than superiority.
Recently, I’ve encountered a few stories and experiences that pointed out three questions that create empathy and therefore greater understanding of another person’s perspective. Instead of inflaming conflict, these questions lead to relief.
Here are the stories that go along with the questions:
Glint in the eye
Many of us have found ourselves mad at, disappointed or sad about the relationships we had with one or both of our parents. Author of The Whole Brain Child and clinical professor of psychiatry, Dan Siegel, says that a positive narrative about our lives helps us transcend insecurity. If we can take the story we tell ourselves about our childhood and parental relationships and turn it into something that makes sense, we have more emotional resilience.
Dr. Warren Farrell, author of The Boy Crisis, says there is a question we can ask ourselves about our father that generates understanding and empathy for him. The question is, “When do you recall your father having a glint in his eye — an excited sparkle without worry, preoccupation, or thought of criticism, of either you or himself?” I believe this question works for mothers too.
It is nice to think of our parents as happy and joyful. They had enthusiasm and warm feelings about something.
Then think about when your parents did not have a glint in their eye. If your parents were like mine, that was probably a lot of the time. They were busy with work and worries and raising a family. They gave up that glint or lost it to problems or obligations.
Our parent’s lack of attention, depression, alcoholism, absence, anger, etc. make a little more sense (not that it’s an excuse for abuse or neglect) when we see how our parent’s glint was snuffed out. It does not provide a complete excuse for the troubles we had with our parent(s) but it is a good start. That question could apply to our partners too.
Lessons from camp
Dr. Farrell offers another insight based on a boy at camp. His name was ‘Nathan’. No one liked him in his cabin. The camp counselor (Dr. Farrell) asked the other boys in the cabin if they thought Nathan was happy. The boys had not thought about it, but all agreed he probably was not happy. Over the next week, the counselor and other boys in the cabin made it their mission to make Nathan feel good. They complimented him on his marksmanship. They even asked him for advice on how to shoot. Each day Nathan got nicer and he stood a little taller.
When we are in conflict with someone, “Is that person happy?” is a good question to ask ourselves. It slows us down and makes us think about what is going on inside of them. We may see them as their anger or defensiveness, but if we stop to think about how truly happy they are, it makes them seem more human and relatable. We are more likely to listen and empathize with them.
Why do they attack?
Lastly, one of my friends was struggling with her relationship with her brother. They live together and seemed to fight all the time. The situation was miserable. They were either exploding at each other or tip-toeing around trying to avoid each other’s land mines.
I asked if my friend ever got vulnerable with her brother when things were heated. Did she lay down her sword? She said she did but that her brother always attacked her.
It all came to a head with a blowout argument last week. After hearing about her brother’s temper for the hundredth time, I asked, “What is he afraid of?” My friend paused. Through the phone line I could hear her gears turning. It seems he is afraid of getting hurt, being vulnerable, showing feelings, losing his girlfriend, losing his job, etc.
After their big blowout argument, they both attempted to repair. I was not there, but I think openness and empathy played a big part in bringing them together. Thinking about what our loved one is afraid of, again makes them seem human and approachable. Because they both came to the middle with maturity and not defensiveness and anger, they gained understanding. My friend and her brother felt calm in their home, together.
Why the questions work
All three of the questions: 1. What gives/gave them a glint in their eye? 2. Are they happy? and 3. What are they afraid of? help us see inside our significant other. They make us pause and see the other person’s soft underbelly. Instead of looking like the enemy, they now look more like us.
Please let me know if you have any special disarming questions. I’d love to hear what works for you. What gave your parent(s) a glint in their eye?
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