Listening to Others: Part 2 How to avoid arguments by detaching yourself from criticism and figuring out what the other means to say

Couple arguing with each other

Are people in your life often nagging you or criticizing something you do? It sure is unpleasant when someone verbally assaults you that way. But are those people just born cynics, or are they loving people who are just bad at communicating?

Take this evening conversation between the couple Jayne and David, as an example. The parentheses (…) show what each person is thinking. 

Jayne: “We never go out.” (I love you and I want us to spend more quality time together).
David: (Where is this coming from? I was looking forward to a nice evening together and now she has to complain about me?)

David: That’s not true. We went out last weekend with the Tuckers.
Jayne: (Why is he so negative? I just want to improve our relationship. Perhaps I need to clarify what I meant.)

Jayne: I don’t call that going out. We were just at their home and ordered takeaway. (The Tuckers are nice but I want more time for just us).
David: (Oh boy. Why can’t we just have a cozy dinner together at home?)

David: Well, what do you want me to do? Take you out to a restaurant every day of the week?
Jayne: Why are you always so critical?!! Here I am, trying to shoulder the whole burden of our relationship. You don’t want to take any responsibility!
David: I’m not taking any responsibility?! You’re the one who started this fight!

Why do arguments occur?

Both Jayne and David wanted the same thing – more quality time together. So why did they argue? Two reasons: 

  1. Jayne (accidentally) started out in a critical tone
    Jayne had the best of intentions. But phrasing her request as “We never go out” sounded critical rather than constructive.
  2. Different definitions of ‘quality time
    Jayne wanted to go out, while David wanted to stay at home. All relationships have some point where the parties differ. But the only way the relationship can move forward is by talking about what both want and working out solutions together.

How to steer arguments into better conversations

How can we avoid such arguments? First, detach yourself from the criticism. Secondly, be curious about what the other means to say:

  1. Detach: Listen as if they are criticizing someone other than you
    Whenever you feel criticized, listen as if the other person is complaining about someone else. Detaching yourself from the criticism makes it so much easier to not react emotionally. When Jayne said “We never go out”, David interpreted this as a complaint towards him. But in fact, Jayne was expressing something she felt. Knowing that it’s never about you but about them makes it much easier to listen.
  2. Be curious: Focus on what is meant
    What Jayne really meant to say was “I love you, David, and I want us to spend more quality time together”. However, we often hint at what we feel rather than express it clearly. Be curious about what the other means to say. When you go “Hmm. I wonder why they would say that? Could it be that…?” you may uncover some insights in the other’s thinking.

How the conversation could have turned out differently

Jayne: “We never go out.” (I love you and I want us to spend more quality time together).
David: (She seems pretty emotional. Maybe she is frustrated that we haven’t had much time for each other these past weeks?)

David: You feel like we are not doing enough fun activities together?
Jayne: (Yes, that’s exactly it!)

Jayne: Yes, last week with the Tuckers was great. But I want to have more special time just for us.”
David: (That makes sense. We have both been pretty busy at work lately.)

David: I hear you. We haven’t really had much time for each other amidst all our work deadlines. Tell me more. What would make a perfect evening for you?
Jayne: (Isn’t my boyfriend just the best? He’s so understanding!)

Jayne: I found this great restaurant downtown. Maybe we could go there?
David: (Gees, that’s pretty expensive. Can’t we just have a nice dinner at home?)

David: Yes, that does look good! The prices seem rather high, though. Do you feel that it’s still worth it compared to cooking something together at home?
Jayne: (Maybe it is a little expensive. But a restaurant is so much more romantic), 

Jayne: Well, perhaps it is a bit pricey. I just like the feel of going out somewhere together.
David: (It’s obvious this is important to her. It will be worth it to make her happy.)

David: Ok, let’s book the restaurant then! Since it’s going to be too expensive to go every weekend, how about we have dinner at home next week so we can keep spending quality time together?
Jayne: That sounds perfect!

By 1) listening to Jayne as if she was ‘criticizing’ a third person and 2) being curious about what she really meant to say, David steered the conversation in a much better direction. Notice also how David was able to suspend his own needs to dine at home long enough to listen to Jayne’s needs first. Only after having made sure Jayne felt heard did he propose that they dine at home next week. 

How could you apply detachment and curiosity in your own conversations?

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