Imagine with me if you will, when you and your child or spouse or sibling got into an argument. Hard to imagine, I know. Now let’s make it even more specific: this loved one (bless their heart) did not load the dishwasher the way they ought to. You know the proper way to load it so that each dish is properly clean, sanitized, and dried. They also know the “correct” way to do it and yet have to decide on this day to load them in a manner so confusing that we can’t imagine how they thought anything would be clean let alone dry.
At this point, we have a few choices to make. Do we let it slide and hope that they won’t make the same mistake again? Do we point out their error with gentleness and understanding that everyone makes mistakes? Or do we listen to that little voice saying, “Let them have it, they need to know how bad this is”? When we approach this conversation, we can make small decisions along the way that can change the course of the conversation. We can choose to turn it into a disagreement, or we can choose to let it go and move forward. We can choose to argue or act from a standpoint of humility and assume that maybe they know something we don’t. All these choices accumulate and can be difficult to handle all at once. In order to sort some of these choices out and remind us to lead with empathy, it is best to follow three simple rules that serve as a framework for any conflict. These rules remind us of our humility and our “opponents” humanity.
Rule #1: Eliminate the Never and Always Statements
One of the first instincts in an argument is to tell the other person “You always do this to me” or “You never do it the right way”. Of course, we don’t mean this in the literal sense but by using terms that create a sense of permanence to their conduct, we eliminate the opportunity for change or improvement. We assume that they have always done something wrong, and they will continue doing it wrong. Think of a time someone has told you something along the lines of “You’ll never get that job.” How does that make you feel when you hear it? What emotions swell up when those words sink in? The sense we get during the never/always argument is that we are being given up on. That person has decided to examine our past and write our future without ever consulting us or our feelings on the matter.
Rule #2: Remember Who They Are to You
That person you are arguing with matters to you. You love them and they love you. You have children together or you grew up together. They are an important part of your life; even if they have no idea which rack the bowls go on. This rule serves as a reminder to let your relationship outweigh the other factors that creep into an argument. Don’t let your pride, your need to be correct, or your urge to prove their fault get in the way of how much they mean to you. Gently reminding yourself of your priorities throughout the argument can lead to gentler verbiage and can guard against a quick temper.
Rule #3: Your Words Matter, Use Them Wisely
Regardless of your anger, frustration, confusion, or other understandable emotion in this moment, there is more than one person in this conflict. Chances are this person takes your words and actions seriously and you mean a great deal to them. If we decide to let our emotion outweigh theirs, we run the risk of devaluing or invalidating their feelings altogether. When we voice our frustration, factors such as tone, volume, word choice, and body language make a massive difference in how the words will be received.
These “rules” are not the end all be all. They are not the way to avoid conflict or come out the winner or victor. These are ways to remind ourselves of the importance of the person in front of us even when blinded by frustration or confusion. They allow us to see the other person for who they are and can help us listen and speak with kindness. I hope that these are as useful to you as they are to me!