The surprisingly simple question that can turn an argument into a constructive discussion.
Here’s the kind of statement I’ve heard a lot of in my 30 years of counseling couples: “You don’t care about what I want. Whenever I speak up I get trashed, ignored, or disrespected.”
It’s easy to imagine how most spouses would react to being criticized in that way and the path the conversation takes from there. “Ugly” comes to mind.
For years, whenever someone in my office started a dialogue like that, I would labor to separate them, try to pick up the pieces, and help them get at the underlying issues. Frankly that was a heckuva lot of work on my part, which took an awful lot of our shared time. More than I wanted.
So I thought of an easier way to deal with the escalating argument. I asked the complaining partner to add this question to the end of their complaint: “What do you think?”
When couples start putting this simple question at the end of their statements, using a proper facial expression and tone of voice, it slows things down dramatically. Their partner’s response often becomes more considered and conversational than adversarial, and the focus shifts from blaming to discussing.
For example, a wife might say, “I don’t believe you care at all about what I want. What do you think?”
The husband might answer, “I do care about what you want, but not all the time. There are times when I don’t respond to you because I feel coerced and your desire comes across like a demand. When I think someone is trying to boss me around, I rebel and dig in. There are times when I do respond to you but I rarely get appreciation or acknowledgement for what I’ve done. What do you think?”
When each person express their distress or explanation and then adds, “What do you think?” it tends to soften the dialogue. But why?
In an argument, we rarely ask what the other person thinks about what we are saying or complaining about. But to ask the question with curiosity we must exit the primitive, defensive brain and use a more thoughtful, collaborative part of the brain. When someone asks with curiosity what we think, we are less inclined to retreat into defensiveness. We start to reflect on what we think and why we think that way. The question conveys the desire to know your partner.
Most arguments are about convincing and persuading rather than exploring and understanding. “What do you think?” dials down the persuading and dials up the exploring.
Obviously, this won’t create collaborative discussions all the time, but practicing this will help get you and your partner out of your adversarial positions and begin constructive dialogues that lead to better connections and better teamwork.