Communication is the key to all the relationships we have, which means it is also the key reason that some of our relationships go “wrong”. Going “wrong” can have many different looks too, ranging from explosive to brooding silence, all the way to drifting apart and losing contact. However “wrong” looks for you, this relationship breakdown causes stress and our assumptions that we make of people can be a core factor.
Who are you? The answer for this question for many people is, “I am what I know.” We identify ourselves by the knowledge that we have, and what we hold as truth. When presented with different information that challenges what we know as right, this can be a challenge to how we view our self as a person, and this can cause us to get defensive. If you want evidence of this for yourself, try having a discussing with a person who has strong beliefs that are different to yours, this could be on religious, or scientific paradigms. As an individual, the knowledge you have comes from your own personal history, and this knowledge drives your perceptions and meanings from new events as they happen. Something happens, you apply it to what you know, gain your own meaning, learn from it and move on a little wiser. This happens to each of us a number of times each day, and is unique to each person. Gaining the ability to understand differing points of view, even if we don’t agree with them, could be the secret to avoiding the battles in life, ranging from a 30 second verbal argument/fighting between two individuals, to wars between nations. These kinds of arguments are so often based on a strange primal need to be right.
Have you ever been corrected by someone when describing an event you both witnessed? You are certain that your description of events is exactly the way it happened, and your mate is just as certain that their description is correct. This can often result in heated arguments, and sometimes come to blows! Why is it that we are so protective about our version of events that friendships and relationships will disintegrate due to our need to be right?
When you break it down, what is truly right is irrelevant, or non-existent in many cases. It is our own meaning, interpretation and perception that determines our reality in any given situation, and this is different for everyone. So, our perceptions are what we hold as reality. Ask a hundred people observing an event for their interpretation of what happened, and you will get a hundred different stories. Many of those hundred individuals will fight to have their version of the event accepted as the one true description of events. Unfortunately, this is most evident when we are perceiving the actions of others and giving our own meaning to them, as displayed in nearly all bar fights, road rage events, and most domestic arguments. Our perception of events is entirely based on our previous experience, or our own personal history. Our past, whether experienced or observed, dictates the meaning we get from each event, and therefore, what we hold as the truth. Many of us hold on to what we know as who we are. So when someone questions or challenges our knowledge, we can feel that who we are as an individual is being threatened.
This is a uniquely human screw up, and something that we do from a young age. When we were 4 years old, a neighbour kid and I were attempting to build a letter box the end of his driveway. We had all we needed: hammer, nails, wood, DIY attitude, and the freedom that came with being a kid in 1979. The mature subject of discussion during the project was the colour of another neighbour’s car. I knew they had a green car, I had seen them driving it in and out of their property. My mate, foolishly, thought they had a blue car. The argument went, “Blue!” “Green!” “Blue!” “Green!” “Blue!” “Green!” until my mate decided to put an end to it, “If you say green one more time I’ll hit you with this hammer.” I said, “Green, green, green, gre…” Whack! I had a decent shiner above my right eye for a week or so. As it turned out, the neighbour in question had two cars, one blue, one green. So luckily, I learned from an early age to talk out disagreements to get an understanding of the other person’s point of view. It hurts if I don’t.
This messed up interpretation of actions and events is evident in most aspects of life, picture this: Sam has a day off work and has spent the whole day cleaning the house. Kelly who lives with Sam, has had a long stressful day at work, is exhausted and looking forward to being home. Once in through the door the heavy jacket is shifted from the shoulders to the vacuumed floor next to the cleaned couch where Kelly has collapsed with feet up on the polished coffee table. Upon seeing this, Sam loses it, as Kelly has, once again, taken Sam for granted and has little idea about how much work Sam does around the house. Kelly is now angry at being attacked so fights back, saying that Sam has no idea how much pressure Kelly is under at work and it would be nice to be able to get home to a peaceful house after such a hard day.
Well done to those who noticed that the gender of Sam and Kelly and the relationship to each other is not mentioned, I’ll let you make your own interpretation.
The point is, in any disagreement, the goal needs to be that we have been heard and our perception understood, and that we have an understanding of the other person’s perception too. This doesn’t mean that we change our point of view, or expect them to change theirs, it’s okay to agree to disagree. Fighting to be right takes a lot of energy, creates tension, and can alienate and belittle people. There is little satisfaction in being right if you are losing friends to get there. Also, admitting that we may be wrong is a strength, rather that a weakness. It shows that you are secure enough as an individual to not hold onto bits of changeable information as the essence of who you are. If you ever have a chance, have a chat to someone who follow the Flat Earth movement, and see if you can follow their logic without arguing with them. You don’t have to agree, just understand their point of view, especially if it is not harmful to them or anyone else.
These strong held opinions are dangerous when the people who hold them agree in a position of power to oppress people who disagree. I once heard a policy maker from Ireland say that doctors who perform abortions are murderers and deserve the death penalty. Regardless of which side of the pro-choice/pro-life argument you fall on, you can see the contradiction in this kind of thinking, and the danger when this one-sided thinking is with the people in power.
So, how can we learn what we hold as true, and where our ideas came from? A cool exercise is to question what it is in your past that make you react to situations the way you do. Catch yourself in the moment before you launch into your argument and ask, “How do I know this?” Then ask the others involved how they came to know what they know. Gain some insight into the underlying assumptions you hold about people, their intentions, and the expectations of behaviour of others that you hold. This will help you to understand why the meaning you gain from any given life event is different to others. Not right or wrong, just different. When you have an understanding of your own life assumptions, talk with those close to you about their own history, the assumptions that they hold and how they might be driving their perceptions. All this can help to show us how we are the product of our past, and our individual history determines our current reality. Then, when you are in a situation where you would normally be fighting to be right, you may be able to reassess and determine that the battle is not worth it, and you are simply dealing with different individual histories.
So, before snapping and flying into a rage, or crumbling into a blubbering mess take a minute to check it out. Ask yourself “What other explanation could there be for someone acting this way/saying that thing?” If the situation allows it, ask the person involved. You may start to realise that your initial interpretation was a little off the mark. This means that you are learning and updating your own personal history, so in the future you are armed with more information and experience to get better outcomes in future events. You may be 100 percent correct, but this does not mean that your information needs to be pushed onto everyone you meet. Quitting the right fighting is a great way to keep calm and keep your friends.
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