Ah, the most over used 3 words in the relationship dance…………”You oughta know………….” when deconstructing how something has gone awry. This could be as simple as a wrong time or place to meet, or as complicated as one person feeling betrayed by a failure to keep an assumed agreement to back them up in a tense social or family situation. Let’s say, with totally imaginary characters, Jack knows (and will say quite freely) that Jill has some problems with his friends, especially John. He doesn’t really understand the fuss, thinks she should just do as he does and ignore the majority of what John says. Jill, on the other hand, can be quite specific about what she doesn’t like, and has no doubt that Jack has the capacity, if not the will, to see exactly what she sees, and could, if he wanted, support her when she feels offended. But, once again at a gathering of friends, she hears or observes something that bothers her, feels upset or insulted, wants Jack to say or do something, he doesn’t, and they’re fighting about it after the fact.
There are a couple of issues here, assumptions and loyalty. The assumptions at play here are (and you may see more if this situation rings a bell for you): Jack and Jill see the same thing and interpret it the same way; Jack knows what actually triggers Jill; Jill knows what John is “really” like and what his friend means to him; Jill really wants him to give up his friends and only do what she wants; Jack saw the problem and chose not to respond; they “should be on the same page” about how to deal with this; Jack and Jill each understand how the other feels in these situations. Having heard many of these stories over the years in my counselling practice, I can tell you that none of these assumptions are likely accurate. An individual is only capable of imagining how another actually sees something, and that imagination can become empathy if one truly makes an effort to learn more about the other’s point of view. I think one of the most underused skills we have is to ask genuine questions. What gets in the way of that is refocusing on one’s own point of view, which we all do most of the time. After all it’s what we know best.
So what are some genuine questions? …………….”Can you tell me what you saw/thought/reacted to/found familiar/etc.?” “When that happened, what else was going on?” “How were you feeling before……….?” “What was the important part of this time/event/occasion/gift/discussion/etc. for you?” “What were you hoping for?” “What were you most worried about?” “What did/do you need/want from me?” There are many more and different questions you can ask when there’s been a conflict, and, believe me, I know, especially if this is a repeat event, that you may think you’ve asked them all, and maybe even remember the answers. Or you may think there’s no point in asking because the other person has already decided you’re in the wrong, so best to do whatever you do when you feel attacked…………walk away to preserve what little dignity you have left, argue back to try and get back on an even footing, tell them all the things they’ve done in the past that offended you.
If you want to strengthen your relationship, you’ll need to ask questions, many of them, even some hard ones, but the key here is that they are genuine, not as part of a debate (who has the better point of view/knowledge/emotional maturity/etc.). To ask a genuine question, you have to actually want to hear the answer, follow up with more questions and clarifications, be willing to share what your struggles are with understanding the other person. You also need to accept that part of your caring for this other person is that they don’t think the same as you, don’t have the same background or experiences, will introduce you to new ways of seeing something, and to gain all of that, you get the annoying/mysterious/strange/funny/ difficult parts of them too.
If you are accustomed to either the debate or the avoidance style of handling conflict, asking and answering genuine questions may not be easy. Here is an assumption that can be helpful ………………assume that the other has your best interests at heart and wants a better relationship. Suspend judgement about whether questions have a critical intent and answer them as best you can.
The second issue I mentioned above for our little scenario is loyalty. I’ll write more about that another time, but for now a few comments. Loyalty is generally assumed but often not discussed. It is one of the central aspects of a close relationship, whether a friendship or a committed partnership. The problem arises when two people have disparate pictures of what it looks like, and when it’s not shown according to one’s own standards, the result is a feeling of betrayal. Try having a discussion of loyalty…………. what it looks like, how it plays out in imagination and in reality. Learn how it shows in how you present your relationship to others. Learn how you experience it differently and how you can know when the other needs it most from you and how you can display it in a way that’s meaningful to both of you.
So you hear “You oughta know!” The answer is “Perhaps I don’t know as well as I ought to. Can we talk more about it?”