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September 9, 2013

“An argument is essentially a contest for the victim position.”

Photo: Stanislav Tcolov on Pixoto.

I watched curiously as a couple engaged in a heated discussion that was only seconds away from turning into a fight.

The exchange looked like a ping-pong contest—as soon as the ball reached one side, it was stricken and returned immediately to the opponent, not unlike a hot potato game.

With no pauses in between, the debate sounded more like a monologue with two voices then a dialogue, with the usual pause and return. It got me reflecting about similar exchanges I have had in the past.

Was there ever a time I felt that such exchanges helped me gain clarity about myself in a way that it was empowering, enlightening, and fulfilling?

Sadly, my realization has been that engaging in such exchanges are rather empty in lessons but filled with sadness, exhaustion, and disappointment.

What I have learned is that even when we prove ourselves right, in a ping-pong context, the reward is inevitably overshadowed by the heart ache we have caused ourselves, and very likely, our opponent.

As Gay Hendricks says,

“An argument is essentially a contest for the victim position.”

And I have learned sitting at the victim throne does not bring about a royal feeling, that’s for sure.

In reflecting upon the ping-pong scenario, I thought of how chess players are the polar opposite—and although the intent is to annihilate the enemy, in chess, the two players are thinking many steps ahead, there is a precise pause that is usually timed, and every move is calculated.

Take away the intent and focus simply on the process—what I discovered is that chess is a brilliant analogy to a discussion handled with wisdom.

Let’s just remind ourselves that the main reason we get into arguments with our loved ones, be it with partners, friends or family members, is because we are often disappointed with the other person for something they did, or did not do, or said, or did not say.

And although what we ultimately really want is to express our disappointment so that it may not happen again, what often happens is that we end up in an argument because we want to show how wrong our “opponent” is, and how right we are.

Essentially, we focus way too much on getting to prove ourselves right so that we get to sit at the victim throne.

If we can press that timer button (like in chess) between strikes—this is what I call our internal pause-button. We can then get a chance to think a few moves ahead.

The two scenarios would look like this:

Ping-pong scenario :

I get to strike right back, sound very smart, sound very right. If I win, I sit at the victim throne and then just wait until this argument repeats itself all over again a few days, or weeks from now. If I win again, I get to sit at the throne—again.

Chess scenario:

I get to reflect upon a move now that will enable several moves ahead to go smoothly. I get to navigate this tablet without much discord and let my ‘opponent’ know what I want, how I want it, and perhaps why. We may be in this game for hours, without ever killing one another, but ultimately learning the lessons so that we can use it on our next game. It is likely that, played well, neither one of us will sit at a victim throne. Instead we will both enjoy a thoughtful exchange and rip the benefits of the lessons learned in the end.

I don’t know about you, but to me, the chess scenario is extremely appealing.

Translated into real life lessons, this is what the chess scenario entails. When faced with the disappointment, push the timer (your internal pause button), then ask yourself:

  1. What are the facts?
  2. What is the most telling feeling I have about the facts?
  3. What would I love to invite my “opponent” to do next time?

When we state the facts, we state the facts, not the stories about the facts.

If your partner was late for dinner and did not call, which has caused you to be upset, the facts are: your partner did not call and he was late for dinner.

A story involves other add-ons we like to embed to dramatize the facts, like “you obviously do not care about your family, or value my time because you always do this, you always get home late, and you never call.”

Note that words like never and always are not pertinent to the current facts. It would be like playing a game of chess now, but insisting upon making a move to undo a move you made at a previous game. Nonsense.

The facts are the facts and they are important to set the stage for what comes next. If you do this right, then chances are the rest will go smoothly.

The next step is to say precisely what your feeling were when the facts happened. Again, even if this has happened a million times before, the current chess game is all that matters. Stating the feelings is not difficult, what is difficult is to stick to a main feeling only, instead of a laundry list of feelings, and refrain from saying things like “you make me feel this way.”

Unfortunately no one can really make us feel in any way—I say unfortunately because if it was true that we had this power, I would be selling happiness on Amazon and making the world a better place.

I sell happiness by teaching my clients to get there themselves—no one can ever make someone else feel anything. But, the facts might bring about a certain emotion and you do want to be in touch with that.

Going back to our previous example, if I had a partner who was late for dinner and did not call to let me know, the feeling I would get would be disrespect.

I would simply state that when the facts happen, I feel disrespected. Sure, I might also feel angry or irritated but the feeling I like to express is the one which ultimately affects my deep core values. If what I care about is being respected then the feeling I like to address is that, and not all the others.

For you, it might be something else—it might be feeling insecure, jealous, unlovable, etc.

Get curious about what the feeling is. The more you know about yourself, the more you can help your “opponent” know how to handle the situation next time.

The last step is to give your “opponent” a chance to make it right next time.

Here, we say exactly what we would love to happen next time, and we invite our “opponent” to say yes, no or something in between.

Of course, like in chess, it is now the time for the other person to go through the three steps and for us to sit, and listen—not because we want to win the game, but because we want to watch his moves with uttermost attention and curiosity.

Trust me on this.

There is never going to be a reason for an argument when you handle the situation from the perspective of what you would love to create, instead than handling it from a perspective of whether your are right and whether you are the one that gets to sit at the victim throne.

Let’s try this out!

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Ed: Catherine Monkman

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