Sunday, September 25, 2011

Why Totalizing Judgments Fail Us



One common paired theme that seems to come up on one dating blog after another is lying and truth telling. Obviously, these two not only apply to romantic relationships - they are found in all human relationships, and frequently are the pivot points between harmony and discord.

But when you get down to it, what is a lie and what is the truth? It's a simple question that isn't always easily answered. Furthermore, when it comes to working with others in your life in a caring, respectful manner, the issue is timing, as well as how something is said can be just as important (or moreso even) than whether it's truthful or not. In other words, I think people sometimes get too fixated on a black and white sense of truth telling and lying, forgetting that everything happens in a larger context.

As a general rule, I find it really helpful to make a discernment between basic facts of a given situation, and evaluations or judgments. This idea is loosely coming from a relationship practice called NVC, or Non-violent communication, which was developed by psychologist and social activist Marshall Rosenberg. What Rosenberg discovered working in situations where conflict was quite high and challenging was that when people spoke from a place of their feelings and perceived needs, instead of a place of judgment and evaluative criticism, not only was conflict reduced, but it became easier for everyone involved in a given situation to gain clarity about the truth. Having taken workshops on NVC in the past, I'd even go so far as to say that the truth isn't a set of statements - it's more about a way of being and acting. A process, in other words.

Some key components of this process are the following:

1. Deep listening and patience, even in the face of things you don't want to hear.

2. A willingness to speak from a place of how you feel and what you believe your needs are, instead of judgment.

3. Making an effort to separate factual observations from evaluations or opinions.

4. Being open to making requests of another, as well as receiving their requests.

Now, all of this takes practice. It's not something you can simply try once and be skilled at. In addition, I believe that within any given relationship, there are times and situations that call for some judgements or evaluations to be made. But even then, I believe that something like NVC can be helpful in delivering that information to another in a way that it might be heard.

Let's consider point number three above in more detail, since this is one that often trips people up, whether on a first date or after ten years of marriage.

Suppose your waiting for your date or partner and they are late. Here are two ways you could think about the situation:

Factual observation: "He/she is 20 minutes late."

Evaluation/Judgment: "He/she doesn't respect me. He/she isn't interested in me."

If your mind is like mine, you might have the tendency to flip towards the second kind of statement. Statements like that seem to offer an answer to what's going on, and also tap into the anxiety, anger, or other turbulent emotions that might be happening in response to uncertainty.

However, although it may feel good in the short term to internally blast your date or partner for being late, it's actually not helpful in terms of the relationship as a whole, nor does it do anything to get at the truth of the situation. You're just speculating about motives or reasons, and usually said speculation is all negative. Instead of thinking "I don't know why they are late. Maybe it's this or that." You leap to the worst case scenarios, or make some totalizing judgment about the person that does little more than burn off a little steam in the short term. How often have you called someone an asshole in your mind (or even to their face), only to find out that there was a very good reason behind what it was that they did or didn't do?

None of this, of course, means that you should put up with patterns of behavior that aren't healthy or respectful from a date or partner. Obviously, if someone is chronically late, you have every right to say something. But when you decide to speak up about someone's chronic lateness, you have to consider what your intention is. Do you want to mend the relationship? Do you desire to stay together with this person? Or are you so pissed off that you don't care anymore?"

If you want to aim towards maintaining the relationship, then even when speaking of the pattern, you can re-frame it in a way where you might better be heard.

For example, you might say something like "You have been late to the last several dates. When you are late, I feel anxious and sometimes angry because I don't know why you are late, and I value our time together."

And you can, in the spirit of NVC, add a request here, such as "Would you be willing to talk a little about this with me?"

Again, one of the main reasons for approaching things in this way is to maximize the chances that you'll be heard. And to maximize the chance that you will hear the other person. So much of conflicts boil down to not listening deeply enough to each other, and simply jumping to conclusions or judgments that may have nothing to do with the actual truth. When I look back at some of my relationships during my 20s, I kind of cringe at the numerous ways in which I failed to listen well, and simply assumed the worst.

And so, I offer NVC, as well as a general call for deeper listening, as methods of truth finding, and also relationship strengthening.

Your thoughts?

1 comment:

  1. For me, when someone is late, I spiral through all sorts of feelings and thoughts, from "I've been stood up" to "something terrible has happened to her!" It's quite hard for me to hold onto any particular emotion (such as, anger at being stood up/kept waiting) when I have so many theories. But it does add up very much to "turbulent emotions".

    The "dealing with a pattern" example, I feel a little conflicted by. While being non-confrontational is important, to me it feels like your example doesn't actually set out what's needed to fix the issue.

    The statement part seems to allow the response, "Well, there's no need to worry, so just relax about it." That answer doesn't have to be disrespectful or dismissive in intent or attitude, it is just that that person's character says that relaxing and going with the flow is the obvious answer to them. But to a worrier (like me!) it's no help at all. (I think a worrier and a relaxer can get on well together without having to stop being themselves, but by making room for the other - maybe the rest of the evening can be "relaxer-friendly" as long as the time for meeting is fixed, for example.)

    Similarly, the request to "talk about it" seems to absolve the other party of any responsibility to actually do anything about it. It seems like the needed response isn't actually stated. It seems to me that you need to be clear what your "minimum requirements" are from the conversation: for instance, "In future, if you're running late, please could you call me and let me know when to expect you? That would really help stop me worrying." If a phone call wouldn't be enough, then, "Please can you plan to make sure you are on time? It really means a lot to me when you are."

    I just feel that without an indication that something is needed from the other side (either "this is how it comes across to me" or "it's important to me that you take action on the issue") then it's too easy for it not to get resolved.

    Striking the right balance that is assertive but not confrontational can be really tricky (and, of course, is unique to each relationship...)

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