Monday, 1 July 2013

Tip 11: How to stop bickering

In our close relationships we deal with so many humdrum questions - who will empty the bins, why we're out of cat food, whether to turn left or right - it's easy to slip into bickering. How can we avoid those habitual niggling comments which cloud our communication? How can we make sure that time spent with our loved ones is truly enjoyable and rewarding?

The 'revolutionary pause'*

Before you respond to something - particularly if you want to object! - ask yourself, WHY is the other person saying this? You'll need a moment to think, feel or sense the answer. 

*The 'revolutionary pause' was a phrase coined by Mary Hendricks. 
Keynote Address to the Fifteenth Focusing International Conference 2003 in Germany. 
By Mary Hendricks-Gendlin, PhD, Director, The Focusing Institute. 


But make sure you ask the right sort of 'why'. Obviously, I don't mean a 'why' which fuels the argument:  
A: "How come the bins didn't go out yesterday?"
B: "WHY are you asking ME?"

Nor one that implies the other person is wrong. If we ask 'why' when we're feeling frustrated, we easily produce a reason which contains critical judgements:    

"WHY is she asking about the bins? ... Hmmm, it's because she's hopeless at taking responsibility for practical matters if it means getting her hands dirty ..."

We're adept at producing clever intellectual understandings of other people - which still contain a sense of a problem:    

"WHY? Hmmm, it's because his mother did everything for him as a kid, and he's never really grown up ..."

Whether or not we voice these thoughts (and even if we believe them to be true), they create friction in our communication. The problem is, they quickly produce counter-arguments, because they're felt as critical, disrespectful or undermining. Even having them in the air is enough to create difficulties as we interact.

To stop the cycle of petty bickering, one or other of us needs to ask a different sort of "why?".   

1. Find a 'good' reason   

The most productive "why?" in a conversation is one which seeks a good reason. Every action (words or behaviour) is based on a need - a motivation for doing it; a value or a quality which the action is trying to bring about. This is the good reason.

We don't always know ourselves what our good reasons are when we speak or act. So if the other person pauses, it leaves space for both of us to discover them. This quickly generates warm connection, natural empathy. 

Sometimes the first person's comment is not exactly about the real issue. But we don't need to be Sherlock Holmes to discover what it is: 
A: "How come no-one put the bins out yesterday?"
B (pauses, and considers silently): "Why the bins, why this tone of voice, just now? 
B (asks directly): "Are you cross because you've done it quite a bit recently - and you'd like me to do my fair share ...?

[If this is the issue, it's now out in the open, and the conversation can flow on more calmly, with more room for each person's perspectives.]  

2. Make a 'bridging' comment

This empathic guess ("Are you cross because...?") is a bridging question. It creates a bridge where information can flow from Person A towards Person B. And this brings about greater understanding, and (with practice) greater kindness.

You don't need to get the bridging comment 'right' for it to work successfully. Your simple wish to understand is what really creates the bridge. Starting from a place of genuine ignorance, of sweet humility, you never make a wrong guess - you just discover more about the other person. You give them a chance to tell you (usually more calmly) what's bothering them.   

A (replies): "Not really. It's because right now I'm trying to get on with the cooking, and the bin is too full to use - I hate that!"

Now we sees a fuller picture of the busy cook, we may find it easier to empathise - and may even feel moved to help.     

3. Watch where the conversation goes next ...

But suppose we have a very different view of the matter, and want to make our own feelings known? Well, we're in a much stronger position. The bridge created by our previous comments is also a conduit for our ideas, which can now flow back towards the other person. Unless we have this bridge in place - that warm, kind connection - the other person is unlikely to take in our point of view. They may feel as if we're opposing them; that we're being critical, defensive or evasive. So the bickering continues ...

The bridge helps us discover the issues on both sides. Once we know them - and we both know that we know them - we're well placed to come up with fresh ideas and solutions.    

It's hard to pause!

In a busy conversation, the first step - making that revolutionary pause - is the hardest. So when your loved ones make a prickly comment, or have ideas you disagree with:  

  • Remind yourself that if you create a kind listening space for the other person, they are more likely to create one for you in return.
  • Give yourself time to see and feel the other person's 'good reason' - it may change your perspective radically (perhaps you'll no longer want to 'answer back').
  • If you find yourself really unwilling to listen to them, it's because you have important needs of your own which need attention. Reflect on how your needs can also be taken into account. They are important too.

How do we benefit?

By stopping to consider the good reason for what someone has just said, we build respect and care for our friends, partner or family. 

At the same time, we leave more room for our own responses to be heard as we want. So we feel calmer and more appreciated ourselves.

Kindness and empathy flourish naturally. 

By Elizabeth English
with Peter Kuklis


  1. Many thanks for your e-mails, always worth a read! you would expect for me as a driving instructor, whether to turn left or right is a situation I deal with on a daily basis with my pupils.

    What I try and get across to my trainee instructors more than anything else is that the instructions given must be clear and allow the pupil time to respond.

    Sometimes pupils repeat instructions back to you...."you said turn left... yes you did"

    "No, what I said was at the first mini roundabout straight on and at the second one turn left"

    Often you realise that although the instruction was clear to you, it was not clear to them.

    All the best,


  2. Wonderful (and challenging!), as always!