In the family room, Mia sits on the couch, reading. She doesn't look up. Her anger is palpable. Normally, this would be enough to retrigger my own anger. Today, though, I come prepared. I interpret her behavior not as a desire to attack but rather as a need for support.
"Look," I say. "We can spend all day today arguing over the dishes. Or we can talk this out." She nods.
I say, "I've thought about how things might look from your perspective."
"Really?" Mia says sarcastically. "So what am I feeling?"
Now I'm in danger, but I take the risk. "I started thinking about how much you're doing every day. Between taking care of Noah and working and keeping up with the house, it's a lot. If I were in your shoes, I'd feel overwhelmed."
"Of course it's overwhelming! Why should all the work be left to me?"
My heart skips a beat. My hostility surges back. Not only did I spend last night doing both our taxes but I also cleaned the basement the night before. I'm about to defend my position, to tell her all the reasons I'm right and she's wrong, when it occurs to me that she's come prepared with a list of her own. Arguing like this will put us back in the roles of adversaries—exactly where we don't want to be.
Here's where a crucial truth comes in handy: There is power in one. Even if Mia initially resists my invitation to talk through our fight, I don't need to react in kind. I can say and do things to turn both of us into partners. All it takes is persistence in trying to understand her point of view so that she feels appreciated. For some people—me included—this can be an exciting challenge.
I look Mia in the eyes and ask, "What are you hoping for right now?" I'm not attacking, and immediately her anger loses some steam. Her face softens. "I feel like I don't have a second to myself—between work, taking care of Noah, cleaning the house." As I listen, we both become more engaged. The tone of our conversation slowly shifts. We're becoming partners again.
Once our emotions are working with us, not against us, we can figure out any number of ways to deal with the mess in the kitchen sink. We can also address the deeper issue: making sure Mia has some time to herself. And the next time I leave a chore undone, she'll wonder what came up and probably ask me about it. I, on the other hand, will do my best not to put her in that situation. Not because clean dishes are the most crucial thing in life, but because we never want to dish out more than our relationship can take.
For more on Dr. Shapiro and using emotions as you negotiate, visit www.beyond-reason.net.