He hadn't done the dishes. She was livid. He was livid that she was livid. Which gave one expert negotiator the perfect opportunity to practice what he preaches—turning an adversary into a partner.
It's eight o'clock on a Saturday morning, I was up all night doing taxes, and I've had only four hours of sleep when my wife, having decided this would be a good time to torture me, wakes me with an angry accusation: "You didn't do the dishes!"
I put a pillow over my head.
"You said you were going to do them!"
"I'm trying to sleep, Mia."
Mia doesn't care. "How come I have to do all the work around here?"
I hold the pillow tighter. "Can't this wait?"
Now I'm angry.
The woman I love, the woman who's such a good mother to our son, Noah, the woman who picks up my dirty socks and accommodates my almost daily craving for Chinese food, is out to get me. And there's no way I'm going to let her. If I apologize, I'll feel weak. If I say I'll do the dishes, I'll feel as though I'm agreeing to be her servant.
Yet even as my anger builds, somewhere in the back of my mind I know that the real problem isn't a bunch of dirty plates. It's how we're treating each other. I'm right. You're wrong. And I'm going to argue until you admit it. We've started behaving like adversaries. And the longer we fight, the more defensive we'll get and the more we'll lash out—until a spat about dishes turns into a heated referendum about which one of us deserves to live.
On its own, the small stuff is just that—small. But if you're not careful, it can turn into a big problem that tears at the fabric of your relationships. I know this because I've spent the past 15 years researching the role of emotions in conflict situations, and because I've had lots of experience as a consultant to disputing political leaders. Unfortunately, all my knowledge doesn't make me any less human. Like every husband on earth, I fight with my wife.
Luckily, my work has given me insight into dealing—constructively—with fights. The key insight is that solving the big problem first prevents the small problems from snowballing. Though that may sound backward—and impossible to pull off in the heat of battle—it's not. Here's how it works.
As Mia and I exchange insults, friendly conversation seems miles away. But before I criticize her for attacking me, I focus on a sign in my mind that reads turn an adversary into a partner. This is important because it will change the way I'm acting toward Mia. As her adversary, I want to defeat her. As her partner, I want to listen to her—really listen. The trouble is, it's hard to listen when all the circuits in my brain are telling me, "She's wrong! I'm right!" I need to regain my emotional balance, but I can't do that while Mia's giving me the evil eye. So I fall back on a plan I've made in advance. Step 1: Take a 15-minute break to cool off and figure out how to move forward "Fine." Mia walks out. I can tell she was sorely tempted to slam the door behind her. I sit up in bed so I don't fall back asleep. My anger, on the other hand, stays right where it is. How dare she accuse me of not helping around the house? And what gives her the right to wake me so early on a Saturday morning? In a way, it feels good to travel down this road of blame. But knowing that the further I go, the worse things will be for my marriage, I recall...
Step 2: Channel Aunt Margaret, a 60-year-old lawyer from Pittsburgh
You may not have an Aunt Margaret, but chances are you have someone like her: a compassionate person with a knack for listening without judging. If Aunt Margaret were here, she'd tell me to take a deep breath and explain the situation. And then she'd gently try to steer me toward seeing Mia's point of view.
What's brilliant about Aunt Margaret's approach is that it has my interests at heart. Once Mia feels heard, she'll be much more likely to listen to me. So, reluctantly, I resolve to try to imagine—just for a moment—that I'm my wife.
In my professional life, I frequently teach this role-reversal tactic. In class students pair up and actually speak as though they are the other person; though some students at first feel silly, they soon come to understand the powerful difference between describing what "he" or "she" is doing and how "I" feels.
If I were to become Mia right now, I'd say, "I wake up at the crack of dawn to Noah crying. I feed him, drop him off at day care, and then put on my social-worker hat. After work, I pick up Noah, come home, bathe him, eat with Dan, and—a lot of the time—do the dishes and clean up around the house. I know Dan has a busy schedule, but so do I."
Seeing Mia's side makes me feel uncomfortable, less entitled—and that's a good sign. I keep going. I see that I've left her with two bad choices: Do the dishes herself or nag me. She wants to be supported, but instead she's trapped. Now I'm really starting to squirm—because my sense of empathy is waking up. I never meant for my wife to feel unsupported.
It feels as though a weight has been lifted from me. I think I understand Mia's viewpoint, which makes all those venomous thoughts about how mean she is start to disappear. But happy days aren't here again—yet. Mia is still angry. And telling her "I get it!" won't be enough. Step 3: Communicate this new understanding 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.