Relationships are hard! In times of conflict, like when you hurt someone’s feelings or they hurt yours, emotions run high. When emotions are set-off, it revs us up. Our bodies react to triggered emotions by getting tense. We put up our guards and get defensive. Our heart rate increases and stress hormones release into the bloodstream. When emotions and the resulting anxiety drive interactions, it’s easy for minor misunderstandings to escalate into full-fledged fights simply because of biology.
How can we prevent misunderstandings from turning into painful arguments that rupture our connections? Question intent!
The capacity to think before we speak, so we can question if someone intends to be hurtful, is a great way to prevent fights from escalating. Relationships grow closer when we defer our assumptions, and instead genuinely get curious about behaviors that upset us.
I have taught myself and others to notice when we are operating from our emotions and automatic impulses. With practice, we gain awareness - without reacting - from our emotions and impulses. This allows us the space and time to STOP and consider, “What do I think was my parter’s (or my colleague’s, my friend’s, my child’s, or my parent’s) intent? Were they trying to hurt or upset me?” 9 times out 10, the answer is probably no.
For example, Richard is irate with his girlfriend, Rena, for not adhering to their budget. When they moved in together, they had agreed to a monthly spending limit. Rena exceeded it. She saw an expensive pair of jeans that she loved and impulsively bought them. When one person makes a promise and then breaks it, it can start a fight in any relationship.
So, what happens next? Rena and Richard are at a crossroad. They may or may not have a huge fight depending on how they each react. Below is a brief example of two types of conversations: one leads to a rift and one is constructive.
When Richard discovered Rena spent too much money, he was hurt and angry. He said, “You did what??? You’re such a jerk. How can you be so inconsiderate? Now what are we going to do if we can’t make this month's rent? I don’t think this relationship is working.”
Rena, who felt attacked, said, “Well, you’re a jerk, too! You never help me around the house. I take care of everything around here. Maybe this relationship isn’t working!”
They both storm away feeling angry, alone and miserable.
And here’s a conversation where intent is considered and anger is skillfully managed:
When Richard discovered Rena spent too much money, he was hurt and angry. He said, “Give me a minute to calm down and then we’ll talk.” This pause makes all the difference.
Richard goes outside. He takes 5 or 6 deep belly breaths to calm his emotions. He takes a walk, feeling the ground with each step. He looks at a tree and then up at the sky to let nature relax him. After he calms down a bit, he has room in his mind to wonder to himself why Rena would do this. He thinks about Rena’s intent. Did Rena intend to hurt him? He doubts that. Then why? He remembers not to assume, but instead to ask Rena.
Richard returns home ready to talk calmly. He starts a conversation from a place of curiosity and a willingness to listen. He begins, “I don’t understand what you were thinking when you spent all that money, Rena. Can you explain?”
“I’m so sorry, Richard. I think I was just feeling down and I impulsively reached for something to cheer me up. You’ve heard of retail therapy? I’ll work extra hours to pay for them.”
“I’d appreciate that, Rena. Next time you’re feeling down, you can call me to talk. I’m here for you.”
They leave this conversation with more understanding, gratitude, and connection.
A Conscious Decision to be Constructive
While this was a simple example of a conflict that was easily solved, the principle applies to complex conflicts as well: pause, take steps to become calm so your thinking brain can help you curiously question intent.
Conversation 1 is destructive: Richard allowed his anger to dictate his reaction. His anger predictably led to Rena’s anger and withdrawal.
Conversation 2 is constructive: Though Rena started the conflict with her “hurtful or bad behavior,” Richard made a conscious decision to calm down and become curious before reacting. Richard exerted strength and energy to stay cool until he calmed down; only then did he question Rena, becoming curious about her intent. He reacted in a way that prioritized the relationship.
Being sincerely curious about the other’s intent doesn’t mean condoning their hurtful or bad behaviors. We can either respond in a way that solves a problem or, we can devolve together into more hurtful and destructive places.
Thinking before we speak is a skill that requires practice over a lifetime. It’s not about being perfect, it’s about caring enough to try. Pausing to think before saying something so we can question intent requires self-control in the short run, but long-term results will prove very satisfying.
A+ for trying!