In any relationship there are at least two parties: ourselves and the other person. Although there is a natural temptation to want to fix the other person, we simply can’t. It is impossible to change how their brain works (and even if we could, it would be immoral – and illegal). The only way we can change the relationship is to change our end of it. If we want to improve a relationship, we need to take responsibility for it by acting on the only part we control: our own beliefs and behaviours.
Once this penny drops, we are ready to make progress with the other tools. This is crucial: if the penny doesn’t drop, there is little point in continuing.
Taking this to extremes, one plausible way of resolving a relationship conflict might be to reverse our natural position and accept that the other person is completely right and we are completely wrong. But doing this on a frequent basis is unhealthy: it risks considerable damage to our self-esteem and ultimately, our mental stability – it is one of the roots of depression. We need to believe that we are right most of the time in order to maintain a coherent sense of who we are.
A more constructive way forward is to accept that both of us can be right simultaneously. What’s right for me is right for me, and what’s right for them is right for them. When we take this belief on, even on a temporary ‘try it and see’ basis, it forces us to a conceptual position that floats above the relationship, and stimulates curiosity about the similarities and differences in our respective views. Ask the question:
- How is that person’s difficult behaviour absolutely the right thing for them – and, in turn, how can it therefore be useful to our relationship and, ultimately, me too?
By itself, this shift to curiosity-mode will remove some of the sting that is created by the assumption of wrongness by the other person. But there is scope to go even deeper and transform the relationship from tolerance to co-operation and positive influence.