everyone is always wrong

When managing social relationships, I’m a big advocate of the “both people are wrong” approach. Which works really well, except when it doesn’t.

My favorite example of this comes up when handling the classic misunderstanding-and-offense scenario. One person says something (like, “Looks like you got us lost!”). The other person takes offense (like, “It’s not my fault! Google Maps is screwed up, why are you blaming me?”). The first person explains that they didn’t mean it that way (like, “I never said it was your fault!”).  This kind of thing happens all the time, on issues as miniscule as finding where someone put the television remote to deep and involved discussions about family, life and love.

When this situation comes up, there are a few ways this conversation can go.

Option 1: Person A says, “GOD why are you so sensitive? You know me, you should know that I would never say something deliberately just to be mean to you. You should have just known that I wasn’t blaming you or accusing you of anything. After all, I didn’t actually say the words THIS IS YOUR FAULT so why would you assume it? You’re just being sensitive and insecure.”

Option 2: Person B says, “You always do that! You poke at me, saying I got us lost or I did this or I did that and then act like you didn’t mean it. Well guess what? I don’t care how you meant it. That doesn’t matter. What matters is how it sounded, and it sounded like you were accusing me, whether you meant it that way or not. You need to start paying more attention to how your words sound to other people.”

Option 3: ….. something else.

Of course, in this case I deliberately took a pretty trivial issue as an example. But this same type of argument can arise for important, and often deeply emotional, topics as well.  The butting-of-heads between the “your reaction doesn’t matter, only what I intended” side and the “what you intended doesn’t matter, only how it sounds to me” side is at the root of a huge portion of romantic issues, friendship issues, and even business issues in life.

I’m a big advocate of Option 3.  In an argument like this, I’m the guy who always says, “I will try to keep in mind that I know you aren’t intentionally trying to be mean, and will try to not over react in the future, and in return maybe you can try to think a little bit more about how your words sound on my end” (if I am person B), or who says, “I will try to be more sensitive to how my words come across, but please remember that I’m not perfect so that when I do screw up and say something that sounds nasty, please just remember that I would never deliberately do that to you” (if I am person A). That’s me. That’s my style.

I think it usually works.  I think it also works beyond just the misunderstanding-and-offense paradigm, as well.  In most social conflicts, any time my instinct is to say, “Well, you are wrong about such-and-such,” I try to pull back and ask myself, “What could I have done differently, to have prevented this conflict in the first place?”  Because there is always something. I’d go so far as to say this applies to anyone, and any conflict they are in: no matter how “wrong” you think the other person might be, there is always something you could have done better.

If the other person is being insecure, then you could have been more sensitive.

If the other person over-stepped his boundaries, maybe you could have been more clear about what the boundaries should have been.

If the other person is being paranoid, then you could have been a more comforting friend.

If the other person is being overly emotional, you could be forgiving of human emotionality and give him some space.

No matter what the other person’s sin is that lead to the conflict, you weren’t perfect either. There is something you could have done differently. So why not acknowledge that?

I think it’s a very functional way of approaching conflict. If you are arguing with someone, whether its a friend or a love or a business partner, and you come screaming down the hill declaring all of the things he did wrong to cause the problem, there is a greater chance that he will simply dig in his heals and be defensive. When you put something on the table–something that you think you can do to contribute to a solution–there is a greater chance that he will come to you and meet you half way.

Now, having said all of that, there are… of course… exceptions.

A while back (over 10 years ago now) I was in a relationship where this strategy just didn’t work out. It took me a while to figure out why our conflicts never seemed to resolve in a way that I felt good about. I mean, I have generally thought of myself as being good at handling conflict management. So in that particular relationship, when conflicts never seemed to have that “come together” moment of agreement at the end, I really began to wonder what was happening.

Yikes!Eventually, I figured out what it was: There would be a fight, I would use the above strategy and concede that there would be something that I could have done better… but at that point he stopped listening. He would basically “shut off”, because in his mind I had just admitted that it was all my fault.

We never got to complete the  “I find what I could do better and he finds what he could do better” conversation, because the moment I made any concession, he figured we were done.  It was Greg’s fault: Greg even admitted as much.

Needless to say, I was not “ok” with this outcome. And after much conversation and attempts at open communication, I learned a valuable lesson: no matter how good the above strategy is, it only really works if eventually (eventually) both people use it.

If one person in the relationship always makes a concession that he “could have done better” and the other person uses that as an excuse to say “That’s right! Your fault!” then progress never happens. And no matter how hard you try, some people cannot escape their “It’s either my fault or yours” mindset.

What’s the solution, in those situations? How do I deal with people like that?

Well, it may sound drastic, but it’s simple: I actually simply don’t have people like that in my life at all. My partner is not that way, my friends are not that way, the people I spend time with socially are not that way (at least, not around me). I see no reason to tolerate it.

Of course, in the true spirit egalitarian open-mindedness, I don’t really judge people like that. They are the way they are. However they handle their social relationships, that’s just the way they do it.

But as far as I’m concerned, they can do it with other people.