The bedrock to any successful partnership, whether it’s a marriage, a co-founded startup, a co-CEO arrangement, partners in a law firm, a head of sales/head of marketing pairing, or any other form, is the strength of the underlying relationships.
Those in successful relationships know how to ride the wave when things are working smoothly interpersonally. They make little, knowing investments in each other, show appreciation for another regularly, and carefully replicate what’s working to keep things flowing. They also know those investments will pay dividends later on when the inevitable happens–disagreements and/or downright arguments.
And it’s here that we separate strong relationships versus toleration versus dysfunction.
Couples therapist Saul Stern from The Gottman Institute recently told CNN Healththat his decades of psychology research have helped him pinpoint this powerful set of five rules for any couple, in any relationship, to follow in moments of tension:
1. Not talking about it is worse than screwing up how you talk about it.
The first rule of Fight Club is don’t talk about Fight Club, right? Leave that sentiment at the cinema.
Even if it will lead to a fight, Stern says you simply must put the issues on the table. Without question, the most toxic partnerships I ever witnessed in the corporate world were between two people who left so much unsaid. It simmers. And simmers. Then blows up.
I realize it can be tough to bring up the tough conversations, so try this trick. In all my best partnerships, to get the courage up to talk a difficult topic I’d ask myself, “Do we both want to make this relationship work?” The answer in almost all cases was yes. I then reminded myself that if we wanted to make it work, we’d work through it.
2. When it’s heated, step away.
Stern says that getting really angry in an argument triggers a phenomenon known as “flooding,” when the pulse races up to 100 beats per minute or more. He likens it to being drunk and says it takes 20 minutes on average to calm down.
When you recognize that happening, step away. Catch your breath, cool down, and take your mind off what’s got you so fired up. Or, tell your partner you’re too upset to talk about the issue in that moment. Commit to talk it at another point very soon–and mean it.
Not doing so leads to regretted words flying around like little needles. Character and personalities get attacked instead of the problem.
3. Understand why you feel the way you do.
If you’re adept at arguing, you have an awareness of your underlying feelings and emotions behind the disagreement. You don’t let peripherals cloud the issue.
I used to argue a lot with a partner of mine in sales, with arguments never ending well. Eventually, I came to realize that, for me, the argument often wasn’t really about the topic at hand.
It was about the residual resentment I had for this person’s attitude and how he treated others on the team. Once we cleared the air on that, we were able to have more focused disagreements that got resolved much more quickly.
4. Know their triggers, and yours.
You generally know what sets someone else off. It’s important to be cognizant of that to successfully navigate an argument.
Do you know what your triggers are? What causes you to head down a path of pain? Stern says quite often the thing that causes pain is not at all about what’s on the surface of the argument.
Says Stern: “It’s always the same fundamental existential problem. ‘I’m in pain. I may not even know where the pain comes from. Am I alone in my pain, or are you there for me?'”
That makes total sense to me–my biggest trigger is not feeling supported.
5. Understand the importance of feeling understood.
A close second to the need to feel supported is the need to feel understood. Stern says many couples don’t listen during arguments because they’re too busy thinking of their counterpoints.
No wonder no one feels understood. Stern recommends avoiding sentences that start with with “you.” For example, instead of saying “You don’t appreciate me,” try “I feel unappreciated.”
It’s hard to argue that life is relationships. And now it won’t be so hard to argue.