When we argue, and particularly when we argue with loved ones and colleagues — those with whom we are in ongoing relationship — the argument has three threads at its core. It doesn’t matter what we’re arguing about; those three threads are there. When we attend to those three threads, we set the stage for a much better conversation.
In a famous 2014 interview at Stanford University, Oprah Winfrey described those three threads this way:
These three threads are omnipresent because they are foundational for healthy personal and business relationships.
But the threads offer something more: They offer us a way to check in with ourselves and with the other person when an argument feels like its going off the rails. They help us assess how well we’re attending to the heart of the conversation.
Do you hear me?
This thread is about listening. We are all too familiar what it feels like not to be listened to carefully and we know how inattentive or selective listening derails a conversation.
If we are fortunate, we’ve also experienced what it feels like to be listened to deeply and fully, for someone to give us their full attention, without distraction. It is a very different and wonderful experience when someone listens without their answer running, tries to listen from our frame of reference instead of their own, and holds the space without filling it with their own views.
What a gift we give to others when we can listen in that way. It is a gift we give ourselves as well, of course, because when we can achieve it, even for short periods, we change the tenor of an argument.
Do you see me?
This thread is about our natural human need to be seen as we know we truly are. When someone is angry with us, they may insult — deliberately or inadvertently — our view of ourselves. We may well do the same to them.
Of course, conflict and the stress of conflict sometimes do make us act in ways that are inconsistent with what we know is really true about us. We speak unkindly when we know we are generally kind. We may be short-tempered even when we pride ourselves as normally patient and even-keeled. They, of course, face the same struggle.
In an interview with Tim Ferriss, writer Maria Popova pointed out: “I don’t think that people have a hard time with criticism because another person disagrees with or dislikes what they’re saying. They really have a hard time when they feel misunderstood, like the other person does not understand who they are or what they stand for in the world…The main source of anguish is not being seen for who you are.”
I consider this thread so crucial I wrote an entire book about how the way we see ourselves in the world influences the way we conflict.
We can change an argument drastically by insisting (with ourselves) that we try to see them whole, that we try to see them the way they see themselves. This is especially important if they are someone we claim to love or hope to work closely with long into the future.
Does what I’m saying matter to you?
This thread is about acknowledgement and validation. We know the importance of this, but then fail to do it during an argument because we get caught up in questions like, “Do you agree with me?” and “How can I convince you to agree with me?”
Research with couples suggests that feeling as though our partner understands our thoughts, feelings, and point of view serves as a buffer from the detrimental side of conflict. We have the power to address even the most annoying behavior at work with the simple act of acknowledgement.
It’s important to demonstrate that what they’re saying matters to us, even if we don’t agree with their view — perhaps especially when we disagree. We can say, “I care about what you’re trying to tell me,” or “Your point of view matters to me.”
Try keeping these three questions close when you find yourself in a disagreement. Use them to guide you if things begin to go awry — better yet, before. Are you hearing them and are they hearing you? Are you seeing them and they you? Does what you’re each saying seem to matter to the other, despite disagreement? If the answer is no to any of these, you’ll know where to adjust your contributions to the discussion.