The other day, we had an argument that got pretty heated. It was over how to prioritize our time on a Sunday afternoon. Kaley wanted to meet up with a friend. Nate wanted to do an activity together as a family.
The conversation started out well. But then, it went off the rails. At some point, we both felt frustrated and angry. We both felt like the other person wasn't really hearing us.
In that moment, we realized we had a choice between two very different paths. The first path would be to double down on this fight over our Sunday afternoon priorities. It would lead us to accuse each other of having the wrong priorities and begin picking apart each other's arguments like opposing candidates at a political debate.
The second path would lead to a very different place. It would be to take a pause and ask a radically different question: what is this really about?
The second path would take us, not into drama, resentment, and anger, but curiosity and a shared exploration into the underlying emotional tensions that created this tiff in the first place.
Luckily, on that day anyway, we chose this second path. We don't always make this second choice. But making it on that day not only helped us resolve the argument. It also helped us see ourselves more clearly.
When we dug one level deeper, Kaley could see that underneath her desire to be with a friend was a need for more space and time for herself. Nate saw that beneath his frustration was a similar desire to have intentional time together rather than shared space, especially during these crazy stay-at-home pandemic times.
So how can you find out what you're really fighting about during your next argument?
Mindfulness teacher Pema Chödrön has a great analogy for getting caught up in the intensity of an argument. She calls it "biting the hook." Her point is that we often see the hook of anger dangling in front of us during an argument. It's that almost irresistible desire to be right and to fire back at our partner. The moment we bite the hook is the moment we get defensive or lash out. And, like that poor fish dangling on the end of a line, it's the moment when our suffering and struggle gets exponentially worse. So that's the first step. Notice that subtle moment when you're about to go on the defensive.
The moment you notice that you're caught in the swirl of an argument, take a short pause. This could be a few long slow breaths. It could be revealing your experience to your partner, “I notice that I'm starting to feel frustrated and upset." Whatever you choose to do, the key is to take a momentary pause so that you can allow the frustration and anger to settle.
The final step is to begin seeing through the surface-level illusion of the argument you think you're having -- to go one level deeper so you can discover what's really happening. We call it the magic question: What is this really about?
The key to getting the most out of this question is to make it about you. What is this really about for you? What are you really feeling? What are you wanting in life that you're not giving yourself permission to have? What are you afraid to ask for?
Using this question an opportunity to reveal your experience opens the space for you and your partner to turn this moment of frustration into a moment of growth.