Recently, I was coaching a couple who were seriously bogged down by disagreements in their relationship.
One of them would try to tell me a story, and this would quickly devolve into a back and forth of, “I didn’t say that / Yes you did!”
Both partners were really frustrated. They couldn’t agree on what had been said, let alone move beyond the disagreement to resolution.
As a result, their arguments had been getting swept under the rug for a long time – a pattern with potentially dire consequences.
Uninterrupted, he said / she said can have a devastating impact on the willingness of each person to BELIEVE anything the other says.
In other words…
One of the biggest casualties of these “he said / she said” struggles is…TRUST!
As I gently brought my clients’ attention back to me, I asked them to close their eyes, and check in with how their BODIES were feeling.
And do you know what? They finally agreed on something!
BOTH described similar physical sensations:
“I feel a tightness in my abdomen and chest”
“My throat feels tight”
“I really want to get up and leave the room”
“I feel anxious”
“My heart is beating a bit fast, and my breathing feels shallow”
“I want to close my hands tightly”.
These are all signs of the body’s stress response – also known as “fight or flight” mode!
As my clients gradually withdrew their attention from the argument and each other, I walked them through a quick visualization exercise.
After a few minutes both of them began to feel more at ease; the tension began to leave their bodies; and both looked visibly more relaxed.
And this is where our work together began as I explained that…
Our nervous systems do not distinguish between the physical threat of being chased through the woods by a bear; and an argument with our spouse!
To the nervous system, both scenarios register as a threat to life and limb.
When that happens, higher functions like reasoning, thinking, and analyzing disappear faster than chocolate at a baby shower!
During a stress response, the body’s only priority is survival.
And this is the BIG WHY behind those he said / she said conflict patterns!
It goes like this: we find ourselves in an argument; our stress response can kick in; and our ability to think, reason, retain information, or learn switches OFF.
Because the stress response diminishes our ability to think, to learn, and to retain…we struggle to fully think about what we’re saying; and it is difficult to accurately remember what we said OR what the other person said!
In other words, it is extremely likely that each person will not only have different recollections of “what happened” – there is also a very good chance that our own recall is incomplete or just plain inaccurate!
Later, say, during a session with your friendly, neighbourhood relationship coach, it’s nearly impossible to come to consensus about what was said, how, by whom, etc.
So what do you do?
I’m so glad you asked!
The Fix: 3-Steps to Getting Rid of He Said / She Said
1) Bring your attention back home…to you.
Drawing attention away from the subject of who said what and when is essential to getting back to what’s going to move your relationship forward.
Redirect your attention within you. Notice, observe, and witness what’s going on for you: how does your body feel? Is there any tension anywhere (hands, face, jaw, belly, back, neck, etc.).
Bring your attention back to your breathing each time your mind wanders back to the argument. You will need to do this again and again…and again. Persist. Keep coming back to your breathing until your body feels at ease again.
Imagine you could breathe directly into those parts of your body where you feel tension, tightness, or (to use a technical, coaching term) “yechy”.
2) Avoid forcing a false consensus.
Coaching tip du jour: you actually don’t need to agree on what was said.
Too often, we get caught up in arguing about what we did or didn’t say. But there is nothing sacred, holy, or revolutionary about being in lock step about who said what.
Sure, there can be times when this is helpful or even useful.
BUT: if you’re getting bogged down with disagreements about who said what, when, and to whom, check yourself!
Examine WHY this feels important for you.
If your deeper motivation is about getting the credit, being right, making the other person wrong, or justifying / rationalizing what you said, felt, and thought…STOP!
[NB: a wrong-making motivation will often try to disguise itself as, “I just want to be accurate”; or, “I’m just being precise.” Don’t fall for it. Relationships aren’t moved forward by hair-splitting].
Remember: put your connection first. Connection isn’t about accuracy, precision, who’s right, or who said what. Fixating on these will not bring you together; and there’s a darned good chance that they could drive you apart!
3) Find the third option
I sometimes call this the solution to the “me vs. you” dilemma.
Instead of going around and around about who said what to who (and who is right about what was said), PAUSE.
Ask, “What serves the relationship? What would make our connection feel safer, more inviting, more rewarding?
Then, lay to rest the issue of what was said by whom – and take steps to offer the relationship whatever it needs to thrive.
This takes you out of defending / rationalizing your needs; or feeling cornered into sacrificing yourself to meet someone else’s needs.
In fact, genuinely engaging with the question, “what does our relationship need in order to thrive” is generous to both of you. It’s a triple win: you win, your sweetheart wins, and the relationship wins.
And that is so much better than the roiling mass of ick that you’re left with after another round of unresolvable, “he said / she said!
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