Unhealthy conversations can be conversations that escalate into heated and sometimes regretful words. They can also be conversations that need to happen, but never do.
Our adult children all agree that they have never heard their dad and I argue. A couple of them shared that they didn’t know how to resolve heated disagreements with their spouses because they had no model.
When they shared this with us, my husband and I passed knowing glances at one another. Years into our marriage, both of us admitted our pattern of behavior in a tense disagreement was to move to silence. It was the kind that could go on for a month with conversations never moving beyond schedules and the dinner menu.
The kind that screams, “I am hurting, angry, or disappointed and it must be your fault so you will pay.” I’m a little embarrassed to admit that, a couple of times, it went on for so long I forgot the exact reason we were mad at each other. Fortunately, we’re still married!
We began to recognize that very destructive pattern of not resolving conflicts and agreed that we wasted too much valuable time killing our relationship with silence. We found that silence or violence, fight or flight, have been common responses to conflict since the dawn of time. We also found there are wonderful tools to help us learn to communicate our way to a healthier relationship.
One such tool is Crucial Conversations, a book with training about holding healthy conversations when the stakes are high, emotions are strong, and opinions differ.
One of the book’s authors, Ron McMillian, points out that an underlying cause of many of the conversations we have that go awry is wrong motive. Specifically, our own wrong motive. The curriculum wisely points out that unless we change our motive to something other than winning or saving face, our conversations can be forever doomed, many times affecting our relationships in a similar fashion.
It’s a pattern I have seen often in Christian marriages on the brink of divorce. One partner creates a story about the other’s behavior and it becomes the lens or expectation of the story teller.
Instead of thinking of, or remembering things, that are true and good and right about their spouse, they become accustomed to expect them to fall short. And much of the time, they do just that.
“I can’t do anything right,” and “She always thinks the worst,” are often-heard phrases in a counseling session from the one unable to combat the unseen motive of their spouse’s heart.
“It is often not our behavior that deteriorates during a crucial conversation,” writes author McMillian, “that comes second. The first thing that that deteriorates is our motive. While we are acutely aware of how others contribute to unhealthy conversations, we are often unaware of the ways in which we are contributing to the problem.”
In a section of the training called “Start with Heart,” the explanation of motive is simply identifying what you want. Do you want to address an ongoing issue to make someone do what you want them to do, or do you want to address it for the health of your on-going relationship?
Is your motive to make the other person a villain, or is it to understand why they did what they did and explore what could be done differently by both of you in the future?
Is your motive to defame your mate, or to make them aware of how deeply their actions affected you and possibly others around them?
If we ask ourselves why we’re behaving the way we are – using silence or heated and damaging words – we can begin to discover our motive. It is an act of searching the heart.
Our emotions, in a heated conversation or event, cannot be trusted. Stopping to ask ourselves, what is my motive and how can I focus on what I really want in this conversation and relationship, will help to re-engage our mind, heart, and actions towards the one we chose to spend our lives with and who chose to live with us, for better or worse.
Today’s assignment: Pray that in your next disagreement, or the one that has been brewing for a while, that God will reveal the motive of your heart to you. Ask Him give you the right words to talk it out. And then, talk.
“And now, brothers, as I close this letter, let me say this one more thing: Fix your thoughts on what is true and good and right [about your spouse]. Think about things that are pure and lovely, and dwell on the fine, good things in others. Think about all you can praise God for and be glad about.” Philippians 4:8 TLB.