The Power of a Curious Mindset

Today I want to talk about one small shift, a simple change in mindset, that can diffuse conflicts and help partners understand one another more deeply.

Imagine approaching a tense discussion with your partner first from an attitude of wanting to understand what they think, feel, believe, and prefer, and how they came to their conclusions before trying to get your point across.

This is leading with curiosity.

It’s easy to assume that you know what your partner means and why they think what they do. Perhaps you have had this discussion many times before, and you believe you know exactly what they will say.

However, you might be missing something important by making these assumptions. When you respond by debating, defending, de-railing, objecting, or any number of other ineffective responses, you don’t just shut down your ability to understand your partner, you also miss out on an opportunity to help your partner take their thoughts to a deeper level. When you ask your partner truly curious questions, in an effort to understand their perspective, you open up the possibility of an “aha!” moment of understanding that can deepen your connection.

Approaching with an attitude of curiosity can also help you manage your emotions during a tense discussion. If you’re able to maintain the mindset that your partner is simply telling you something about how they see the world, it can help you stay steady emotionally, and avoid taking on blame or thinking that your partner’s opinions are an indictment of your beliefs and preferences. We are all different, so it’s totally normal and to be expected that you and your partner will see things differently. No big deal! How interesting! I wonder how they came to think that, or respond in that way.

Next time you find yourself in a tense conversation with your partner, and you notice your stress rising, take a moment and breathe. Remind yourself, “We have plenty of time to work this out, and we don’t need to come to a resolution right away. It will help us both if we proceed with as much understanding and information as possible, so I’m going to spend this time just trying to figure out where my partner is coming from and what they really mean, before I react to what they’re saying. This is an opportunity to learn something new about this unique person that I love. What they’re telling me is a reflection of their life experiences, and I truly want to know them.”

Set aside the part of you that fears being judged, or wants to be heard first, or has the right opinion. Then, ask a question–not a loaded, “how could you say that…”-type question, but a question of honest curiosity:

  • “That’s so interesting. Tell me more about how you see that.”
  • “What just happened for you? How did what I said get under your skin?”

When you do this well, your reward can be a revelation–a peek into how your partner sees the world. What could be more rewarding than that?

The Case For Going “Slow and Steady” To Resolve Couple Conflict

One of the most important skills I help couples build is the ability to tolerate tension between partners. The impulse to hurry up and find a solution is undeniable. Being in tension with a disagreement or two different points of view is extremely anxiety-producing and, for some, excruciating. If only there were a simple solution or a quick resolution, the pain would end, right? But when couples rush to a resolution, they often make mistakes that end up damaging their relationship in the long term.

For instance, one person may give way, and decide to “just let go of it” or “agree” in order to get their partner off their back. This stops the conflict in the moment, but it’s a recipe for building resentment over time, as well as for broken promises down the line.

Any big difference of opinion will take time to resolve. Your clients are likely to want a quick fix, but allowing things to move too fast will end up either entrenching both partners in their positions, fanning the flames of conflict, or forcing one partner to give way.

Instead, try these strategies:

  • Normalize the disagreement. Every long term couple has substantial differences, and there is nothing that makes that an emergency, in and of itself.
  • Remind them that a solid functional resolution is the goal, not a fake agreement or glossing over something important.
  • See if you can help them get curious about why their partner might see things they way they do. This is an exciting stage of relationship. This is how partners learn about their differences.
  • Support the curiosity, and guide the conversation deeper, holding space for tension, not resolution. This will create an atmosphere of creative thought and empathy rather than anxiety and hasty attempts to soothe.
  • Breathe. This can be challenging for therapists, who also would feel better if there were a simple resolution. Be gentle with yourself and go slow.

By taking time to consider the issue from multiple perspectives, rather than rushing to an imperfect solution, your clients will learn more about each other and themselves, and build the skills they need to handle the next conflict that comes up. Guiding your clients along this process is the key to nurturing their relationship’s long-term growth, rather than simply rehashing the fight of the week.

The Key To Resolving Couple Conflict? Uncovering Internal Motivation to Change

In my last post, I wrote about one of my strategies for working with couple conflict when partners strongly disagree. This week, I’m going to talk more about how I make space for partners to shift and grow by taking pressure off of gridlock, and creating a more creative, fluid space for collaboration.

When a couple disagrees about something, they often get gridlocked, meaning divergent positions become more and more solidified. As they argue, the partners can become completely polarized. This is the opposite of the flexibility, collaboration, creativity, flow, and teamwork that are necessary to work through a conflict in a way that strengthens a relationship rather than damaging it.

When couples are polarized, one partner is holding down position A, and the other is holding down position Z. It feels like a complete no-go. Only one can “win”, unless both give up something big, and they reluctantly and resentfully compromise to meet at position M. But if we can go a little deeper, we’ll discover that nearly always both partners can actually relate to both positions. They just feel like they need to really stomp on their position, because otherwise their partner will grab that slack and pull on it and “win.”

When I see this kind of situation, I focus first on one partner, and ask, “Is there any part of you that can relate to what she’s saying? Do you kind of see why she thinks it would be great to (save money, have kids, get a kitten, keep the kitchen cleaner)?” Then that partner can say “Well, I don’t agree, but I do see that there are probably advantages to having clean kitchen counters.”

I can continue that conversation, creating space for Partner A to have both positions. “This part of me thinks it would be great to have clean counters for all the reasons my partner says. But this other, much larger, part of me says ‘Hell no, this takes too much time, and it is not necessary, and I have more important things to do. If she wants cleaner counters, she can clean them, but not me.’”

As the dialogue progresses, both partners explore multiple perspectives within themselves. I help them go a little deeper into each part, exploring why this feels important and how the issue gets under their skin.

The key is that when the focus is on Partner A, one part of Partner A is talking to the other part of Partner A. Partner B is not yet in this discussion, and neither am I, other than coaching it along. The beauty of this is that it becomes apparent that the impasse for Partner A is within Partner A, and then when partner B does a similar exploration, we see that the same is true for Partner B. Often it turns out they agree far more than they disagree.

Sometimes I tell people “You are blaming this impasse on your partner, but the disagreement is actually inside of yourself. A part of you wants this, and another part wants that. You’re letting your partner argue for one position, while you argue for the other, but really you both hold both points of view.” Then I ask, “Can you get curious about what your partner thinks about this issue from a really creative, fluid place, rather than a polarized place? Can you express your thoughts to your partner from a fluid place where you can see multiple aspects of the dilemma?”