I have been reading a bit more about the Satir Interaction Model, which describes how we understand the way we interact with people. I find this model helps me communicate more effectively with people, at work and at home. In Dale Emery’s Untangling Communication, he shares this story about giving significance to a conversation.

Dale’s Story

I was once in a meeting with Larry, the product manager for whom I had worked for several years, and six engineers. We were trying to decide whether to make our proprietary thread package available to customers through our public API, as a key potential customer had requested. Larry thought that making the threading functions available was a good idea. I was adamantly against it.

Larry and I were unable to reach consensus. The meeting ended with everyone feeling frustrated and spent. Tom, one of the engineers at the meeting, visited me in my office, and said, “Wow, you sure were angry in that meeting!”

“No, I wasn’t angry,” I said. “I just think it would be a mistake to expose such a low-level interface.”

“Well,” he said, “You sure sounded angry to me.”

As I drove home that night, I slowly began to realize that Tom had been right. Though I had been unaware of it during the meeting, I had been not just angry, but furious. Later, as I tossed and turned trying to sleep, I realized that the topic of the meeting, the decision about exposing the thread package, had played only a small role in my anger. What I had been really furious about were the many “similar” situations over the previous few years in which Larry had made design decisions over my strong objections. Though I had not been consciously aware of it, I had come to resent these decisions. My resentment had contaminated this meeting and a number of others.

The next morning, I met with Larry to talk about what I had learned. We still disagreed about the API, but we were able to express our disagreement much more calmly and to understand each other’s point of view much more compassionately.

I had given this conversation much greater significance than it warranted. For me, the conversation was not just a single decision about an API, but a symbol of all of the unresolved issues in my relationship with Larry.

It’s this last bit that hits home for me. I have trained myself to treat every argument as though it were about my entire relationship history with the other people involved, and not just the current topic. This helps me understand better when I react strongly to something, what that’s about. When someone asks me, “What’s going on for you right now?” I know that what’s going on goes back weeks, months, years, well before this conversation ever started. By being on the lookout for such things, I find I’m better equipped to handle the current conversation without letting it fly off the rails too quickly. I recommend it to you, too.

When you are arguing with someone, stop and ask yourself what past transgression, disagreement or problem is coming up for you at that moment, beyond just the issue before you.

A comment from Don Gray

Your post title “With whom, exactly, are you arguing?” wonderfully juxtapositions with Virginia Satir’s original writing “With Whom Am I Having the Pleasure?”

When a conversation includes information that doesn’t fit the current situation, I use “Them, there, then” and “Us, here, now” to see if that helps explain why the energy level seems mismatched with the context.

Virginia said “We come together through our similarities, we grow through our differences.” Arguing contains negative meaning for me. It feels like a cross between the super-reasonable and blaming coping stances. I’ll call it “super-blaming”.

For me to be right, you have to be wrong. It’s a common position. I’m watching it play out in an on line discussion group. On person said “XXX isn’t suited for automated regression testing.” Others rejoined “Oh yes XXX is.” It’s been going on for four days.

If we chose to be congruent, and hear the difference as a learning opportunity, it changes the dynamic from argument to cooperation. The hard part is catching the initial fight/flight adrenalin rush. The cool part is the other person doesn’t have to agree not to argue. Changing what you ask, and how you ask it transforms the conversation.