Sometimes you know you are in an unhealthy situation; a relationship, job or other situation that just isn’t working. Sometimes you don’t. Sometimes you know that your job is making you miserable. Sometimes you just feel off, “bad,” “sad,” “stressed out” – but you don’t know why.
Is there a good way for you to tell whether you are in a relationship, job or situation that just isn’t working? Yes. It starts by learning how to notice what is actually happening.
That might sound really vague to you. But sometimes the starting point to resolving personal tension that makes the most sense isn’t about proving anything or anybody right or wrong. Sometimes (I’ll say most of the time) the starting point that makes the most sense begins with slowing down, exploring and noticing what is there.
In the work I’ve done as a counselor, conflict coach and mediator, I’ve not yet met a person who didn’t jump to conclusions about the situation they are in, or the people with whom they are in relationship, especially if there is tension. I’ve met some very loving, deep and bright people, and I’ve met some very hurt confused and “difficult” people. The one thing they all have had in common is not knowing how to ask good questions and explore their situation – at least not all of the time.
How good are you at asking questions?
Maybe pretty good. Now ask yourself this: how good are you at wanting to know the answers? Do you seek out what you don’t know even though it might be hard to hear?
Think about it – that difficult situation, that strained relationship, that person that drives you crazy. Maybe that person is your ex. Maybe that person is your boss. Maybe it’s your mother. Whatever and whoever. I’ll bet the last argument or tense interaction you had with that person involved many more statements than questions. Declarations rather than explorations.
So what? Maybe you don’t care to know anything about this person. Maybe you don’t care to ever speak with them again. Maybe if you had the choice you would get as far away as you possibly can from that jerk. That pain. Maybe you can’t.
Here’s how I tend to see it: we are a society of sentence makers. We talk in sentences, write in sentences, perhaps we even think in sentences. But I bet more of your sentences end in periods than question marks. Do they?
A sentence ending in a period is a conclusion.
It is a closing rather than an opening, an endpoint rather than than a point of departure. It’s the point where Google Maps declares “You have arrived.”
There’s a great quote by Mark Twain that opens up the film adaptation of Michael Lewis’s The Big Short – “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” And I think that if we in relationships (and that’s all of us) could keep this in mind the next time relational tension surfaced, the outcome might be very different. What don’t you know for sure? If you know you’re right, how do you know? Can you explain it?
But this is not what we do. We love our Facebook. We get to say whatever we want. We make declarations. We rarely ask questions unless we already know what we are looking for (e.g. Anyone know where I can get a great slice of pizza?) Check your newsfeed. How many curious people are you friends with?
Even more importantly, are you curious?
Do you ask questions wanting to know the answer? This is hard to do when you’re being insulted. It’s especially hard to do when you KNOW that jerk is trying to press your buttons (again) – and you can feel them getting pressed.
What does this have to do with noticing what is happening? Everything. Perhaps the most basic move we make when triggered is to focus “out there” on the other person, the crappy situation, the unjust context. Are there bad people out there? You bet. Does injustice happen? Definitely. Oppression and power plays are real. But “shoot first, ask questions later” is still an error in thinking – and one that is committed all too often.