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No Rebuttals Please

Updated: Jan 11

Have you ever watched a high level debate or courtroom drama? One party gives a passionate speech, full of facts, figures and feelings to support their position. Then the floor is turned over to the other side for a rebuttal, where the goal is to unravel the first opinion, by proving that their opposing views are superior. The aim of both sides is to be declared the winner by a judge or moderator at the end. This model works rather well in deciding legal cases, and for politicians competing for support from constituents. This "fighting for a win" mentality is a disaster, though, when applied to personal relationships.

Healthy communication is essential in order for relationships to thrive. People want to feel safe to express their thoughts, needs and desires without being shamed or ignored. They need to know that their partner genuinely has their best interest at heart, and wants to help them to succeed and be happy. Partnership requires teamwork and patience. So often, however, conversations between couples can take the tone of point and counterpoint, rather than respectful dialogue. Rebuttals in court are sometimes referred to as “arguments” so it’s not surprising that this style of conflict resolution feels more like a fight than a peaceful exchange.

So what makes a reply feel like a rebuttal, instead of a loving response?

1) Opening with "You’re wrong." Nothing will shut down open communication faster than refusing to acknowledge the validity of the other person’s feelings. When someone opens up to you and shares their desires or frustrations, and is met with the accusation that they should not feel or think as they do, it immediately creates a stone wall between you. This does not mean that you are always required to agree with the facts or premise that the other person puts forward. Two people can experience the exact same thing and have completely different reactions and even memories - and guess what? They can both be right. The key is to respectfully listen, and let the other person know that you are genuinely interested in how they see things, and what they want. Then you can present your take on things, if it differs, but make sure to emphasize that both views have value to you, even when they are not the same. The goal should be to seek common ground and understanding, rather than to always prove that you are right. Being “right” can turn out to be very wrong, if trust is eroded in the process of establishing it. Sometimes couples may need to agree to disagree, but with the knowledge that they love each other, and have both been respectfully heard. They can plan to revisit the discussion in the future when emotions have cooled, or when circumstances change.

2) Listening without hearing. Have you ever found yourself forming a reply in your head before the person you are talking with has even finished speaking? Our brains cannot fully comprehend the words we are hearing if we are focusing primarily on what we plan to say in return. Sometimes we end up reacting angrily to what we think someone said, based on their first few words, rather than what they actually did say - which we could have only known had we stayed attentive the whole time. Or we respond to preconceived ideas of what they think, or how they “always” are, so we don’t even bother to hear their actual words before we get defensive. When we interrupt, talk over people or tune them out before they are through making their total point, we miss the chance for real connection. Far better to focus on them until we’re sure they’re through, take a breath to fully process their words and THEN decide how to answer. So many conflicts could be avoided entirely if both participants were reacting to the real conversation, rather than jumping to quick conclusions, or making assumptions without really listening.

3) Hijacking the topic. The bait and switch. The oldest trick in the book, and a communication killer every time. When your partner says something that offends you, or cuts close to home perhaps, the temptation can be to divert away from the painful topic by changing the subject, or going on the offense. This can shield us from the discomfort having to confront our own bad behavior, or may make us feel justified in not needing to make changes, because the other person has unrelated offenses also. But, this tactic rarely, if ever, actually resolves problems. It simply sidetracks away from building true intimacy, and railroads the other person into eventual silence. For instance, if one spouse complains that the other has been working too many hours recently so they have not had much time together, and the other answers with, “Yeah, well you haven’t been taking out the trash like YOU’RE supposed to so...” The first will then get defensive, and start explain why the trash hasn’t been done, and counter accusing and defending. Before you know it, the original topic gets completely lost in a fight about something else all together. The trouble is that the first issue never gets addressed, and now new conflicts have been added on to it. Over time, this pattern can destroy a couple’s sense of safety and compassion together, and make them wary of opening up to one another.

It’s important to remember that your relationship isn’t a war to be won. If it’s feeling like a battle far too often, try taking the rebuttals out of the conversation. Lead with active listening, and a sincere effort to understand. Even if both parties aren’t giving at that level, change can begin with only one person stepping out of the fight, and into the love. Winning an argument may be somewhat satisfying at a low level, but the real lasting victory comes from building trust and intimacy in the relationship. Happiness together is the greatest reward.

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