HISTORICALLY, CIVILIZATION flowered where
differing points of view collided. Centers of trade were the
cradles of civilization Babylon, Egypt, Greece
every place where different cultures had an opportunity to interact,
humankind made significant advances in technology, in
language, in science, in architecture, in philosophy. Advances
come very slowly to isolated tribes in remote regions. They can
go thousands of years and hardly change at all.
The clash of differing points of view creates
room to think new thoughts. It expands the limiting perception
of a single point of view. When disagreeing points of view come
together, something new can be created.
If you only had one eye, you would be unable
to detect depth. When you reached for a glass of water, you would
be unable to know exactly how far away the glass was. What makes
depth perception happen is having two eyes that disagree. Each
eye has literally a different point of view. It is the disagreeing
points of view that allow us to perceive three-dimensional space.
In the book, A More Perfect Union: The Making of the United
States Constitution, by William Peters, you can read the
fascinating story of how the Constitution was born. It required
a large group of intelligent men, arguing all day, every day,
for months, to create that Constitution. Each man had his own
point of view, and fought hard for the interests of his state.
The result is one of the miracles of history.
There are so many people in the world wanting to move to the
country with this Constitution, our government finds it necessary
to bar most of them from coming here. And the greatness of the
Constitution was created by the power of disagreement. Disagreement
can be very productive.
This is equally true about you when
you're dealing with people in your life. Your relationships will
have depth and power only to the degree it has plenty of disagreement.
According to the research, married couples
who are intimate argue often. Not painful, hurtful conflict,
but argument, debate, disagreement. These couples think conflict
is natural and they don't get terribly upset that they argue.
Their attitude contrasts sharply with most couples who seem to
have a conflict phobia. But without conflict, relationships are
shallow. They lack depth. They lack intimacy.
Disagreement is powerful.
To harness the power of disagreement, it
helps to learn to make a few distinctions. All statements are
not created equal. To make an argument productive and constructive,
it helps to know the difference between these four kinds of talk:
An observation is a provable, verifiable reality. For example,
"The water is on and the sink is overflowing." That
statement contains two observations.
I may think you slammed the door, but you
may think you only closed the door, so "You slammed the
door" is a theory (which we'll get to in a minute), but
"the door is now closed" is an observation.
To say an observation is to say specifically
what you see and hear. A person who is not making this distinction
might say, "You're not listening." A person who is
making this distinction might say, "You have looked at your
watch four times and you haven't said anything in at least ten
minutes. Do you have something on your mind?" Not only is
this easier to take and less likely to be perceived as an attack,
but it's closer to the truth as you know it, unless you're a
What about the statement, "You never
listen to me." Is that an observation? Not likely. It is
probably an overgeneralization. It is an accusation,
probably inaccurate, and so doesn't qualify to fit the category
of "observations." Try to translate overgeneralizations
into a statement of what you want (see below).
A feeling is an emotion or a physical sensation. For example,
"I feel angry." Feelings are very basic: anger, embarrassment,
discomfort, guilt, fear. The more specific, the better. If a
feeling isn't basic, it's not a feeling. "I feel that you
are a jerk" is a theory. You-are-a-jerk is not a feeling.
"You feel angry," is also
a theory. You cannot know the feelings of another, although you
can guess. It is legitimate to ask, "Do you feel angry?"
But it is not productive or helpful to say you know something
that you in fact do not know, even if you're very good at reading
the faces of other people.
A want is a desire, a wish. For example, "I want you to
speak more quietly."
Contrast that with: "You are yelling
at me." That's a theory.
A person unable to make the distinction
between a want and a theory might say, "I
want you to quit being a jerk." This has too much interpretation
in it. A person who can distinguish between a want and a theory
might say, "I want you to put your clothes in the hamper."
A theory is an unproved proposition, assumed for the purpose
of argument. A prediction is a theory. For example, "It's
going to rain tomorrow."
An interpretation is a theory: "You're
just saying that to shut me up." It may be true, but unless
the other person admits it, it is only a theory. Any guess that
one person makes about another's feelings or intentions is a
An evaluation or judgment is a theory.
"You're lazy!" is an unprovable statement. It is not
an observation. It is not a feeling. It is not a want. The statement
"you're lazy" can only be verified by agreement with
others. But agreement does not and cannot elevate a theory into
a fact. No matter how many people agree with you that the world
is flat, the world is still round.
IF YOU WANT TO ATTAIN INTIMACY, you must
be willing to enter conflict. You must be willing to argue. And
to make an argument productive, it helps to know the difference
between those four kinds of talk.
You've probably noticed that when you're
arguing with somebody, the talk usually consists of one theory
after another. And disagreements about theories are difficult
to resolve because they are too abstract. They are too far removed
from real life. For an argument to get anywhere, you need to
talk about something real. Observations are real. Feelings are
real. Wants are real.
To make a disagreement productive, say
what you feel, say what you want, and if and only if
you are crystal clear on the difference between an observation
and a theory, say what you observe. Warning: When you're angry,
it'll be more difficult to tell the difference. It is usually
best to refrain from talking at all while you're angry. Take
a break and calm down first.
In an argument, it is usually unwise to
state a theory. If you think of a theory to say, break it down
into an observation, a feeling, and/or a want.
For example, a woman brings home Chinese
food. Her husband gets mad because he told her to let him know
if she is bringing dinner home. He has another dinner already
prepared. He says, "You never do what I ask." That's
a theory. It's an overgeneralization and an accusation (not an
observation), it's not a feeling and it's not a want.
If he wants to translate it, he could start
with his observations: "I have already cooked dinner. You
didn't let me know you were bringing food home."
Then he can go on to his feelings: "I
feel angry and frustrated."
Then, wants: "I want you to promise
me if you're going to do this in the future, you'll call me and
let me know."
This kind of communication is easier to
deal with, increases understanding, and gets things done. A discussion
is much less likely to devolve into an counterproductive conflict
when you stick with the first three kinds of talk.
What can a person do with a statement like,
"You never do what I ask?" Nothing. You can argue about
it for three days and never get anywhere.
But by sticking with observations, feelings
and wants, the communication is clear. You become understandable.
The other person knows what you feel, what you want, and maybe
has learned a new fact or two.
I'VE FOUND when I'm trying to limit my speaking to only observations,
feelings and wants, there isn't as much to say. I end up doing
a lot of listening, which in an argument is a good thing. If
the person you're arguing with is mad, they will unload almost
nothing but theories into the airspace. It is sometimes helpful
to ask, "What do you want?" or "What do you feel?"
But sometimes it'll just make them mad.
It's difficult to stay with observations,
feelings and wants. Theories keep slipping in there and messing
things up. But if you focus and practice, you can get better
at it, and your relationship will get better right along with
Remind yourself of the four kinds of
talk and in discussions, avoid number four: