How To Say Sorry (Even When You Know You’re Right)
My husband predicts what is going to happen next in the movie and I respond, “That is definitely not going to happen.”
Feelings get hurt. The movie gets paused. An argument ensues.
Couples argue. Even though I do want to resolve the conflict, sometimes I just want to win the argument.
But if Sam is still mad at me, I don’t feel like a winner.
Relationships are either moving forward in a positive direction, or regressing in a negative direction. There is no standstill and there is always compromise.
So if the goal in an argument is to be right, you’ll never win.
Ideally, we’d love to minimize these arguments, but they’re inevitable. How can we navigate them as quickly as possible so that we can come out on the other side in a more understanding and loving place?
This essay will help break down the source of conflict and typical knee-jerk responses, then give you tools to react in order to cultivate a happy and healthy relationship.
Next time there’s an argument, remind yourself: it’s not about you. Then apologize.
There’s nothing worse than feeling misunderstood, especially when you had the best intentions. This is where many arguments begin.
Sam was so offended when I told him I disagreed with his movie prediction. But I didn’t see it as me telling him that he was wrong. I saw it as me stating my opinion as well. When he feels like I wronged him and I wasn’t even trying to, I get caught off guard in the worst way.
“But that’s not what I meant! At all!”
So then I craft my defense, trying to prove my point. “You can have your opinion and I can have mine. I just don’t think he’s the bad guy.”
I want and need for him to understand that he got it wrong and actually, I’m a great person and a wonderful partner. If I can prove my point, he will surely go back to loving me.
This is a good time to tell yourself that it’s not about you.
If you can approach an argument with this in mind, you’ll have a little separation from feeling like your character is being attacked. Because really, it’s not about you - it’s about how your partner feels in this moment. And you can’t argue against a person’s feelings.
Many times, the source of conflict seems so minor that you can’t even wrap your head around the fact that this has escalated into an argument at all.
But saying, “This is so dumb” or “Why are we even fighting about this?” only minimizes your partner’s feelings.
When miscommunications occur, accept the situation that you’re in. You’re having an argument. It sucks. But there’s no going backwards. You have to work through it. Consider it good practice. Each argument is an opportunity to test your communication skills.
Anger is easy.
But it doesn’t feel good. How long do you want to be angry for? Especially during quarantine, there’s really no escaping. You’re stuck with each other. Would you rather be happy together or miserable together?
Anger is both the fight and flight response. It’s the go-to emotion because it’s a way to shut off vulnerability. I hate feeling vulnerable. I want to feel strong and in control. How could Sam possibly get mad at me for having a different opinion than him? That is outrageous and unfair. I’m pissed, therefore I’m strong.
While anger gives the illusion of strength and control, it’s really just the easy way out.
Ryan Holiday explains that there are very few problems to which anger is the solution:
“And the most serious problems, the ones that are the most aggravating, are the ones that require the most discipline and the least amount of anger.”
This is a small but incredibly helpful shift in perspective to realize that it requires even more discipline to not get angry. I truly thought that anger was the correct response.
Now when I find myself getting angry and worked up, I can (sometimes) realize that it’s the easier and weaker reaction. I like to challenge myself with finding strength in vulnerability.
With anger comes blame. Jocko Willink explains that blame doesn’t solve the problem - it creates arguments.
“Instead of saying, ‘Hey, you didn’t make the lunches, that’s why everyone’s late,’ you say, ‘Hey, I noticed everyone’s a little late today. Tomorrow, I can help by getting up earlier and making the lunches.’ Immediately it reverses the defensive attitude, and it’s a great solution. When you take ownership of things, life gets better.”
Taking ownership of the problem is another shift in mindset. Many times when an argument arises, I get feelings of, “I want to fix this,” but that usually means defending myself and clearing my name to fix it. Instead, I should ask myself, “How can I fix this by taking ownership of the problem?”
Listening is key.
Listening is a skill often overlooked. It’s not something we’re really taught how to do. We’re too busy trying to think of what we’re going to say next, that there’s no way to pick up on everything the other person is trying to tell us.
Therapist Lori Gottlieb challenges us to ask ourselves:
“Are you truly listening or are you constructing your defense? Because then you’re not hearing them at all. Part of listening isn’t just hearing the content of what they’re trying to tell you. It’s reading their body language and their facial expressions.”
Take yourself out of the equation. Give your partner your undivided attention. Pay attention to where he’s looking, how he’s standing, if he’s really worked up. You’re not the defense attorney. You’re the jury.
If I had listened to Sam, I would have heard him say that I was being dismissive. I would have seen by the look on his face that his feelings were hurt.
Gottlieb further explains that you don’t have to agree with their version of the story, but they have to feel that you understand them, even if you might not agree with all of the details of how they’re telling the story.
“You don’t try to talk them out of their feelings with logic. So many of us try to do that, especially with our partners. ‘You shouldn’t feel that way because X.’ But that’s just actually how they feel. If you can have compassion for how they feel, their shame will kind of diminish, and they will be more able then to self-reflect.”
If you can just hear what your partner is trying to say and take yourself out of the equation, he will be more likely to soften. Remember, it’s not about you.
Mirroring is a tool.
Unfortunately, when a misunderstanding turns into a criticism, it’s more difficult to suppress the anger response. Master negotiator Chris Voss explains that when someone criticizes you, that also means that they’ve been hurt and they’re struggling.
“Instead of coming back and making it worse, you can summarize their point of view first. When you summarize what the other person’s struggling with, then, after that you can make your point.”
This is called mirroring - not to be confused with parroting. You don’t just repeat what your partner said, verbatim. The receiver repeats back what her partner said and how her partner feels in her own words. You might start with, “What I heard you say is…”
After Sam expressed his grievances, my first thought was to defend myself. “I wasn’t trying to make you feel bad or say you were wrong. I just love movies and I felt strongly about my own opinion.”
Instead, I should summarize his point of view first. It can’t be done from a place of contempt, moral superiority, or sarcasm. I always run into trouble when I start with, “You seriously think…”
Also, after summarizing, it’s inadvisable to launch into your point by transitioning with, “But.”
“I understand why you’re upset, but here’s where I’m coming from…”
When you see his perspective and transition with “But,” you are discounting everything he just said and he will not feel heard.
Generosity sets you free.
Later - much later - after you’ve made it through to the other side and have hugged and kissed and made up and pressed play (finally), can you talk about how to be better next time.
It’s a lot easier to talk about how to speak to each other in future arguments when you’re not in the middle of one. It’s imperative to have these conversations because if you don’t discuss how you can be better next time, a similar argument (that will feel like the same exact argument) will occur.
Don’t be afraid to have these conversations. I find that when Sam simply asks, “Can we talk about earlier?” I am able to let my guard down and prepare myself for a vulnerable conversation.
It’s important to talk about what you need, what you respond well to, and if certain words or phrases trigger you, but it’s better if you can start by saying how YOU can be better next time. I might say, “I know I’m a movie snob. Just because I have a strong opinion doesn’t mean I should put down your opinions. I’ll try to be less dismissive next time.”
Sometimes, this is enough of an opening for Sam to then say how he can better. And sometimes the thing he can be better at is exactly what I was going to tell him I needed. He might respond with, “I know you get excited about movies. I shouldn’t have taken it so personally. You’re allowed to have a different opinion than me.”
It was during one of these conversations that I learned that I can’t summarize Sam’s point of view and then transition to my point of view with “But…” because it makes him feel like I’m minimizing his feelings. He told me this in a calm manner when we were both vulnerable, so I was truly able to hear him. If he had suggested this in the heat of an argument, I can’t imagine that I would have been so understanding.
You get the love you give.
When it comes to an equal, loving partnership, you deserve the world. You deserve to be treated with respect and love and kindness. You do.
But once you’ve entered into that partnership and you’re in it for the long haul, it’s time to shift your focus. Instead of focusing on what you need and what you deserve, think about what you can give and how you can give.
Love psychologist Dr. John Gottman says that a really good love relationship is your best guarantee of health, longevity, happiness, and success in life.
“The emphasis is always so much on getting the love you want, but I think what you really gain in a love relationship is, you gain the ability to love; the joy is the opportunity to love fully.”
When you can focus on all the love you can give to another person, you won’t care about who was right or who “won” the argument. Because it doesn’t matter. Even though it feels difficult in the moment to be vulnerable, the payoff is huge. The argument gets shorter and Sam and I quickly find our way back to that place of mutual love and understanding.
Move forward in a positive direction.
There’s no way to master great communication and vulnerability on your first try, but little by little, if you implement these tools, your arguments will get shorter and you and your partner will recover faster.
Next time an argument ensues, remember these six key points/questions:
- It’s not about you: what is your partner feeling right now?
- Summarize his point of view first, without being condescending.
- Anger gives the illusion of strength and control: how can you be vulnerable and take ownership of the problem?
- Give your undivided attention and show love.
- Don’t launch into your point by transitioning with “But.”
- How can you learn from this and do better next time?
Sam’s favorite movie is Blue Crush 2 (yes, 2). My favorite movie is definitely not Blue Crush 2. We don’t necessarily watch or enjoy movies in the same way, and that’s okay. We’ve decided to implement a few rules moving forward. I will never tell Sam that his opinion is wrong and I will always preface my opinion with, “I think.” Sam will not continually predict what is going to happen next (during like, every scene) and try not to take it personally when my opinion differs from his own. We’ll see how it goes and continue to adjust our movie-watching strategy.
Because even when you’re right in an argument, there’s a good chance you’re wrong, too. At the end of the day, all that matters is how loved we feel and how much love we have to give each other.