When a television commercial shows someone doing something potentially dangerous, it always includes a warning on the bottom of the screen that advises viewers: don’t try this at home. I have seen such a warning on a commercial that featured a driver executing sharp turns in a sports car at very high speeds on a closed course. I have also seen such warnings on commercials that showed someone juggling knives or walking on fire. The warning to not try the activity that the viewers are watching at home is intended to protect the viewers from harming themselves, or someone they love even though it seems quite obvious to the viewer that the activity would be too dangerous to try on their own.
As I watched the presidential debate this earlier this week, I felt like there should have been a similar warning scrolling across the bottom of the screen during debate: “Please, don’t try this at home.” At Living Compass we make a strong effort to teach couples, parents, teens, families, and organizations how to communicate in ways that are effective, helpful, and uplifting for all. Many of the communication skills that have been on display during this election season, and especially during the recent debates, do not resemble anything that we teach, and in fact are often a lesson in how not to communicate effective and uplifting.
Perhaps debating is a necessary and effective part of an election process. I can safely say, though, that debating is rarely, if ever, an effective strategy in any other kind of relationship. The goal of a debate is to win–to defeat your opponent. You score “points” with clever comebacks, put downs, and exposing weakness in your opponent’s actions, words, or positions. In fact, the word debate derives from the same root word as does the word battery. Battery means to wound or beat someone in a hostile or offensive manner–as in assault and battery. This adversarial and aggressive style of communication was clearly on display in several of the more intense exchanges during this week’s presidential debate.
Whenever I have a couple or a family in my counseling office who is locked in unproductive anger and conflict they will most likely be engaging in some form of debate with one another. Their communication alternates between attacking and defending and is designed to “win” points over the other person, whom they are at that moment experiencing as their “opponent.” Each person is clear that the other person is fully responsible for the current mess they find themselves in and they they bear virtually no responsibility for any of the problem. The problem when this kind of communication happens in families or between friends, is that unlike an election, in the end, no one actually wins. In fact, everyone loses in personal relationships when communication sounds like a debate.
My goal in helping a couple or family that is locked in a cycle of debate is to help them replace that cycle of debate with a cycle of compromise. Com, the first part of the word compromise, means together. Compromise means to promise together, to work together for the greater good of the family, the friendship, or the organization. So, the goal of a cycle of compromise is to honor the integrity of each other’s thoughts and opinions, to learn from each other, to acknowledge when the other person is right about something, to be honest about one’s own shortcomings and mistakes, to acknowledge for the good of the team that sometimes it is more important to be helpful than right, and that in the end humility and calmness will be more helpful than ego and bravado so that in the end, the family or couple can work together for the good of the team.
When families and good friends work through tough issues and intense differences they provide a model for all of us, including our politicians, about the power of effective communication and the greater good that comes from a willingness to compromise and truly work together.