How do you decide how much of a relationship conflict’s flotsam is worth pursuing? How do you focus on the important matters in a relationship conflict and not get sidetracked by trivial ones? Janet, a reader, contacted me about my recent post, Starting a Difficult Conversation. She asked,
I’m thinking about how sometimes a relationship is like Fibber McGee and Molly’s where the closet never does get cleaned out – and every time you try to have a productive conversation, the door gets opened and all sorts of distractions, old issues, non-issues, and everything but the thing you were looking for spills out. You examine this thing and that, but simply don’t get the job done…I agree that sorting through the things that fall out of the closet is a patient and kind-hearted way to bring things into order. But I’m not satisfied that people always have the time and attention to do the sorting. Is there no other way to cut through the clutter than to pay attention to every little thing, however briefly?
My short answer is that the idea isn’t to spend time with every single item that falls out of the closet. Life is short. Some things belong on the yardsale pile, while others should go straight to the trash bin.
But Janet’s good question begs a more thoughtful answer, so here are some of the ways I help my clients cut through the clutter in relationship conflict:
Sifting the important from the unimportant takes patience. As the other person unloads a long list of your transgressions or of problems that need addressing, don’t fight back. Calmly jot them down so you don’t lose track. Put every single item on the list (and don’t be a smartass about it). When they’ve unloaded everything, ask them which things are most important. Start there. In my experience, the more trivial things tend to drop away when the truly important matters get addressed.
Apparently discrete items, when viewed collectively, sometimes sort into a single important item. Find out why each apparently trivial item is important and you may well discover the deeper important stuff.
Sometimes the thing that seems trivial to you isn’t minor at all to them. You have to look beyond the presenting problem and find out why they care about it so much. Focus your energy there.
Important concerns in important relationships don’t go away, they become the snake under the rug. If either or both of you is complicit in the spiral of silence (avoidance), you might consider having a heart-to-heart about why you’re avoiding. There’s likely something important you can learn if you can bring your curious self to the conversation.
When true trivialities threaten to undermine you both, re-focus on the goal of your conversation. Ask yourselves, What are we trying to achieve here? What should we discuss to accomplish that?
At the end of the day, not everyone may be ready to or interested in doing the work you want to do. If you’ve diligently tried out options like those above, then it’s time to take stock in the relationship and what you want from it.