Do you have any of these problems?
Are you unhappy with someone?
Is someone unhappy with you?
Do you feel withdrawn or distant from someone?
Are you avoiding someone?
Are you blaming someone? Is someone blaming you?
Do you feel yourself as a victim of someone?
Do you feel anger or resentment with someone?
Are you walking on eggshells with someone?
Does it seem like someone is avoiding you?
Are you having difficulty communicating with someone?
Do you feel defensive with someone or they with you?
Would you like to have a better relationship with someone?
Do you have an issue with someone you don’t know how to resolve where you both can be happy?
Would you like to say “no” to someone, but you’re concerned about damaging your relationship?
Do you want to make a request of someone, but you’re concerned it might not be taken well?
Do you need to set a boundary with someone, but you’re concerned that they will be upset if you do?
If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, then it is time for you to have a Partnership Conversation. This conversation often requires a suitable environment with enough uninterrupted time for a deep conversation. (Hint: turn off your mobile phones.)
Teaming up to support mutual self-interest
You can solve the above problems using the Partnership Conversation. You can do this by knowing that, to lead to a successful outcome, the self-interest, as seen from both sides, must be served. Neither person is wrong for being self-interested: the issue is not about being self-interested: that is a necessary part of human nature. It’s about being intelligently and effectively self-interested in a way that best serves both sides, short-term and long-term. You can accomplish this by finding ways for the self-interest of each to work together and be mutually supportive.
Never default on your primary responsibility (and ensure you're thinking long-term)
Each party agrees to work together as partners, as a team (if you will), choosing good will, courage, creativity, and a helpful context to find ways that the fulfillment of mutual self-interest is enhanced. It is also understood that, while doing one’s best to understand and fulfill the other party’s self-interest in concert with one’s own, it is ultimately each person’s #1 responsibility to take care of herself or himself (no other person can assume this primary responsibility for another). Taking care of yourself (considering both short-term and long-term) may mean walking away (that is, “no deal”), if that is deemed the best way to take care of yourself. It might even include revoking a previous understanding.
Almost always, initiating respectfully, with persistent and gentle follow through on a Partnership Conversation, will be a choice of courage. It can also be a choice of courage to agree to such a conversation initiated by another. You may feel it is safer (although it is usually not safer, especially in the longer term) to fight, to try to manipulate, to tolerate, or to withdraw. If needed, take yourself through the undoing fear process before starting (or during) such a conversation.
Realize that whenever there is a conflict with your partner, you may blame them and/or feel defensive.
Set the attitude and context
Note: the name “Tracy” will be used throughout this document to denote the person you are engaging with in the Partnership Conversation. For convenience, I’ll use “she” to mean either “she” or “he” when referring to Tracy.
First, set the attitude and context for the Partnership Conversation. Typically, whenever there is some sense of conflict with Tracy, we will blame Tracy and/or feel defensive. If Tracy is not already blaming you, your attitude will most often stimulate the same reaction in her. Therefore, your ability to find a solution to the conflict will be sorely limited.
With the Partnership Conversation, you must first do your best to let go of blame and defensiveness (at a minimum, not to show it to Tracy). It may be necessary to spend some time with yourself or with another listener to let go of blame and judgment before your conversation with Tracy. You need to enter the conversation with an attitude of partnership: “It’s not your problem, it’s not my problem. It’s our problem. Let’s put the problem over there and be partners to find a way, a solution, where both you and I can be happy.” Recognize that both of you are just trying to get along in life. Recognize that the best solution is one in which your self-interest and Tracy’s self-interest can work together. Tracy is not wrong for being self-interested and neither are you. And, most often, the best way to look out for your own self-interest (and also to support the other person’s self-interest) is to work together to find a way for your self-interest and Tracy’s self-interest (short-term and long-term) to fit together. A good way of doing this is through the Partnership Conversation.
First, you must set up a suitable environment for the conversation, with enough uninterrupted time for a deeper understanding.
Example: starting a Partnership Conversation
You can start the conversation a number of ways. Here is an example:
You: “Tracy, I’ve got a problem that I am not sure how to solve. May I share it with you?”
Tracy: “Sure, go ahead.”
You: “Thank you. I have noticed that I have been a bit upset and defensive over our different ideas about how to raise our child. I am clear that we both want the best for our child…it’s only that we have different thoughts about what might be best, right?”
Tracy: “Yes, that describes it pretty well. But you are just so sure that you are right and you’re not listening to me.”
You: “I agree. And I want to apologize for that. And also apologize for my defensiveness. I have not been trying to put myself in your shoes and to understand your point of view. Would you give me another chance?”
Tracy: “Thank you. Of course.”
You: “What do you think of this idea? Let’s really try to understand each other better. I promise I will do my best. Let us put the problem over there…it’s not your problem…it’s not my problem…it’s our problem. Let’s see if we can be partners together to find a way where we can both be happy and also come to a good solution. In general, would that be okay with you?”
Tracy: “Sure…but I’m not exactly sure how.”
You: “Me neither. But we can start by me trying to understand what you think would be best for our child and what actions we should take and why. May I ask you some questions to help me understand?”
Tracy: “Sure…go ahead.”
You: “I know you have told me many things before, but I was defensive then and I really wasn’t listening very well…so let’s start from the beginning as if I don’t know anything. Please share about your ideas of exactly how we should raise our child. Also, I would love to hear any ideas of how you think we could handle any disagreements we may have in the process of raising our children, should they arise.”
Tracy: “Okay, well, here are some of my thoughts…”
You: “Thank you. So what I am hearing is… Do you think I understand okay so far? Please go on…”
You: “Okay…and what else, Tracy?...”
Listen and understand first; ask to be understood second
Fully listen to Tracy...no arguing, no giving your point of view, just listening deeply to try to understand, often paraphrasing Tracy’s words back to her so that both of you can feel that you are really listening. For example, “So what I hear you saying is, ‘you think we should always have a set bedtime for our child,’ is that right?”
After Tracy feels you fully understand her thoughts and feelings and ideas of how to raise your child, then you ask Tracy, “May I share with you my concerns about what might happen if we consistently implement some of your ideas…what might be the costs, the benefits, and the risks, both short-term and long-term? Could you listen to me, ask me questions, and try to get some feeling of my perspective?”
Since you have listened carefully to Tracy, showing respect and understanding for Tracy’s thoughts, feelings, and beliefs, it is now more likely that she will be able and willing to listen more openly to you. During your sharing time with Tracy, ensure that you validate any points that Tracy makes that you agree with or that you can agree with.
Blame or defensiveness can easily kill the process
Special note: avoiding blame or the appearance of blame from your tone of voice, your inflection and your choice of words and phrases can be problematic. Many everyday words and phrases that just roll off our tongue can occur as judgmental. Consider taking a quick review of toxic words (many of which are blaming, for example, “lazy”) before having a Partnership Conversation. If you partner uses a tone of voice, a word or phrase that stimulates your defensiveness, take some deep breaths before responding with curiosity. Remember, there is nothing to defend.
In your dialogue, speak carefully in a non-blame way. Before you open your mouth, ask yourself, “Is the way I am about to say this likely to stimulate defensiveness in Tracy?” If so, come up with different ways to express what you want to say that are less likely to push her defense buttons.
One good technique is to make use of the word “occur” instead of implying a fact. For example, instead of saying, “What you said hurt me,” you could say, “I noticed that when you used the words, ‘you don’t care,’ it occurred as hurtful to me.” If you speak the second way, it is less likely to stimulate defensiveness than if you say it the first way.
Special note: even if the other person is blaming towards you at some point in the process, if you respond to it with curiosity and acceptance, with the ability to let go of defensiveness or counter-blame, then you could still end up having a great partnership conversation.
I got upset with Jerry
Here’s an account of an actual partnership conversation I was challenged with.
In this conversation, Danny is the host. And his other guest was Jerry.
Circumstances: I had just arrived at about 11:30am at my friend Danny’s apartment in Shanghai (moving from Tokyo to Shanghai in November of 2000). Danny was letting me stay with him while I looked for my own apartment. Within 45 minutes after my arrival another friend of Danny’s (Jerry) arrived (Danny was a very generous guy).
Around 1:00pm Jerry got on the phone with a friend. As he talked on the phone, the volume of his voice was uncomfortably loud. There was no place I could go in the apartment to relieve the discomfort caused by his loud voice. I approached Danny and asked him, “Is the volume of Jerry’s voice bothering you?” He agreed that it was. I then asked, “Would you be willing to talk with him about it after he gets off the phone?” Danny declined my request. I then asked, “Would it be okay for me to talk with him about it after he gets off the phone?” Danny agreed.
Me: “Jerry, I’ve got a problem I am not sure how to solve. Can I share it with you?” (I was very careful to hide the bit of resentment that I was feeling.)
Jerry: “Sure, go ahead.”
Me: “Thank you. Perhaps my ears are too sensitive, but when you were talking on the phone just now, the volume of your voice occurred as very uncomfortable for my ears. I’m not sure how to solve this problem, in case you need to get on the phone again. I could check into a hotel, but I would much prefer to stay here at Danny’s place. Do you have any ideas?”
Jerry: “I am so sorry. My friends have often told me my voice is loud on the phone, but I just don’t notice it myself.”
Me: “Oh, that is understandable. May I make a suggestion?”
Jerry: “Please do.”
Me: “If you’re on the phone again, and it occurs to me that your voice is painful for my ears, may I wink at you to give you a signal to lower your voice? Would that be okay?”
Jerry: “That would be great. Thank you.”
Jerry and I had no problem after that and the resentment I had felt disappeared.
The dialogue above is to just give you an idea of the partnership approach. You need to be flexible and responsive within the immediate dialogue. The key point, however, is to respectfully insist on a partnership approach where your joint intention is to find a way(s) for you both to be happy. Also, it’s important to recognize that it may take time, it may take creativity, it may take digging deeper and deeper into understanding yourself and the other person. It is a process of discovery and creativity. It may take a willingness to let go of specific positions and get clear about the bigger picture that is important to each of you. If you maintain clarity about the bigger picture (or the ultimate goal), then it becomes easier to be flexible about the positions that can be used to move towards that goal.
Keep the guidelines in mind
Some people have asked for more examples (with resolutions) of partnership conversations. I am reluctant to provide these, because it is much more important to keep the guidelines in mind, rather than getting attached to any particular way that a solution was reached within a specific partnership conversation. Particular examples with resolutions are likely to be inapplicable in your situations (except for illustrating the guidelines).
Above all, a willingness to initiate and follow through on the Partnership Conversation is often a choice of courage. Make friends with that fear…tap into the energy of that fear to give you confidence to initiate and move forward with the Partnership Conversation (undoing fear).
Additional guidelines for the Partnership Conversation
Choosing to be 100% responsible
Be 100% responsible. Be curious and eager to discover how your behavior maybe be contributing to the issue. It is very tempting, when things aren’t going well with Tracy, to blame her (and/or to blame yourself). Whenever you are blaming, however, you are giving away (at least some of) your power. Yes, maybe you will not be able to get the outcome you want, even with your best efforts. But you greatly increase your chances if you can let go of blame (towards Tracy or towards yourself). Blame is most often an attempt at feeling more powerful (think “anger”) and to reduce the feeling of fear or powerlessness in the circumstances. Even though this is the intention behind blame, when you indulge in blame, the results that you are able to get are most often counterproductive. Use the undoing fear process to turn that resisted fear into confidence and energy.
Courage first, results second
Honor yourself for choosing courage. Initiating and staying the course with the Partnership Conversation is often a choice of courage. Remember to honor yourself again and again for choosing this courage, regardless of the outcome.
Accept the risk. It’s nice if we can know that our actions are guaranteed to produce the results we want. The Partnership Conversation cannot guarantee that. What is “guaranteed” however, is that it will be more likely to produce your desired results than any other approach you might take.
Listening well will give you the most bang for the buck
Most of us, often by default, put speaking as a priority over listening. Create both the intention to listen deeply (and to have your partner experience that you are doing so). “Seek first to understand, second to be understood.” This quote from Dr. Stephen Covey is a gem to always keep in mind. When listening to Tracy, focus on listening, paraphrasing from time to time to make sure that you do indeed understand and Tracy can get that you have listened fully to her. Save any points of your own that you would like to make until later, only after Tracy gets that you understand her thoughts, feelings, and attitudes about the issue. Only after Tracy feels heard, then you can ask, “May I share some concerns on my side and how things are occurring for me so that I can get your feedback? Could you try to understand some of my thoughts and feelings?” Sometimes people have difficulty in just listening because they have conflated listening with agreeing or obeying. Listening is entirely distinct from agreeing or obeying. Recognizing this can free you up to be a great listener.
Notice and acknowledge ways that you're already on the same page
Acknowledge agreement. Whenever you notice some area of agreement or alignment with Tracy, let her know that and let her know that you appreciate that. It’s easier to notice our differences rather than our similarities.
Also, it can often be important to re-affirm and acknowledge that, regardless on any other ways in which you seem not to be on the same page, you're partners with the intention of finding a way where you both will be happy.
Learning the new skill of NVC (nonviolent communication)
Take special care not to stimulate defensiveness in Tracy. For most of us, our normal way of thinking and speaking can inadvertently stimulate defensiveness in others. Before you say anything, ask yourself, “Could this way of speaking likely be taken as blaming or argumentative by Tracy?” If so, ask yourself how you can soften your language and still move towards the intention of your conversation. Consider using words like, “It occurs to me that..,” “In my experience…,” “True or not, I was thinking…,” or “I noticed that my automatic feeling/thought was…” Also, pay attention to your tone of voice and to your body language. These can also stimulate defensiveness.
Do you know what may not be so?
Tracy will never change, you think. Remember Mark Twain’s dictum, “It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so.” Maybe Tracy will change and maybe not. Most of us assume that we know much more than we really do. There is power in acknowledging your lack of knowledge. Be willing to choose courage and curiosity to find out whether or not your assumptions are true.
Are you thinking,"I should let sleeping dogs lie?"
You might be worried that trying to have a Partnership Conversation with Tracy will only make your relationship worse. As with most everything, there is always some risk that your efforts will backfire. However, even if the Partnership Conversation doesn’t appear to work, if you are fairly consistent in following these guidelines, it’s unlikely to make things worse. In all my experience of using this conversation, things never got worse. And in 99% of the time, they got better.
Patience with the process
Find patience with the process. Slow down. Discovering ways for you both to be happy may not come quickly. Find a way to enjoy the process so you don’t hurry yourself into an unsatisfactory result. With bigger issues, it can be especially important to focus on understanding and discovery first, instead of trying to go quickly for agreement. Use your curiosity and creativity (and invite Tracy to do so also) to find ways for your respective self-interests (both short-term and long-term) to work together. Remember that good negotiators emphasize the discovery of and getting down to more fundamental interests on both sides (rather than getting stuck in positions) in order to create win-win solutions.
Schedule a continuation of the conversation with Tracy, if needed, especially if you find yourself or Tracy have gotten defensive and you aren’t making a quick recovery. Take a break and cool down.
Expectations are the source of all upsets
Let go of expectations. Expectations are distinct from intentions, commitments, or predictions. Expectations are fantasies that we indulge in (expecting something to happen or not happen a certain way) in order to avoid accepting and making friends with the fear that it might not happen the way we want. Expectations are a resistance to fear; expectations are a way we set ourselves up for upset. Especially important with the Partnership Conversation is to use the undoing expectations process to dissolve any expectations, only leaving desires, intentions, and commitments (without expectations).
Imagine Tracy will want everything that you want
Here’s a fantasy exercise to create better results for both sides. Sometimes, in trying to work out a win-win, we unwittingly don’t speak out (or even know) clearly what we would fully want, because we’re trying to second-guess what will be agreeable to the other person. One way to circumvent this tendency is to create a fantasy, “Tracy, imagine that I could somehow want EXACTLY what you want, then what would you want?” Encourage Tracy to share that fully. Then you would do the same, imagining that Tracy could somehow want EXACTLY what you want, and then sharing what you want fully with Tracy within that assumption. From each of you knowing clearly and openly what each of you would want in this fantasy world, then you are likely to be more successful in finding a way that you can create a satisfactory resolution to your conflict.
Keep the context in mind
Keep the context and end in mind: It’s easy to get sidetracked into distractions or irrelevancies in our conversations. Work with Tracy to always keep in mind the context (working as partners) and the end (to find a way for both to be happy).
Recognize the fact that everyone is just trying to find a way to get along in the world, within the context of their beliefs and what they think they know: There is no right, there is no wrong, there is no good, there is no bad, there is no fair, there is no unfair. There are only costs, benefits, and risks (short-term and long-term) for Tracy and costs, benefits, and risks (short-term and long-term) for you, as you each see them for yourselves. Get interested in understanding how Tracy’s actions and attitudes make sense from how Tracy sees the world, how Tracy sees herself, and how Tracy sees you.
Another way to open a Partnership Conversation
One way to both encourage Tracy to enter into the partnership conversation and to minimize the possibility of defensiveness, is to approach her with the opening, “I am having a problem I’m not sure what to do about. May I tell you about it? Maybe you can help me find a solution?”
Enter the Partnership Conversation with the idea that your relationship with Tracy (and even your view of what is possible in the world) could be even better than it was before the issue arose. In my own experience, I have found this to be the case.
You might want to let Tracy know about other options you may need to consider
Tracy may see the problem/issue as entirely yours and it has nothing to do with her and she has no interest in discussing and exploring the issue with you. In this case you might want to make it clear that there could/will be some consequences to her position, since you will have to make your choices unilaterally. For example, let’s say Tracy is your boss and you’d like to explore with her ways in which you might be able to enjoy your job more. But she claims it is entirely your problem and she is unwilling to be partners with you in possibly discovering how you could be happier regarding your job. You might respond with, “Okay…I understand. I will do my best to solve this without your input. If possible, I would prefer to continue to work here. However, if I am unable to solve this problem by myself, I might be forced to consider working somewhere else. Do you understand that?” If she is clear about the possible consequences of her unwillingness to dialogue with you, she may shift her position.
Never default on your #1 job
Your #1 job is to take care of yourself: Remember that the context and intention of the Partnership Conversation is to find a way (working together) so that both of you can be happy (that is, both of you feel like you’re taking care of yourselves). But, even after your best efforts in implementing the Partnership Conversation, you still cannot find a way for both of you to be happy, then be prepared to “walk away” and/or create the necessary boundaries so that you can be happy. This may require you to choose the courage to “be self-interested,” especially if Tracy is blaming you for this. Be careful that you don’t give into something and sacrifice your own happiness for the sake of “being a nice guy.”
Finally, and very importantly...
Remember the NLP maxim, "The meaning of your communication is the response that you get." It's another way to come at the idea of being 100% responsible. Our addiction to righteousness makes it seem that we might have more power if we indulge in blaming the other person rather than always bringing the responsibility back to ourselves. If you're not getting the response you want, keep asking yourself, "How might the way I am communicating be contributing to the unwanted response I am getting? How might I vary my communication to more likely get what I want?" Remember also that there is no way to "not communicate." Even if you don't talk, withdraw, walk away, all these actions communicate.
Also, be okay with being powerless, if it seems that you are. When you're not okay with being powerless, you can end up being less effective than you could be otherwise.
And always honor yourself for the courage to initiate or engage in the partnership conversation, regardless of the results.
And never relinquish your power to set and maintain boundaries in order to take care of yourself.