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Man in the Middle

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When it comes to parenting and relationships, I'm an admitted communication freak. I look around and see so many escalations that really come out of simple communication missteps. I really try to pay attention to avoid them myself, but you know, sometimes that's easier said than done.

There's an interesting scenario I see over and over though. It's the triangle expectation. You see it a lot with teenagers, and as a matter of fact the person who first brought it to my attention was my boss, telling me about a conversation he was trying to have with his teenaged daughter. Have you ever had a conversation with someone where it seemed like you just couldn't connect? Where it seemed as if they could have been in a debate, speaking so that some independent moderator could declare a "winner"? So the conversation feels like it's not between the two of you, because it's really not – a third invisible person is involved – hence the triangle.

It's learned behaviour really; when we were little Mom or Dad (or teacher) was the head of the triangle and if there was a fight or disagreement, you'd escalate up to Mom or Dad (or teacher). They'd assess fault, decide if you were right, and mete out the punishment. And that kind of triangle is always present with us, isn't it? Look at a courtroom – prosecution, defence and Judge (head of the triangle). It's there in sports – opposing teams and a referee. So we learn that structure really well.

What we don't pay as much attention to is two-way communication and how to make that effective. We aren't usually taught until much later about how each person's experiences shapes his or her perspective. We aren't taught early on to listen and ask why, and to try to connect and find an agreement. We're taught that someone has to be right and someone has to be at fault – the guilty party. And so we learn defensiveness, overcompensation, bullying. And usually we aren't even aware of it.

After my conversation with my boss, I started really paying attention to my conversations. And I realized that we go into conversations loaded up with assumptions we aren't even aware we're making. Boy was that a Eureka moment for me. To realize that your assumption is wrong or flawed, when you weren't even aware you were making that assumption, is a really powerful thing.

I'm reading Byron Katie's Loving What Is right now, and she talks about some of the ways we make our own selves unhappy by making our perspectives at odds with reality. One of the examples she uses is the reality that your spouse doesn't agree with you. We lose track and work ourselves up based on the belief that our spouse should be agreeing with us. The fact is that no amount of wishing that were so is going to change the reality that it isn't. Instead of focusing on trying to force the other person to conform to our reality, we should be focusing inward.

With my little guys I'm starting gently. I'm trying to get them to figure out their own disagreements, and figure out when they need to escalate. I sit with them to hear them out, and prompt them when maybe they could share a little something to help the other person understand the background or perspective. They seem to be taking to it really well. The yelling hasn't gone away – there's always going to be yelling. But it makes me happy to see them defuse some of their own arguments, and is it just me, or do they seem to like each other's company more?

Now I just need to work on me.

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About Nicole Riera