Transform Any Conflict with this One Sentence

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Transform Any Conflict with this One Sentence

By Jonathan Miller


Conflict can happen at work, at home, on the interstate, during Thanksgiving dinner, while opening presents on Christmas morning, and the list goes on and on. Many of us know what it is like to be in conflict. It is not fun.

How do you have healthy conflict? It helps to have a little self-awareness.

I ride my bike to work most days. One day, I saw a gentleman in his mid-forties riding his bike in the opposite direction. As I looked at him, he suddenly lifted his front tire off the ground and proceeded to ride past me with his front wheel raised high in the sky. A sly smile filled his face.

I laughed to myself. Why had he done that?

My mind immediately started making up stories.

Maybe he has a very narcissistic personality and loves to show off. Maybe he wants me to know that he is a better cyclist than me.

My smile started to fade.

 Yes… that must be it. What a jerk. . . I’m a good cyclist too, you know.

I thought about trying to replicate the man’s wheelie, but quickly decided against it. I knew I’d probably end up eating the pavement. I started to get a little agitated.

Who does he think he is?

I caught myself.

What am I doing?

In a matter of seconds, my mind had jumped from one unfounded conclusion to the next. In no time at all, I had decided I knew everything about a man I had only seen for a moment.

I realized there are thousands of other stories that would also fit Wheelie Man’s actions. Maybe he loves fun and to make people smile?

The Stories We Write Everyday

One of the biggest hindrances to having healthy conflict in any relationship is our brains’ constant desire to fill in the blanks. Author and research professor, Brené Brown, found in her scientific study that, in a desire to protect us, our brains want a story above all else.

The result is that our minds will make up stories to fill in the blanks whenever the information isn’t already available. As you saw above, my brain did this with Wheelie Man, and he is not the only person I have done this to.

If you are married or in a serious relationship of any kind, you can probably think of many times when your significant other did something that made you angry. However, after you dug deeper, you realized that you had the facts completely wrong.

The problem is that we often don’t dig deeper.

Think about it: is it fair for me to label Wheelie Man as a jerk just for doing a bike trick and smiling at me?

Sure, it is possible the man is a jerk, but I definitely don’t have enough information to be able to reasonably say that. Nevertheless, my brain decided in 5 seconds or less that “jerk” was the appropriate label.

The Magic Sentence:

In all her research, Brené Brown found a magic sentence that can help transform conflicts. Are you ready? Here it is:

“The story I’m telling myself is…” and fill in the blank with the story you are actually telling yourself.

Maybe your husband feels distant on your walk and you feel like he doesn’t care for you anymore. Instead of becoming bitter and remaining silent about your feelings, share with him the story you are telling yourself.

Honey, you are very silent on our walks. The story I am telling myself is that you aren’t enjoying our time together anymore.

Maybe you have a friend who mentions a political issue and you start making up a story in your head of how terrible they are. Instead of reacting to the narrative your brain has created, take a step back and dig for more:

I find it hard to agree with that perspective. The story I am telling myself is that you don’t care about…

Now, this “magic sentence” does not work if your tone and body language are still reflecting the story you are telling yourself.

Imagine if I had chased down the wheelie guy and yelled, “Hey, I think you’re a jerk! Prove me wrong!”

That would be the incorrect approach. Your goal with the magic sentence is not to prove yourself right. The goal is to genuinely seek the true narrative.

I’d guess that roughly 90% of the time, when you say the magic sentence to a person, they will be surprised by what you were thinking. They will be shocked because they had no idea you perceived their actions or words in that way.

For this reason, if your words come off as an accusation rather than a genuine desire to learn the truth, then that person is going to shut down or get ready for a fight. This will gain you nothing.

The key here is to truly give every person the benefit of the doubt. Desire to be proven wrong.

Sorry, what?

Yes, in this case, you want to be proven wrong. Most of the time, the stories we make up about others are harmful and inaccurate. Realizing this and putting effort into seeking the truth can transform your relationships.

Remember, it is a scientific fact that your brain loves to fill in the gaps. You can’t change that. But you can be aware and seek to understand another person’s story before you label them.

After you hear their story, you may still disagree with them.

That’s OK.

Even if you disagree with them, hopefully you’ll now have a better and truer understanding of their true intention, instead of the one you made up.