Stop Yelling: Ask, "Why?"

09/29/2016 08:42 am ET Updated Sep 29, 2016

We have all been there.

You’re in an argument with someone. Things start out politely enough, then somehow take a turn into the personal, heated, and dangerous. You feel the shift in your bones. You know that you’re standing on dangerous ground.

Suddenly, the other person takes a verbal shot at you. It hits you squarely in the chest. You didn’t know you needed armor for this conversation, so you didn’t put any on. You thought you were talking to a friend.

Your body temperature rises. Your lizard brain takes over. Every cell in your body wants to deliver the perfect one-liner, the perfect hit back. And so you do it.

You know you’ve gone too far. Your stomach drops as you watch your words hit the other person in slow motion. You wish you could stuff them back into your mouth.

Later, you make up. The dust settles on whatever it was you disagreed about. You hug, you apologize. You both blame your cross words on the heat of the moment. But in the back of your mind, you’ll always remember what that person said to you. And they’ll always remember your words, too.

This is a habit I have worked hard to break. During a disagreement, I keep a very sharp leash on my tongue. There have been very few times (they’re all memorable, of course) during the past seven or eight years when I can remember saying something in the heat of battle that truly crossed a line.

This habit of being careful has kept me from hurling insults instead of identifying a behavior. It’s kept me from name-calling instead of expressing my hurt feelings. It’s kept me from making a flippant, heated retort in the hopes of “getting back at someone.” (To be clear - there are about a billion lessons I haven’t learned yet. This is one of about two things that I’ve really mastered.)

Instead, when that fiery feeling takes over my chest, I ask myself two questions: Why do I feel this way? and Why did they just say that to me - - what evidence is this of a bigger issue in our relationship?

The reason asking, “Why?” has been so helpful for me is this: It cuts deep, to the center of the problem, and starts from there. It saves time, energy, and tears. It does away with the expressions of unhappiness and digs straight down to the root of the unhappiness.

It’s the difference between the surface problem: “You didn’t take the garbage out! I reminded you fifty times!” and the truth: “I feel like you don’t listen to me. It makes me feel unappreciated.”

I was listening to a podcast yesterday in which Katie Couric was being interviewed about her perception of the political climate in the United States. She said, “I do feel like there are two Americas, as cheesy as it sounds. And I’ve been trying to figure out the underlying causes of a Trump candidacy.”

It struck me between the eyes.

There it was. This tactic that I employ on a near daily basis - the “Ask, ‘Why?’” rule - staring me in the face.

Look, let me be transparent: I am not going to vote for Donald Trump. I’ve never even considered it. He has said and done things that I find sexist, racist, and politically problematic (to say the very least). You will never hear me defend him. That’s not what this piece is about.

Maybe it’s because his early candidacy seemed like a bit of a joke. Maybe that’s why it’s taken me so long to realize that I haven’t asked anyone, “Why?”

But I haven’t.

I have close friends - people I love and respect - who are casting their votes for a Trump ticket this November. And I’d bet willing to be that you do, too.

The sad truth about election years is that we all get worked up in our debates with each other - in person, yes, but particularly on the Internet. Behind our computer screens, we forget this lesson we’ve all learned time and time again about not saying things we don’t want to have to own up to later.

As is always true every fourth year, Americans have divided themselves into two big groups. We’ve thrown our weight behind candidates. We are in the throes of debating, trying to win people to our sides, trying to mow down the opposition with logic and talking points. We get caught up. We forget that at some point, this will have passed, and we’ll be left with the wreckage of all the things we said to each other hanging in the air like smoke over a battlefield.

And we have forgotten the most important question. “Why?” In fact, we don’t ask a lot of questions of each other at all.

But if there are two Americas - if this election will be as divisive as it already appears to have been - the most important thing we can do for each other is not to convince. It’s not to persuade. It’s to sit with each other and ask, “Why? Why do you feel that way? Can you help me understand?”

Otherwise, we’re all going to be trying to do better about taking out the garbage, but no one will understand that it’s about feeling listened to. If we can’t listen to each other and deeply understand what has driven us to this point as a country, we are...what’s that old quote?...doomed to repeat it. The attitudes that got us here won’t disappear.

No, I won’t be voting for Donald Trump. Frankly, I hope you won’t, either. I’m sure there will be folks reading this who can’t believe anyone could vote for Hillary Clinton. And herein lies the challenge before us: to assume that the other side’s reasoning is faulty is to dismiss that person’s opinion and their vote. I’m not talking about candidates and campaign managers. I’m talking about everyday Americans - us - the people who have to live with each other long after this has passed. It’s possible to be both an unwavering member of a political party and a person who seeks to understand the perspectives of others. We don’t have to agree with each other to seek to understand.

Dismissing is easy to do, but it’s not right. We have to get to the bottom of it. And no bottom was ever gotten to without asking, without listening.

After the election, the dust will settle on this disagreement. There will be a winner and a loser. There will be people who supported both. And then we have to sit with the things we said to each other when we were angry. We will have to apologize, and blame our cross words on the heat of the moment. But in the back of our minds, we’ll always remember what they said to us. And they’ll remember, too.

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