A friend recently announced that she’d discovered the most powerful words to end relationship conflict.
I was admittedly skeptical. Each relationship is different, I reasoned. Each conflict has its unique characteristics. Besides, if there are universal words to end conflict they should be, “I’m sorry.” Or perhaps “I love you.” Or even, “I was wrong.” And those were not her words.
Nonetheless, I jotted her words down on a scrap of paper. I’d reread them from time to time when I was cleaning my office. Each time they felt strangely significant, though I didn’t know why. For months, the words kept coming back to me.
Finally, I tried them myself. In an actual conflict. The idea came to me unexpectedly, in the middle of arguing my point with someone.
And the results blew me away.
So I decided to make them my words for 2018. Each January, I choose a specific word or phrase to focus on for the entire year. A popular writer first gave me the idea to blog about it. In past years I have chosen words like encourage, pray, joyfully accept, savor, charitable and available.
Immediately, I knew these new words would be perfect for 2018.
What are these powerful words?
I’m guessing most of you are underwhelmed. I was.
At first, I objected to my friend’s assertion because it seemed insincere to agree with someone just to keep a relationship intact. I don’t want to seem patronizing. Besides, sometimes disagreeing, even challenging someone, is the most loving thing to do. I don’t want to lie just to keep the peace. I already struggle with being a people pleaser, so pretending to agree with someone seems to play into my weakness and sin.
But as I thought more about it, I realized that when I’m in conflict with someone (usually a member of my family), I don’t WANT to agree with them. I want to pinpoint what I disagree with, not affirm what I think is correct. I focus on their poor word choice. I get defensive at their accusations of “you never” or “you always.” I look for ammunition to mount my defense.
As part of my rebuttal, I start listing everything I can to support my case, ignoring any elements I agree with in their position. I question their motives while rationalizing my own.
In every conflict, I focus on what is wrong with the other person’s statements rather than agreeing with what is right.
Yet inevitably, I have found there is always some truth in the arguments of others.
Sometimes there is great truth, and other times there is only a small amount. But I can always look for what I agree with. And when I can acknowledge what I see as truth, my acknowledgment has the power to completely disarm the other person.
To agree sincerely, I must listen attentively to what the other person is saying to find the truth in it. Sometimes I need to look past exaggerations and an irritated tone to hear the heart behind their words. Often there is pain buried behind their accusations. And I don’t need to agree with their conclusions – it’s often not the conclusion that people are most tied to anyway. They just want to be understood.
My friend who told me about the power of the words, “I agree” had been deeply hurt by a friend. Whenever she tried to talk to him about the situation, he denied her statements, deflected the conversation or blamed her. She felt trivialized and misunderstood.
To show her the power of agreeing, a counselor role-played with her, playing the part of her estranged friend. The counselor responded to her statements saying, “I agree. You’re right, I did do that. I know that I really hurt you.”
My friend was surprised at her emotional response to the therapist’s words, even though they were only role-playing. That simple acknowledgment was more powerful than she expected.
After that day, my friend tried agreeing with others when they were upset with her, trying to find the part that she could agree with. Inevitably, she found something.
Often, she had to look past the person’s inflammatory words to see what they were really upset about. It required humility. It required being willing to look at the situation purely from another’s perspective, without reference to her own. It involved listening, paying close attention to their words. She found it was especially helpful with her children, as it encouraged her to consider their point of view more intentionally.
As I mentioned earlier, I tried saying “I agree” with a non-defensive attitude myself. I was involved in a discussion about politics, which I rarely talk about. But as the discussion was getting more heated, I stopped to consider what the other person was saying.
Rather than focusing on what I wanted to say next and how I disagreed with the other person, I looked for something to agree with. When I found it, I said, “I totally agree with what you just said. That’s a great point.”
The other person was taken by surprise. Immediately, the hostility in the argument vanished and we were able to move on amicably. I was startled.
I didn’t expect agreeing to be so disarming. And as a result, I want to learn to do this more. That’s why I chose “I agree” as my words for 2018.
But I know it won’t be easy. In the middle of a conflict, the last thing I want to do is agree. Or to step back and admit I am wrong. Or even to stop and really listen, rather than plan what I am going to say next.
I can’t do this in my own strength. I am so tied in to wanting to be right. But that is why Christ came. Not only does he forgive me, he sets me free from the power of sin and death.
So besides remembering the words “I agree,” I need a heart change. I need my desires to change. I need to possess love and kindness and self-control, which are all part of the fruit of the Spirit. I need to genuinely care about people and to curb my tongue before my agreement has any meaning. I also need humility. Behavior modification cannot do any of that – only God’s Spirit can. And so, as his Spirit brings my words to mind, he must also help me follow through.
Change will not happen overnight. I know I will forget my word and I will argue without seeking common ground.
But I am praying that as I put the words, “I agree” before me every day, I will start seeking to understand others more. It may be a slow process. But true lasting change starts in the mundane daily interactions of life.
I think it will be worth it. Don’t you agree?
This article was originally published on Dance in the Rain. Used with permission.
Vaneetha Rendall Risner is passionate about helping others find hope and joy in the midst of suffering. Her story includes contracting polio as a child, losing an infant son unexpectedly, developing post-polio syndrome, and going through an unwanted divorce, all of which have forced her to deal with issues of loss. She and her husband, Joel, live in North Carolina and have four daughters between them. She is the author of the book, The Scars That Have Shaped Me: How God Meets Us in Suffering and is a regular contributor to Desiring God. She blogs at Dance in the Rain although she doesn’t like rain and has no sense of rhythm.
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