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May: Tara Talks

What’s the best way to solve a disagreement when one person replies with, “Whatever you say, you’re always right”? #SolveItPlease

You probably don’t know this, but one of my favorite topics is conflict in relationships. I like it for a few reasons, none of which I’ll get into right now, but suffice it to say that conflict can actually bring people closer together — when it’s done well.

I need to set the stage a bit before I respond directly, so bear with me. When I use the term “conflict,” I’m loosely describing any sort of friction within a relationship. Think of it as an umbrella term for a disagreement, friction in a conversation, a tiff, or even a high-energy argument. All these are forms of conflict. 

With any conflict, there are key things that help it to go well and there are key things that steer it towards failure. Failure in conflict is not the lack of a resolution. Failure in conflict is when the much-needed discussion doesn’t take place, or when people leave feeling misunderstood, unheard, and more agitated than when the conversation started. 

Specific to the question being asked, the phrase “whatever you say, you’re always right” is coded as defensiveness. Defensiveness is one of the “four horsemen” that the Gottmans, prominent marital psychology authors, discovered through their extensive research (like, extensive). The four horsemen are predictive of relationship dissolution, but it’s common that some of the four horsemen are present in all relationships. 

Defensiveness takes two forms. The first is a reactive response that metaphorically hits back the ball that was thrown. Think, “No, I didn’t!” Or, “Well, you started it!” Or, “Yeah, but I only did that because you did this.” Any of those responses are reactive types of defensive responses. 

The second form of defensiveness is more of a “righteous victim” response. This might sound like, “I would never have done that” Or, “I can’t believe you did blah blah blah.” Or, “Whatever you say. You’re always right and I’m always wrong.” [That last statement sounds familiar, doesn’t it?]

Defensiveness stops the conversation. It’s basically a giant shield that blocks a message from getting to the other person. If I’m feeling defensive, I’m shutting out what the other person is saying and digging my heels in, searching for something they’ve done or said or implied wrong so that I can also accuse them of something (or play victim). 

With defensiveness, there are two key things to keep in mind.

First, the defensiveness might be in response to the way you said something. For example, if you’ve used an accusatory tone or accusatory language (even on accident), it can result in defensiveness from others. Saying, “You work all the time!” is much different than, “I miss you lately and would love to spend more time with you. Can we rethink our work schedules to have more time together?” I’m not saying that asking in the perfect way will result in the perfect response. What I am saying is that asking in a way that’s more honest and puts the focus on your feelings and needs is a way of lessening the possibility of a defensive response.

Second, the defensiveness might be in response to a feeling you’ve elicited. Hypothetically, you’ve said something in an ideal way, but it’s brought up an unpleasant feeling in the other person, like a sense of inadequacy. Their response to the unpleasant feeling (inadequacy) is to get defensive with you, shut down the conversation, and thus end the unpleasant feeling. This happens more frequently than I wish it did. 

I’m going to tell you a handful of things that might help you de-escalate defensiveness and, ideally, stay focused on the intended conversation about a specific topic. 

Check your language. You might ask yourself how you’ve said something and then try to finesse your language in a different way. You could even respond to the other person’s statement by directly saying, “I must not have said that accurately. Let me try again.” This both keeps you on topic (see my next point) and allows you to self-correct.

Stay on topic. When people hear a phrase like “Whatever you say, you’re always right,” the recipient tends to shift the conversation from the desired topic to “I am not always right!” The byproduct of the shift is that the desired topic gets forgotten, and now we’re both in a defensive position. 

Be curious. This is somewhat of an advanced skill, but it’s worth mentioning. If you notice defensiveness and you have a solid relationship with this person, you might pause the topic at hand (we’ll get back to it) and curiously ask, “I’m not sure what’s happened. I’d like to talk about X topic, but it seems like you might be upset about what I’ve said. Help me understand.” Put the onus on the other person to explain their position and perspective. Once they’re done and you understand, then you bring back up the desired topic. Again, this might be advanced, but could be worth a try.

I’m hoping this is enough to start, even though I could write a lot more about the topic at hand. Even having a slightly different understanding can help to break up a conversation (or conflict) that isn’t going well. That awareness is crucial, and it seems like you’ve got enough to know that things aren’t going well and that you’re in the mood to shift things up.  

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