Posted by: jt | February 1, 2008

i’d like to teach the world to sing

Yowzah. This situation just makes me sad. I feel like the people involved in this interaction are well-intentioned and want to have an important dialogue, but honestly don’t have the tools to do it. Because of that, people are getting hurt.

One of the most valuable skills I think I have is the ability to fight with people. Maybe it’s because I grew up in a house with two sisters. Maybe it’s because my mom and I have always been pretty straight with each other. Maybe it’s the therapy and figuring out how to get past a lifetime of rejection and anger. Maybe it’s my Anne Frankian belief that people are really good at heart.

Whatever it is, I know how to fight.

People get hurt. It’s inevitable. We misinterpret. We don’t misinterpret. We say things we don’t mean. We say things we wish we didn’t mean. When you’re hurting, the gloves come off and somehow everything feels like it’s fair game. The impulse to make the other person feel as torn apart as you do is stronger than the rational brain. We react. We attack. And we wound.

And then, hopefully, we retreat.

Retreat, recover and reframe.

The 3 Rs of fighting? The first two are, perhaps, fairly self-explanatory. They may take some time, but we all learn how to do them from a very early age. It’s that last one that’s particularly tough and some of us never pick up on its value. Reframing your position requires a change in thinking and acknowledging the possibility that the person who hurt you might have a valid perspective too. Doesn’t that suck.

When you come back to the table, the best way I know to reframe things is to focus on what you understand. Don’t try to put words in the other person’s mouth. Language like, “you said” or “you think” or “you want” only serves to put people on the defensive. The intention might be to work things out, but the words are still building walls. If we can reframe our argument to what it is that “I feel like” or “I understand this as” or “I heard,” it automatically diffuses some of the frustration. Only you know what you feel and what you understand and by explaining that, you open the door for the other person to do the same. If we can reach the point where we stop assuming that we know what the other person means, there’s a chance we might actually find out what it is.

Touchy? Feely? Pop psychology? Again, you were warned.

And, yeah, we also have to apologize.

Much is made over the content of apologies and how it’s entirely possible to “apologize” without actually doing so. Here’s the thing – if you’re not ready to own your mistakes, don’t do it. We’re all savvy enough to cut through the bullshit and if you’re incapable of taking responsibility for hurting the other person – without placing any blame on them – your apology is likely to make things worse instead of better.

Some helpful tips:

  • Rationalizing your behavior sounds like an excuse. There are always reasons for our actions and knowing them might help you to come to terms with your transgressions, but it doesn’t change the fact that you hurt the other person. When you rationalize and try to explain your behavior, you minimize the other person’s pain. Don’t do it.
  • Apologizing that something “happened” or for events isn’t an actual apology; it’s deflecting your responsibility. I have a letter from 2001 that includes the line, “I am in fact truly sorry that events took me the way they did.” Nope. Not an apology. Sure, the events sucked. The words and actions that caused those events, they sucked a lot more. Too bad. I know that letter was a big step; just not big enough.
  • Couching your words in therapy-speak or saying what you know you need to say doesn’t cut it. You have to actually mean your apology. You have to take responsibility for your actions. Period, end.

We throw around the phrase, “I’m sorry,” with tremendous ease in our culture, usually when we have nothing to be sorry for. We’re sorry someone is sick. We’re sorry they lost their job. We’re sorry their aunt died. It’s easy to be sorry for things you didn’t do. It’s way harder to fully own when – intentionally or not – you’ve fucked something up.

Everybody fights a different way but the only time I’ve seen honest healing and reparative measures is when both parties – both parties – can come back to the table, drop what they thought they knew about a situation and be open to the possibility that everybody got it wrong.

It only really works when both sides play by the same rules, which means, healing isn’t always going to happen. Common ground isn’t always found. But it’s worth it when it is.

I might edit this post later, but I wanted to get it up as soon as I could. Edits will be notated.



  1. Warning, you’ve been bookmarked in and thus, will show up as a link on my blog at around 7pm tonight! So I hope you’ve grown up sufficiently to deal w/ a link showing up. ;0

  2. ^

    She linked herself when she commented last night. :)

    But I can’t even make a comment about growing up and/or putting oneself out there, when all of my good stuff is behind a lock. :)

  3. Also, my open-mouthed wink was supposed to be a smiley-wink.

  4. What, no winking blowjobs? ;^)

  5. […] i’d like to teach the world to sing « abundance of absurdities “It’s easy to be sorry for things you didn’t do. It’s way harder to fully own when – intentionally or not – you’ve fucked something up.” (tags: arguing important communication) […]

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