My brother, Cliff, recently forwarded an article from the Wall Street Journal titled, “Friendly Fight: A Smarter Way to Say ‘I’m Sorry.'” The article shared five steps for when you’re angry with someone else:
1) Calm Down
2) Acknowledge the Difficulty (of having the conversation)
3) Say ‘I’ not ‘you’
4) Find out WHY
5) Say Everything (put it ALL on the table)
The 4th step is fascinating to me. We have become a nation somewhat obsessed with the need to know “why?” We want to know why Lindsey Lohan keeps making apparently poor decisions and why Bernie Madoff scammed all of those unsuspecting investors. We also want to know WHY our child didn’t do his homework; why our co-worker was so critical of our idea; and why our partner didn’t follow-through on what they said they’d do.
In the context of this article, they have identified “finding out why” as an apparently necessary step when confronting someone with something they’ve done that resulted in our own anger/disappointment. But, perhaps the “why” isn’t so important. What, essentially, is the goal when we confront someone? It might be tempting to think it’s to make the other feel our pain, or deliver some good ol’ fashioned guilt, or vent our general frustration. However, if we really think about it…shouldn’t the goal be to inspire the other person to consider not doing “it” anymore, or to follow-through on the “thing” they had committed to before?
In this case, we are dealing with a CHOICE the other person has to make moving forward (hopefully, to modify their behavior)…and Aristotle, that Master of Rhetoric, counseled us long ago that if debating where CHOICE is involved (called “Deliberative Rhetoric”), we should seek to use the Future Tense as dialogue progresses. So, asking about “why” seems to focus our energy in the past—while ultimately we should be trying to influence the other’s behavior moving forward.
Consider giving up the need to know “why” when confronting another: if the reason “why” they did “it” is relevant, they’ll tell you. If it doesn’t come up, chances are they’ll be focused forward considering altering their behavior. Is the goal to understand why someone did something, or to ensure they consider not doing “it” again?