One common source of tension and conflict in relationships, whether romantic, familial, platonic or professional, is the difficulty in managing the differences between the parties involved. “How could you possibly think that way?” “Why do feel you so upset? I would never be upset by that!” “How could that over there be more important to you than this right here?” “Why in the world do you have to do it like that?”

It’s all about the response

These are things we say when we are struck by the stark differences between what we and others think, feel, value and do. Often we are shocked that these differences exist. But the problem is not that the differences exist. The problem is the way we respond to the differences. Unfortunately, sometimes we respond by first judging the differences, as well as the other person, and then trying to eliminate the differences. “Your way is wrong and there’s something wrong with you for being that way and we need to eliminate this discrepancy between us.”

We can be fearful and intolerant of differences among us. It’s as if we believe that the world would be a better place if we were all the same (and like us). Although sometimes it will work out fine to let everyone do their own thing, there are times when a decision needs to be made about how to proceed. If two people want to listen to two different kinds of music on their respective headphones, there’s no conflict. But if traveling together and one wants to fly and the other prefers to drive, the two need to choose one way over the other.

Oh, how interesting

The bottom line in knowing how to handle the differences between us is learning what it means to respect the differences rather than judging and trying to eliminate them.

The first step is learning a most valuable life skill—how to notice without judgment. Interest and curiosity about the difference are helpful; panic and intolerance are not. “Wow, I notice that you and I are very different in this way. Isn’t that interesting?” This calm, non-judgmental and curious stance is one of acceptance. The difference between us is okay. This is not a fight-or-flight moment.

The differences we are considering are in what people think, feel, value and do. The solution for the first three is relatively simple. After implementing the notice-without-judging skill, nothing else really needs to be done. “You think that house is out our price range and I don’t.” “You feel afraid to take on debt and I feel afraid to miss out on an opportunity.” “You value financial security at the top of your list and I prioritize having a nice home in a beautiful setting.” There is no need to argue, persuade or convince the other. All we need here is to respect, accept and appreciate these natural differences between us.

We can work it out

The kicker, of course, is that fourth component—“So what do we do?” Here is where we may need to work a little harder. Unless you can afford to buy two houses, you’ll need to negotiate a single solution despite the different ways of thinking about, feeling about and valuing the situation. Sometimes you give in, sometimes the other gives in and sometimes you find a compromise in the middle. The key to keep in mind is that the goal is to respectfully negotiate and arrive at a solution which you can both live with, not to prove that your way of thinking, feeling or valuing is more correct or valid than the other’s. In fact, if you insist and are successful in proving your partner wrong, you might get your way on the house, but lose some of the closeness in the relationship.

Art Frenz, Ph.D.

Photo by Nas Mato on Unsplash 


Psychological Fitness

“Psychological Fitness” is my monthly column featured in the Binghamton, NY Press & Sun Bulletin since 2004. This page highlights articles, or adaptations thereof, from that column.