Dear Dr. Sadaqat Ali,
I have been in two situations which disturbed me a lot and may affect my relationship in the long run. My husband unloaded on me and scolded me for something I didn’t do. Both times, he did not even pause long enough to let me explain my side. Receiving this unproductive criticism from a person who’s most important for me, was a huge shock and left me speechless.
I have not been able to set the record straight or even discuss the issue he declared disinterest. From my perspective, this will damage our relationship. What can I do if I’m the recipient of feedback that’s unproductive and even damaging for our relationship?
Confused and disturbed
Dear Confused and disturbed,
Indeed a tough situation. Misunderstandings and blaming is not that unusual, especially in close relationships. But to do it in a disrespectful way and then not make an attempt to understand the complete story is heartbreaking. Blame, accusations, and finger-pointing are hurtful—even more so when they are false.
First of all to deal with situations like these I would suggest you always take these situations as an issue of two negotiations and two different moments in time. The first negotiation is about “what” you were blamed. The second negotiation is about “how” the issue is being handled.
The first time period to consider is the moment the blame is being laid on you; the second time period is after the incident.
Negotiation about “What?”
The first negotiation is about complete and the true picture. The best time to conduct your breakthrough negotiations is in the moment it happens. If he switches to another topic or consciously cuts you off and doesn’t want to hear from you, then your best option is to pick another time to initiate the breakthrough negotiations.
If you decide to choose another time to have your breakthrough negotiations, make sure you don’t have an audience. Privacy will help make it safe and important. To be respectful you might ask for permission. You could say “I’d like to talk with you for a few minutes. Is now a good time?” Perhaps he would respond “What’s this about?”
Now it’s time to establish mutual goals. “I want to make sure you have all the facts about topic X so the problem can be solved in the most effective way.” If he doesn’t want to hear it and says “I have all the facts I need,” you might want to share a consequence related to a purpose he cares about. “My concern is that, without all of the facts, a big mistake is being made that will hurt our efforts to…” In this way, you respectfully motivate your husband to hear you out. Avoid cross-arguments. Don’t be defensive or go on the attack. Rather, begin with a statement of your good intentions. By revealing that your intention is to help, not hurt, you reduce the notion that you are picking a fight or trying to quarrel. When you establish mutual goals, you will see that he will be interested to hear you out.
Next share the facts. Be direct, specific, and respectful. Don’t apologize for the facts and don’t exaggerate them or their impact. If clarifying the facts requires that you share your interpretation or perspective, be very careful. Don’t dress up your opinion as a fact. You might say “It seems to me that…” or “From the facts, I’ve concluded…” or “Others could see this differently, but in my opinion…” By separating the facts from your opinion you clarify what is true. This reduces arguments and makes discussions more objective.
Negotiation about “How?”
The second negotiation is about how your husband handled the situation. It’s basically a negotiation about respect. It requires your smart judgment. In most cases, bad behavior must be confronted or it will continue. Generally, my advice is to confront disrespect and not let it pass unaddressed. But in some situations getting the solution you want matters more to you than the way you’re being treated. Therefore, you have to consider all of the factors and decide whether to confront your husband immediately while others are present, or re-engage later in private.
So when you’re selecting the time that serves your purposes, how do you begin? You do a little soul searching. If you aggressively drill into your husband like a prosecutor in a murder case, I guarantee the negotiation will not go well. Ask yourself “What do I really want? What results do I want? What relationship do I want with my husband when this negotiation is over?” Do you want to humiliate your husband? Teach him a lesson? Scold him? Or do you want him to treat you with respect and love? If it’s the latter, focus on this result as you confront him. This becomes the motive that will drive what you do and how you do it.
Begin the breakthrough negotiations with your husband by factually describing his behavior. Don’t accuse or label, just state the facts. “Last Friday you called me dumb and irresponsible and said that our daughter failed in her exams because of my negligence.” Then share your interpretation of what happened. For this choose your words carefully. “I consider the words you chose to be insulting and disrespectful!” this explain your story rather your thoughts. This will invite your husband to explain or clarify the behavior. “Was that your intention?” Now listen. Based on your husband’s response, you might clarify expectations and get a commitment, or agree to disagree about what constitutes respect.
Of course these skills and this approach are not a substitute for a realistic assessment of your situation, nor do they take the place of your responsibility to exercise good judgment and decide the best course to take. However, I’m convinced that these skills, used in this way, will increase the likelihood of your success and are much better than silence or allowing your strong emotions to cause a reaction that is hurtful to others and the results you care about. I’m hopeful that doing these things will help turn your confusion into clarity and resolve the problem.