My grandmother was a hitchhiker.
I think she was in her late seventies when she started thumbing for rides. It was a way to get some excitement and back in the late 60s she could hitchhike around our region of upstate New York in relative safety. And since she hitchhiked with a general plan of where she wanted to go that day, she wasn’t interested in getting too sidetracked. When someone pulled over to pick her up, she’d lean in and ask where they were going. If it got her closer to her destination, then she had herself a ride. But if it only took her down side roads she didn’t need or want to see, she’d wait for the next car to come along.
I try to keep my Granny MacDonald in mind when I’m in a difficult conversation, because I want to put my energy toward those things that will get me closer to my destination-solving whatever problem I and the other person face. I want to avoid the side streets, or as I call them, the argument sidetrackers.
Argument sidetrackers are those phrases or comments that distract us from the important central topic of the disagreement. Sidetrackers are problematic because they contribute to defensiveness, escalate the argument, and cause us to spend energy on parts of the conversation that aren’t very important. The following are classic sidetrackers I hear regularly in my mediation work.and sometimes they come out of my own mouth, much to my chagrin.
Always and Never. When we use these words in an argument, the heat in the room usually rises. "You never let me finish my sentence." "I’m always the one you blame." Not only is it usually an exaggeration, but the conversation gets diverted because we bait the other person into defending the always/never comment. If you find one of these words slipping out of your mouth in an argument, correct yourself. If the other person uses it, it’s better to ignore it and focus instead on the concern they’re trying to convey.
Who Said What. Most of us have found ourselves in a conversation where our own recollection of what was said earlier differs from that of the other person. The seesaw looks something like this: "Yes, you did say that." "No, I didn’t." "Yes, you did." This is a fruitless argument because there’s no real way to know and you’ll just spin your wheels. Research suggests that we accurately recall only about 25% of what we said in the previous hour, and recall rates drop lower over time. And our recall during arguments tends to be even lower, since we’re under stress. So, get off this seesaw as soon as you notice you’re on it. If the other person re-states something that’s different from what you recall saying, simply say, "I have a different recollection of that. Would it help for me to clarify what I meant?"
I’m Right and You’re Wrong. Telling the other person they’re wrong practically guarantees that matters will escalate as they try to prove that they’re not. Another version of this trap is, "You know that I’m right and you just can’t admit it." Statements like these are inflammatory and sidetrack the conversation because they heat things up unhelpfully. Searching for "The Truth" in conflict is like waiting for Godot, so instead, spend your energy figuring out how to solve the problem you’re discussing instead of attacking or blaming. If someone accuses you of being wrong, say something like, "I bet we’re both right in some ways."
It’s Your Fault. Entire books have been written about the problems associated with blame. Telling the other person directly or indirectly that they’re at fault condemns the conversation to defensiveness, sidetracking and escalation. The reality is that most conflicts have contributions from everyone involved and focusing on contribution is a more forward-thinking and constructive frame of mind. When we ask, "Who’s at fault?" we signal that we have no responsibility and that the other person bears the entire burden of the problem. When we ask, "How did we each contribute to this?" we paint a fuller picture in which we can all take steps to prevent the problem from happening again.
My grandmother lived to be 89 and she hitchhiked until almost the very end. I hope I have that much zest for life when I’m 89.