When you’re stuck in traffic and you honk at someone, they’re a jackass. When someone honks at you, they’re a jackass.
A honk can kick us into an instinctual fight/flight/freeze response. We immediately look in our rearview mirror, annoyed and angry. While some of us just drive off (flight), or stop (freeze), a lot of us extend our finger and express our displeasure (fight).
When was the last time someone honked at you and you immediately thought, “You’re right. Thanks for the honk.” For me? Rarely to never. OK, closer to never. We don’t tend to immediately see ourselves in the wrong or needing to change. I ask couples, “When you’ve felt criticized by your partner, when was the last time you heard yourself immediately respond, ‘You’re right’ or ‘That’s true.’?” Many answer “Rarely to never. OK, closer to never.” It’s just not the first thing we think. In fact, we probably aren’t even capable of thinking at that moment. We’re probably already in one of the fight/flight/freeze responses. We’re not wired to access the analytical part of our brain while we are feeling attacked, threatened, or criticized.
Acknowledging our partner has a point is what John Gottman calls taking responsibility when feeling criticized. This is the antidote to defensiveness, one of his Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse; the four patterns of problematic communication he found during his research observing couples.
When feeling criticized, if you respond with, “You may be right,” it could change the direction of the conflict. Stepping into the space between a perceived criticism and the natural defensive response, allows us to think, “My partner could have a point there.” And then once we’ve thought that, we could say it. We can create pause and then go in a different direction.
We have more control over our responses than we may think. We can create pause. The next time you feel yourself stuck between a honk and a “Jackass!”, maybe try creating a pause by thinking about whether the honker has a point. Then, instead of extending a finger, extend a wave. I’ll keep trying to, too.