A Simple Way to Know Who Needs to Change in an Argument
Updated: Jan 27
When you're arguing with someone, how do you determine whether it's you or the other person who needs to change?
a. It's always you.
b. It's always the other person.
c. It's half and half.
d. There's no way to know.
e. None of the above.
The answer is E, none of the above.
It's actually not that hard to tell who may need to change in any particular argument. The answer is the one who can. Who can change is determined by the principle that behaviors can be changed and feelings can't. This isn't to say feelings don't change. In fact, feelings change constantly. I'm only saying we can't usually choose to change feelings, whereas, difficult as it often is, we can nearly always choose to change behaviors. In this post I will give you examples of three conflicts, tell you who needs to change in each one, and explain why.
Person 1: I need you to speak to me with respect.
Person 2: Yeah? Well I need you to not get so upset over every little thing I say.
Answer: Person 2 needs to change.
Explanation: Person 1 is really saying they don't want to be harmed, since disrespect is a type of harm. Disrespect is harm we experience emotionally, a feeling. You cannot choose to not feel disrespected. So Person 2 is actually insisting on their right to harm person 1. The feeling (of being harmed) trumps the behavior (harming someone).
Man: I need you to speak less sharply and critically to me.
Woman: I need to feel like I can speak my mind to you no matter what I'm thinking.
Answer: The woman needs to change.
Explanation: The man is saying he doesn't want to be harmed, since criticism hurts. The woman is saying she needs to harm him. The feeling (of being harmed) trumps the harming behavior.
(Incidentally, this woman really does need to be able to speak honestly to her husband. That's a legitimate need. But she will have to learn to do it less critically.)
Woman: I need to feel like you are really listening to me and hearing me, not just trying to fix me.
Man: I don't know what to tell you. I'm a fixer. That's what I do.
Answer: The man needs to change.
Explanation: The woman is saying she doesn't want to be harmed by the man's insensitivity. He's saying he just harms her because that's how he is, and communicating he intends to keep on doing it. The woman's feeling she is being harmed trumps his harming behavior.
Feelings trump behaviors.
Person 2, the first woman, and the second man are behaving in ways that are hurtful to the other person. The other person cannot simply decide to not feel hurt by those behaviors, so the ones doing the behaviors need to change them.
This doesn't mean there aren't any changes at all Person 1, the first man, and the second woman need to make. There almost definitely are, and those changes are going to be related to ways in which they are harming the other person with their behaviors (harming can mean being degrading, rude, mean, humiliating, insulting, any kind of negative behavior is harmful on some level).
But you can't expect a person not to feel a certain way. Feelings are like gravity, they just are. Even the person feeling them may not want them around, but they simply are what they are. All we can do is try to understand them, ask those we love to respect them, and try to respect those of others.
Another way to understand this is...
Question: In any given argument, who needs to change?
Answer: The person who can make a choice to change. That will always be the person behaving, not the person who is feeling.
I have provided examples here and tried to make this as easy to understand as possible. But of course in real life, these things can be hard to see and apply to our own situations. Let me know how I can help you!
Post script: You might wonder what about situations where both people are expressing legitimate feelings/needs and it's not as simple as feelings verses behaviors. I'll post more on that next time, but the short answer is that probably both need to change.