Arguments are a breeding ground for discontent. Yet many arguments, especially with people we love, are birthed from simple misunderstandings that are blown out of proportion.
Understanding other people is a tall order because everybody is different—but that’s what makes life worthwhile: our time on this planet would be mundane if we all had the same personalities, desires, values, and beliefs. And yet, even with our myriad distinctions, we all want the same things out of life: happiness, purpose, fulfillment.
Too often, however, we believe our way is the right way: we believe our path toward contentment is the single correct path. So, instead of attempting to understand other points of view, we try to force people onto our path, shoving aside their beliefs to showcase why we are right and why they are wrong.
This type of fervent, unwavering certitude is rarely a good idea—even if you are “right”—because it discounts the other person’s thoughts and feelings, which leads to defensive posturing, which leads to arguing, which leads to discontentment, which leads to further posturing, misunderstandings, arguments, discontentment. What an ugly cycle.
To avoid this spiral of misunderstanding—and eventually arrive at a place of shared contentment—we must avoid acting on impulse, and we must instead work through the four stages of understanding others:
Tolerate. Tolerance is a weak virtue, but it’s a good start. If someone’s behavior seems bothersome, it is best to avoid the knee-jerk reactions of fight or flight, and instead find ways to tolerate their differences. For example, let’s say you’re an aspiring minimalist, but your partner is an enthusiastic collector—a clear dichotomy of beliefs. Your partner believes collecting porcelain figurines or vintage guitars is the bomb diggity; you believe their treasures are clutter. So you’re left scratching your noggin, wondering how to convert them to your singularly valid viewpoint, which can be mind-numbingly frustrating. Don’t worry, though, you needn’t get on the same page right way; you need only understand you both have your reasons for being on separate pages. By tolerating someone’s quirks, and allowing them to live happily within their own worldview, you may not understand their obsession with creepy statuettes or unplayed musical instruments, but at least you will be on a path toward understanding that person as an individual—and that’s a big first step. Congrats!
Accept. To truly live in concert with others, we must quickly move past tolerance toward acceptance. Once you’ve made a concerted effort to at least tolerate the other person’s quirks, their beliefs begin to seem less silly and, in time, more meaningful—not meaningful to you, but meaningful to someone you care about. Once you realize your partner’s collection has a purpose to them, it is easier to accept because it is a part of who they are as a whole person; and while you may not like a particular behavior, you still love the entire person, foibles and all.
Respect. Accepting—not just tolerating, but truly accepting—someone’s idiosyncrasies is difficult, but not nearly as challenging as respecting that person because of his or her idiosyncrasies. Think about it: it took you this many years to arrive at your current credo, so it might be a tad unreasonable to expect someone else to meet you there overnight, no matter how cogent your counterargument. Okay, so perhaps you’d never hoard figurines or guitars, but there are many beliefs you hold that, at face value, seem ridiculous to someone else. But even when other people don’t agree with you, even when they don’t understand your stance, you still want them to respect your beliefs, right? So why not extend that same respect to the people you love? Only then will you move closer to understanding; only then will you begin to realize your worldview isn’t the solitary axiom by which everyone must live. Sure, it’s nice to have a clutterfree home, but it’s even nicer to share your life with people you respect.
Appreciate. With respect in your rearview, understanding is right around the bend. Continuing our example, let’s say your partner experiences great joy from their collection. Why would you want to change that? You want them to be happy, right? Well, if their collection brings contentment to their life, and if you truly care about that person, then their collection should bring joy to your life, too, because happiness is contagious, but only after you get past the arguments, past the stages of tolerance, acceptance, and respect, and honestly appreciate the other person’s desires, values, and beliefs. Many of us navigate different roads toward happiness, but even if we travel separate routes, it is important we appreciate the journey—not only ours, but the journey of everyone we love. When we appreciate others for who they are, not whom we want them to be, then, and only then, will we understand.
So the next time you reach a fork in the road, remember T.A.R.A.: Tolerate, Accept, Respect, and Appreciate. If you travel this path frequently, your relationships will flourish, and you’ll experience a richness of experience that wasn’t possible without a deep understanding of the people in your life.
This path works not only for significant others, but for friends, coworkers, and anyone else with whom we want to strengthen our connection. Of course there will be times when values clash, and you won’t be able to appreciate the person for who they are. And there will even be rare times when T.A.R.A. is the wrong path altogether: if someone engages in self-destructive behavior—drugs, crime, racism—then you should not appreciate their conduct. Sometimes it’s okay to say goodbye, walk away, and travel down a perpendicular path.
Special thanks to Patrick Rhone, author of Enough, for last year’s lunchtime conversation about respect and appreciation.