How does this help?

Several years ago I had a moment of ephipany. I was having a difference of opinion with someone and suddenly realized that what I was saying wasn’t helping us come to clarity or resolve the disagreement. I realized that my approach was not helping my cause. And suddenly the thought came to my mind, “How does this help?” If I had a goal, an outcome in mind that I wanted to reach, and my approach wasn’t bringing me to that outcome, how was it helping? It wasn’t.

That began a practice for me to filter my words and actions through that question. When I find myself in conflict with anyone and we don’t seem to be progressing toward resolution, I silently frame that question to myself. It helps me to step back, hear my words or see my actions through the other person’s ears and eyes. Obviously, if my persuavie argument isn’t working, it must not be so persuasive. How does that help?

I don’t mean that this approach should be from a manipulative perspective. If manipulation is the motivation, you may get what you want, but manipulation is always ultimately destructive and self-serving. No, this question should be framed from an unselfish and honest desire to seek the best resolution to conflict or difference of opinion. Only in that context can you truly seek the best for both sides.

Asking the question, “How does this help?” doesn’t guarantee that the problem will be resolved. Some conflicts don’t have resolutions that are positive for both sides. And no matter your approach, the other person may not be willing to put aside the conflict. But asking the question will help you honestly evaluate your words, your methods, your motivation. Asking the question is a filter that will help you seek other solutions, other persuasions, or perhaps, ultimately, change your own mind, see the other person’s point of view. And that can be an invaluable gift to both people.

It can be difficult to be honest about this, especially when your point of view seems like the only point of view possible. How can you step back, re-frame, look at a question from another perspective when you know you’re right? But that’s the point…the issue is not about being right or being more persuasive. When you’re trying to find resolution to differences, sometimes the solution is more about approach, method, and understanding. Sometimes it is about compassion, about empathy, rather than staking a claim to being right.

Sometimes I even come around to an opposite opinion from where I began if I have long enough to think before I rush to judgment. There are right and wrong absolutes in life. I believe that. There are some things that are never right, always wrong. But woven among the absolutes of life are many gray areas, and I recognize that more as I get older. When I was young, life was easy to define in absolute terms. But age, some wisdom, my own mistakes and missteps, and a lot of grace has taught me that things are not always what they seem at first glance. It was a long lesson to learn, but now it is ingrained in my thinking. It has become more natural to me to ask the question, and I am open to hearing the answer that comes from that honesty.

Try asking yourself, “how does this help?” The answer may surprise you.

“How can I love you better?”

A few weeks ago I came across a simple but intriguing question: “How can I love you better?” Catherine Newman, writing in the October 2010 issue of the magazine Whole Living, describes her experiment with asking that question of her family and the surprising results. She anticipated that their responses would require some difficult sacrifice or change on her part, but found that the reality was much simpler. The requests weren’t big ones after all, and yet simply asking the question had a profound impact on her spouse, her children, and the author.

Isn’t it an unspoken expectation in relationships that you are always trying to love others better? Does asking the question remind those in the family, the marriage, the friendship of that goal? Do relationships deteriorate because people quit trying? Who can consciously try to love the others in their lives better every day?

Maybe that’s where the simple act of asking the question comes into play. None of us is perfect. None of us can love the others in our lives more each day, every day. We have more capacity to love, to give of ourselves, to be unselfish, some days. Less ability other days. But when we ask the question, “How can I love you better?” we remind the people in our lives that we are paying attention, we care, we are noticing our behavior. We are trying. The times we are successful at loving better carries us through the moments when we fail. And isn’t that what relationships are about anyway? We try, sometimes we fail, we forgive each other, we try again. Loving better is a never-ending quest, a reach for perfection that none of us can ever fulfill. But we can ask the question, we can consciously try.

I asked my own children, grown now and living on their on, how I can love them better. My son tells me if I understand more of his interests, I can be a better friend to him. Fair enough, I can do that. My daughter’s first response, which she self-edits even as she speaks it, is that we live closer to her. But at the moment that’s not feasible. So I am waiting for her answer still. But she knows I want to love her better. My husband knows. I like the self-challenge to be more engaged, to be consciously and actively looking for ways to demonstrate what is truly and deeply in my heart: that I want to love them all better, more deeply, with intention and ferocity.