Heather was talking to her husband, Adam, and said, “I feel like we don’t do anything together.”
“But I do lots of stuff with you,” Adam said, and he began to name some activities they had shared in recent days and weeks.
I was in the room as they had this conversation, and Adam turned to me as he said, “This happens all the time. She says stuff that just isn’t true, and then I’m supposed to fix it.”
How could two people both be present for the same events but have diametrically opposed accounts of them? The answer is important, because these arguments happen every day and everywhere. Is one person drunk on each occasion? Brain damaged? Not present?
No, it’s far simpler than that. I asked David, “What is the subject of this conversation? Heather spoke first, so she set the subject. She spoke only one sentence, and then you responded. So let’s start with the subject. When Heather spoke, what was she talking about?”
“Well, she said that we don’t do anything together.”
“So you’re saying the subject was the stuff you do together.”
“No, not at all.
“Then I’m lost.”
“Yes, you are,” I said. “Imagine that I punch you in the face. What is the subject of my interaction with you? My fist? Your face?”
“No, you’re telling me that you’re angry with me.”
“YES! Exactly. My fist is just a demonstration of the real subject, which is my anger. A similar thing happened with Heather. When she said you don’t do stuff together, that was just a demonstration of the real subject. She was really saying, ‘Adam, I’m not feeling as close to you as I used to, and I want to feel more important to you. I want to feel more loved.’”
“Really?” he asked.
“In case you hadn’t noticed, since I’ve been speaking the last few sentences, Heather hasn’t stopped nodding her head. THAT is what she meant to say, and even though she didn’t state it very clearly, THAT was the subject of the conversation.”
“And then you answered with how you’ve been doing things with her, instead of answering her need to feel more loved. You didn’t mean to, but you changed the subject—from her not feeling loved to how you have been doing things with her. The subjects sound related, but it’s still a pretty big change.”
“So how should I have responded?” he asked.
“That’s actually sweet of you to ask.”
I went over to Heather, held both her hands, and kissed her forehead. Looking into her eyes, I said, “Heather, I’ve been neglecting you and not telling you how much I love you, with words and with my behavior. What would you like most from me right now?”
We don’t realize how often we change the subject when somebody speaks. We could do a much better job of paying attention to the underlying message. One day I was in a group of four people when Margaret—who rarely speaks in groups—said, “Have you seen the pilot show for the new series XX?” Somebody else in the group instantly began describing the pilot. I reached over and touched the arm of the interrupting speaker while I turned to Margaret and said, “I haven’t seen it. Would you tell me about it?”
What happened here? The subject—as spoken by Margaret, who introduced it—was this: “I almost always feel awkward in groups of people. I never know what to say. But I’m going to give it my best shot with a subject I know something about.” The interrupter thought he was being asked to describe the television show, so he unwittingly changed the subject, and had he continued, he would have contributed to Margaret feeling even more socially incompetent.
It’s not just words you need to listen to. You need to listen to PEOPLE and to the feelings they are expressing with their words, even if they’re not doing it with great skill. If you listen in this way, you won’t change the subject and become entangled in conflicts or perpetrate the act of making people feel ignored and small.