Recently I was asked to help a couple, Lisa and Martin, with their relationship, and I was listening to them as they prepared a meal together. During a casual conversation, the topic of space travel came up, and Lisa mentioned the pivotal role that the Apollo missions to the moon had played in the history of space travel in the United States. Parenthetically, she marveled that men and women had traveled the incredible distance of a quarter-million miles — 250,000 miles — to that distant orbiting body.
Martin quickly interjected that the actual distance to the moon was 238,900 miles.
Lisa’s facial expression instantly changed to one of dejection, and she turned away from him to occupy herself with the task of preparing dinner instead of continuing the conversation.
I waited for a moment to see if Martin noticed what had happened, but he seemed to enjoy the opportunity to take center stage and entertain us with his knowledge. After he had talked for less than a minute, I interrupted to ask, “Did you notice what happened when you mentioned that the distance to the moon was 238,900 miles?”
“What do you mean?” he asked.
“Just a minute ago, you two were having a conversation, but now you are conducting a monologue. Lisa has disappeared from the discussion because you cut her off and corrected her unnecessarily.”
“I don’t understand.”
“She said the distance to the moon was a quarter million, or 250,000, miles.”
“But it’s really 238,900 miles.”
“So let’s look at two things. First, the number you’ve quoted is an average. The moon’s distance actually varies, so that today it might actually be 250,000 miles, and she might be right. But that’s not important. The second point is far more important. Let’s assume that you’re right and that the moon really is always 238,900 miles away. So what?! Why do you need to correct her?”
“To be accurate.”
“Ridiculous. You corrected her so you could be right. You did it for your own personal gratification. You did it for purely selfish reasons. I’m not telling you not to do this. I’m not criticizing you in any way. I’m simply pointing out why you did it so you can see it.”
“That’s not true.”
I smiled. “Now, I actually believe that you believe what you’re saying. You believe that it’s important to correct people when they say something wrong. And what I’m telling you is that for all these years you’ve been wrong in this belief. I’m telling you that correcting people in circumstances like this is utterly meaningless.”
“I don’t understand how you can say that.”
“Do you believe that everything is equally important?”
“What do you mean?” Martin asked.
“For example, I agree that knowing the distance to the moon would be important if you were on a shuttle traveling to the moon. If, however, you were in a building that was on fire, learning the precise distance to the moon would be less important than learning the location of the exits for the building. Would you agree?”
“In every moment and in every circumstance, facts and things can be ranked as to their relative importance. Now let’s go back to your conversation with Lisa. She said the moon was 250,000 miles away. Her point was not that it was precisely 250,000 miles away. She was not prescribing that you make a trip in a space shuttle based on that distance. She was simply saying that it was an incredible distance for the men and women who traveled there. She was saying that if you contemplated making the journey, you’d probably have to pack a lunch and wouldn’t be able to make the trip in your car or on a horse. She was expressing her admiration for those who had accomplished this feat, right?”
“I suppose so.”
“And what she wanted most is what everyone wants most. She wanted someone to listen to her and care about her. In this case, she wanted the person most important in her life to listen to her and care about her. That’s the single thing she wanted most. That was your job, to listen and accept her. She didn’t care one tiny bit what the actual distance to the moon was at that moment. Now, how did you do in your job of listening to your partner and caring about her?”
Martin was speechless.
I helped Martin understand that what he had done with Lisa was very common and that he had not intended to hurt her. We fail to be loving to the people around us mostly because we simply have not seen sufficient loving examples to follow. We just don’t know how to be loving. We don’t know how to listen to what’s important to our partners, so instead, we selfishly look for opportunities to be right.
Not long after the above conversation, I talked with another couple, where she said to him, “You haven’t touched me once in the past month.”
His response? “That’s not true. Remember, last week I touched you on your way out the door to work.”
This is just a variation of 238,900. He corrected the details of what she said instead of listening to what was important. What she was really saying was, “You’re not touching me and caring about me enough,” and he missed that message entirely. Instead, he focused on details that didn’t matter.
Whenever people speak, they’re offering a priceless piece of who they are, and we need to handle that offering with the appropriate care. We need to accept them and do our best to support them, which is what they need, rather than trying to correct them or manipulate them, which does such great harm to our relationships.
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