Almost every day I talk to people in conflict: couples, parents and children, people in the workplace, and so on. On many occasions — perhaps most of the time — the people involved in these conflicts become so confused by the details of their arguments that resolution becomes impossible. The threads of their disputes entangle them like a consuming ball of yarn that sucks them in and never lets them go. Moreover, the sources of conflict can seem endless. Look at couples, for example, who argue over money, sex, housekeeping chores, children, mothers-in-law, ex-spouses, and so on.
People can begin to understand their conflicts much better — and certainly resolve them more effectively — when they distill the details and recognize the real meaning of the many words they speak in their dissensions. We become far too distracted by all those words.
In order to illustrate how we become distracted by too much information, imagine that we are traveling in the desert, and we discover a man collapsed by the side of the road. His skin is dry and hot. His temperature is slightly elevated. He is barely coherent and answers whatever questions we ask but volunteers no information. We take him to a nearby hospital, where we perform a number of tests. His SGOT and a number of other liver function studies are mildly abnormal. His serum glucose is low. His urine output is decreased. His visual fields are constricted. His MRIs show nothing specific.
We are puzzled as to his condition until the young daughter of one of the technicians ambles up to the bedside of the man and asks him if he is hungry. Finally, he perks up and nods his head. We bring him a tray of food and drink. Within an hour, he becomes a different person before our eyes, communicating freely with us. As we were concentrating on all the details, we had missed the meaning of all the information we were gathering. We had failed to understand that he was simply dying of hunger and thirst.
Every day — often every hour — most of us miss the meaning of the behavior of the people around us, as well as the meaning of our own behavior. In order to be happy, what we all need most — all of us, not just a few of us — is Real Love. When we understand that, interacting with other people can become quite fruitful and enjoyable. When we forget this important principle — or if we never knew it in the first place — human behavior becomes endlessly confusing and difficult for us.
When we understand the critical need that all people have for Real Love, we also realize that it is almost invariably the case that conflicts really boil down to people not having the love they need. Using the example of a couple, most conversations — no matter what the declared subject and no matter what the words that are spoken — therefore become relatively easy to understand. In the absence of sufficient Real Love the real meaning of the conversations can be understood as follows:
Him: Love me.
Her: Love me.
Him: No, you love me.
Her: No! You love me first.
Him: I said, Love me!
Her: Are you not listening to me? I asked you to love me!
Him: But I need it right now!
Her: But I need it worse!
When people don’t feel sufficiently loved, their conversations become increasingly demanding, and they simply can’t hear the demands of anyone else. It’s like watching two deaf people scream at each other. Rarely, however, do people without love realize that their conversations are about love. They believe they’re having a conversation about money or household chores or children or an ex-spouse, and they become hopelessly confused in those details.
By way of contrast, conversations where Real Love is understood and available go as follows:
Him: Love me.
Her: Okay. What do you need?
In the above example the speakers are partners in a conventional marriage, but that need not be the case. The speakers could be also be a child and parent, or an employee and boss, or a customer and sales representative, or two groups of people, or even two countries.
Not all conversations are about Real Love. When I go to the hardware store and order three two-by-fours, I’m only looking for building materials, but the moment people become animated in their discussions — the moment there is an investment of emotion — the subject of the conversation is Real Love. They’re expressing their need for it, their lack of it, and their immediate desire for it, and if we miss that message, our interactions with those people will go badly.
When we understand the primal need that people have for Real Love, on the other hand, we can take steps to listen to them, show our interest in them, accept them, and otherwise care about their happiness. As we do this, we make a powerful difference in our relationships and in our own happiness.