Relationship scholar Howard Markman examined couples in the throes of heated discussions and made an astonishing discovery. He could watch a 15 minute recording of a married couple in a heated discussion and predict with 90 percent accuracy whether or not that couple would be happily married in five years. In the behavioral sciences, prediction demonstrates the degree of understanding. Accurate predictions are very rare. A 90 percent prediction is unheard of.
How did he do it? Markman learned that the variable that predicts whether a married couple will be happily married in five years is not their background, education, nor their attitudes toward money, friends, family or religion. The main predictor in whether they stay together is how they disagree with each other. The potentially lethal problems in our relationships are not the issues we disagree about, but the way in which we disagree. Anger and contention-whether expressed in hot, hurtful words or icy, cold silence-destroy relationships.
When Jesus Christ appeared in the Americas, he taught the following:
“And there shall be no disputations among you, as there have hitherto been… For verily, verily I say unto you, he that hath the spirit of contention is not of me, but is of the devil, who is the father of contention, and he stirreth up the hearts of men to content with anger, one with another.” 3 Nephi 11:28-29
I believe the sequence of events during Christ’s appearance has important significance. At his coming, he first testified of who he is, “Behold I am Jesus Christ…” and invited those gathered to receive their own witness. Second, he established his leaders and gave them authority. Third, he commanded that they perform baptisms, and fourth, that they have no disputations among them concerning baptism. After explaining how to baptize, he broadened his commandment regarding disputations and contention:
“Behold, this is not my doctrine, to stir up the hearts of men with anger, one against another; but this is my doctrine, that such things should be done away.” 3 Nephi 11:30
All this was done before he taught the people or performed miracles. These first things are foundational elements upon which everything else done by the Savior in America rests.
Doing away with disputation and contention is a foundational doctrine of Jesus Christ. In addition, we can assume that engaging in contention violates that doctrine and puts us in league with the father of contention, the devil. It seems to me, if having the Spirit to be with us is our desire in our gatherings and homes, then doing away with contention is the place to begin.
In my mind, contention is not a difference in degree from disagreements or discussions; it is a difference in kind. Contention suggests a move from differing opinions to the category of opposing opinion, quarreling and arguing. I don’t think we are amiss if we see anger as an essential component of what the Savior commanded us against. The commandment and the doctrine are clear. The desperate challenge for most of us is being able to actually rid ourselves of disputation and contention. We have the will to do it, but we often lack the skill to do it.
Consider three skills that can be powerful tools for ridding ourselves of contention.
The first and most obvious skill is to invite the Spirit of Peace through morning prayer and scripture study. We often see this as a habit for gospel scholarship and learning. While it is, we can also use this discipline to obtain the Spirit and focus our minds on the words of Christ. This provides a context for our day and gives us the spiritual strength and desire to resist anger and contention.
When it comes to avoiding disputations and contention, all moments are not equal. We do not have to be on guard every moment of every day, in fact, most of the time we don’t need to expend any energy or thought toward “maintaining the peace.” There are usually only a few times in a given day or even a week that we are at risk, and we can usually anticipate those moments. They are called “crucial moments”. The skill is to identify your crucial moments. Ask yourself, “When am I most likely to get contentious? When am I most likely to get angry and frustrated? Who does it involve? Is there a particular subject or behavior that creates disputations or contention?” By identifying our crucial moments, we can prepare ourselves and determine our motivation or what it is that we really want from the situation.
Our motivation in any encounter determines our feelings and our behavior. If my motivation is to hurt you, I will say and do different things than if my motive is to help or comfort you. If my motive is to win, be right, and prove you wrong, my natural behavior is to press my point and negate yours. It’s easy to resort to raising my voice, talking over you, belittling your point and being disrespectful to you. If, on the other hand, my honest desire is to strongly understand you, my natural behavior-neither forced nor contrived-is to ask questions and listen.
When we are contentious, we typically experience strong emotion-often fear or anger. When we feel strong emotion, the upper reasoning and logic centers of the brain shutdown. The body redirects blood flow to the strong muscle groups preparing us for fight or flight. Now, this is a handy mechanism if you’re in the jungle facing a tiger, but if you are in a complex human interaction, it’s the worst mode possible. You cannot think clearly. It’s difficult to reason. The “natural man” has taken over. You say and do hurtful things that you later wish you could take back. And when asked why you said an awful thing that you did not mean, you truthfully say, “I don’t know, I was just so mad.”
The need in this situation is to turn your brain back on and connect with your more noble motivations. The skill to do this is amazingly simple. Ask yourself a question. Questions itch the brain. When strong emotion starts shutting the brain down and you are sliding into the fight or flight reflex, ask yourself questions to restart the brain and enable you to start thinking about what you are doing.
What question should you ask? Start with this one, “What do I really want?” This is the third skill. In a crucial moment with a loved one, what do you really want? Do you want to humiliate and shame him or her while creating feelings of hostility and contention? Or, do you want to let your loved one know you care for him or her and that his or her feelings and concerns matter to you? Do you want to work through a problem in a way that builds trust and love? When we take a moment to think through the options, we would be foolish indeed to choose hurting someone and damaging our relationship with him or her instead of safeguarding his or her vulnerable heart.
We can add to this initial question others that deepen our connection to our most heart-felt motivations:
What do I really want?
What relationship do I want with this person?
What would Jesus do in this situation?
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These questions break the stimulus/response cycle, they get us thinking about what we should do, and they reduce the strong emotions pushing us toward hurtful responses. Done sincerely, they allow us to notice the gentle enticements of the Spirit.
To review, the three skills that help us enact the Doctrine of Christ to do away with contention are:
1.Invite the Spirit of Peace through morning prayer and scripture study. Specifically ask the Lord to help you be a peacemaker. Review the crucial moments you could encounter throughout the day and ask to be shown what to do.
2.Identify your crucial moments. When you anticipate a crucial moment, pray for help. Ask the Spirit to be with you. If you find yourself in a crucial moment you did not expect, pause, and silently say a prayer before you continue.
3.Ask, “What do I really want?” When you anticipate a crucial moment, write this question on the top of a page and write down your sincere answers. If you find yourself suddenly in the moment, silently say a prayer, ask and answer your question before you speak.
By following these principles, we will be more able to do away with contention and make our home and lives more conducive to the Sprit and the Lord’s blessings.
Ron McMillan is the four-time New York Times best-selling co-author of Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, Influencer, and Change Anything. He is also the co-founder of VitalSmarts, an innovator in corporate training and organizational performance. VitalSmarts has consulted with more than 300 of the Fortune 500 companies and trained more than 800,000 people worldwide. For related content from Ron and his co-authors, please visit www.crucialskills.com.