Behavioral Psychology

Pick Your Battles

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Good counselors learn that they need to moderate the frequency of their comments during sessions. It’s not just a question of creating an open space to help clients feel free to talk, but it’s also to insure that they attribute significance to the things that are said. Even if you have some brilliant insight or clever interpretation, it is likely to get lost in the wash, going in one ear and out the other, if you are doing it all the time.

Whatever the nature of your relationship, if it is intimate and sometimes involves conflict, the classic advice to pick your battles is good advice because you’re not going to win all of them. One reason why is exactly the same as in the context of a counseling relationship. You will stop being heard if you always have a comeback.

Even if you somehow constantly win you will still lose. Let’s assume you are a brilliant negotiator and almost any argument you get into leads to you getting your way. Resentment and animosity will build up in the other, even if it’s mostly under the surface, because we are hardwired to be highly sensitive to social obligation and reciprocity. If you are willing to grant certain concessions you expect your partner to do the same and if it doesn’t happen the situation stops feeling fair.

You might have the most logical, reasonable argument in the world but it won’t matter if the person with whom you are disputing doesn’t really hear it because it gets lost in the wash of all your other arguments or chooses to ignore it because you always seem to get your way.

If you can agree that, just like a counselor, the most effective approach to really being heard is to pick your battles, which battles should you pick? The existential answer is to know yourself well enough to be able to differentiate between superficial preferences and deeper core needs. You have to ask yourself what the indispensable conditions are for your continued growth and self-actualization. Some things we just don’t like, while others grate at our souls. If you know the difference then you know where to invest your precious psychic energy.

You can bring behavioral psychology into the mix to provide you with a theoretical map. Picking your battles implies letting many instances go that you would usually take umbrage with, and while this might seem like you are implicitly sanctioning them, by ignoring them completely you are using a behavioral tool called extinction, known to be one of the most effective ways to make a behavior die out.

When you see behaviors you like, say so out loud. We all love hearing what we are doing right and we don’t hear it enough. When there are behaviors you don’t like, make sure these issues really do infringe upon your core needs and then explain how. These strategies won’t only cut down on the frequency of conflict but will also lead to real results because this conflict will be given more weight when it occurs less frequently.