Real People: My wife doesn't understand a thing I say

A new book from America promises you'll never have to yell at your partner again. TIM DOWLING tries it out on his bolshy missus

The latest book to come out of the Harvard Negotiation Project ("a think tank to produce ideas useful to real people") is Difficult Conversations. In 1981, the think tank produced the best-selling Getting to YES, a guide to effective negotiation and problem solving. Difficult Conversations brings 15 years of research to bear on the kinds of discussions had every day by couples, colleagues, friends and family, and to shed light on the dysfunctional rag-bag of bickering we all call communication.

By the time I had finished the introduction, I realised the book presented an almost perfect antithesis to the kind of conversational style favoured by my wife and myself. My wife is the foremost practitioner of a negotiating method called Getting to F--K OFF, and all our conversations are difficult ones. A typical dialogue goes like this:

Me: What are we having for supper?

Her: Why are you asking me?

Me: To find out what you want.

Her: I'm not having that lamb.

Me: Oh... Pasta?

Her: All right, but if you think I'm cooking you can fuck off.

Faced with the prospect of continuing in this vein for an hour, you can see how Home Front In The Garden suddenly becomes must-see viewing.

The bad news is that nowhere in Difficult Conversations is there a chapter on how to avoid them. "You can't get rid of these conversations," says Bruce Patton, one of the authors. "They're part of life." The trick, according to the book, is to look at what is going on in the conversation, which is actually three conversations. The "What Happened?" conversation is the process of presenting one's own conclusions, and of laying blame. An underlying "Emotional Conversation" proceeds according to the shifting feelings of the participants. Finally an "Identity Conversation" has to do with the things we say primarily to safeguard our idea of ourselves.

Patton and his co-author Douglas Stone wear their conversational mastery highly, although they have the disconcerting habit of slipping into role- play, so that one of them is suddenly being me, and I realise I'm supposed to be my wife. In showing me some alternative approaches to our domestic conversational brinkmanship, Patton says things that have never come out of my mouth before, and I say "F--k off." But Stone and Patton are by no means a pair of touchy-feely self-help gurus, and their qualifications are impressive. "I trained both sides," says Patton, "both the white cabinet and the ANC's negotiating committee in South Africa, before they went into their constitutional talks. Doug's worked with both sides in Cyprus for years." With their know-how, they could probably teach Michael Winner how to order a meal without getting thrown out of the restaurant.

The book is no quick fix, rather a practical system based on a thorough understanding of what works and what doesn't, one which has helped the authors in their lives. Stone says his conversational skills have gone from "slightly below average to five times better". Their analysis of conversation is complex, but the kernel of their technique is to avoid a confrontation based on convincing the other person that they are wrong, and to start instead with the "Third Story", the gap between each conversant's version of the same event.

My wife's technique is strangely similar, but it also allows her to win almost every argument on a rhetorical level. She somehow manages to exploit the gap between our versions of events, and second-guess my emotional response. In fact the half leg of lamb in the fridge (which she bought) is rapidly approaching its sell-by-date. I know she feels stupid for buying it in the first place. I know she feels guilty about not wanting to eat it night after night, and I know she will feel worse when, at the end of the week, it is thrown away. So why do I feel guilty for raising the issue? Why do I feel like I'm playing conversational tennis with a hole in my racket?

There is some hope for me, however. I gave her Difficult Conversations to read, having first been assured by its authors that the techniques cannot be used for evil, and she found it extremely interesting. Perhaps now we can begin to get beyond these petty conversational games, and I can stop losing.

While reluctant to comment on my case directly, Patton and Stone pointed out to me that much of wife's pre-emptive aggression probably stems from her feeling chronically underappreciated. I went home and told her, apropos of nothing, that I appreciated everything she did, even if I didn't always say so. A small, strange smile formed on her lips before she turned away and said, "Oh, f--k off".

'Difficult Conversations' is published by Michael Joseph, pounds 12.99.

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookA delicious collection of 50 meaty main courses
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
Ed Miliband and David Cameron are neck and neck in the polls
election 2015Armando Iannucci: on how British politics is broken
Life and Style
Great minds like Einstein don't think alike
Missing: 'Mail' columnist Peter Hitchens
election 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Life and Style
A nurse tends to a recovering patient on a general ward at The Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
Chuck Norris pictured in 1996
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Lucas, I SCREAM DADDIO, Installation View, British Pavilion 2015
artWhy Sarah Lucas is the perfect choice to represent British art at the Venice Biennale
A voter placing a ballot paper in the box at a polling station
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Ashdown Group: IT Support Engineer - Leeds

    £22000 - £25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Support Engineer - Leeds This i...

    SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Bristol

    £18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped OTE: SThree: SThree Trainee Recruitment C...

    SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Birmingham

    £18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped OTE: SThree: SThree Trainee Recruitment C...

    SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Dublin

    £13676.46 - £16411.61 per annum + OTE: SThree: SThree Trainee Recruitment Cons...

    Day In a Page

    General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
    General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

    On the margins

    From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
    Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

    'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

    Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
    Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

    Why patients must rely less on doctors

    Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
    Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

    Flesh in Venice

    Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
    Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

    Juventus vs Real Madrid

    Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
    Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

    Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

    Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power