Think about how you feel in a game of tennis when you’ve delivered a non-returnable shot. (If you don’t play tennis regularly, you’ve probably seen the game often enough on television to be able to visualize the moment.) You’ve aimed just right and hit the ball with such power that your opponent can only look on in bewilderment as it sails by out of reach.
That feeling of complete and utter success often carries over into other aspects of your life, including the language you use to describe such successes: you beat out a competitor, nail a contract, or blow one by the opposition. Even reading these words can put you in touch with the visceral satisfaction that comes with such an overwhelming success.
Relationships can be thought of as a game, complete with its own rules. Here’s a tip: any time you feel that visceral satisfaction that comes from delivering a non-returnable shot, you’ve broken a rule and lost the point. If we push the tennis metaphor a bit further, the object in relationships is not to place an unanswerable shot but to keep the ball in play. Men often have more difficulty with this rule than women do, since men generally value conversations that are brief, direct, and to the point. Men tend to consider getting to the conclusion the principal objective of an exchange where women are more likely to look upon the process as valuable in its own right.
Keeping the ball in play means avoiding words, or tones of voice or body language that terminate the conversation. You don’t actually need to say “And that’s the end of it” if your tone of voice brooks no comeback or if you tower over your partner in a manner that defies demurral.
Keeping the ball in play also means being responsive. Silence, or an indecipherable grunt, have the effect of hitting the ball into the net: for practical purposes, the exchange has ended.
“Winning” in the relationship game has a different meaning from winning in tennis. If you’ve defeated your partner, and ended the exchange, you’ve lost. But if you can keep the ball in play long enough, you will be able to appreciate every aspect of your partner’s point of view, just as your partner will be able to appreciate yours. Keeping the ball in play opens the possibility of an outcome different from either your or your partner’s original intent. And when that happens, you’ve both won.
Arthur Wenk holds a doctorate in musicology and masters degrees in information science, music theory, and psychology.
Art‘s client-centered approach is based on empathic listening, helping clients integrate thoughts, feelings and actions, and assisting them to revise self-stories that have kept them enmeshed in problems: all in the interest of achieving mental, emotional and spiritual wholeness.