Jane and Reggie, two clients of ours, had been married for twelve years. Their love ran deep. Their connection was strong. And yet, there was one bristly topic that repeatedly brought strain into their relationship:
Reggie likes their home to be extremely neat and tidy. Meanwhile, Jane is more of a “just let the dishes sit in the sink overnight” type of person. To her, a bit of mess is no big deal.
For years, they had continual arguments about household chores. Small moments of tension would escalate into big fights. It was so tedious and tiring.
During a coaching session with Jane and Reggie, we encouraged them to ask each other a powerful question:
“Why is this so important to you?”
Jane started things off, asking Reggie: “You want the house to be clean all the time. I’ve noticed you want dishes to be cleaned up immediately after dinner rather than waiting ’til the next day. Why is this so important to you?”
She had never asked him this question before. And in fact, Reggie had never considered this question either.
Hearing this question gave Reggie a chance to pause and consider what was driving him.
Reggie contemplated and then replied, “I think it must come from my military training. It makes my skin crawl to leave the kitchen a mess overnight because that was never an option for us in the army. It actually makes me physically uncomfortable to see a messy kitchen, and then I feel tense, and then it’s harder for me to relax and enjoy quality time with you in the evenings—which is what I really want to do.”
As Reggie shared this new information, Jane’s face softened. Her body language changed. Rather than being irritated, she began to empathize with her husband.
“Okay, I still don’t necessarily ‘agree’ with your position on dishes,” Jane said. “But at least now, I understand where you’re coming from.”
This question—“Why is this so important to you?”—is a deceptively simple question, and one that’s very powerful.
Asking this question can take the conversation in an entirely new direction. You may learn something surprising about your partner, understand their motivations better, and really grasp their point of view—perhaps for the very first time!
By asking this question, you’re also shifting the emotional energy between you and your partner. Instead of tense, hostile energy (“I’m right, you’re wrong!”) you’re shifting to open, curious energy (“Tell me more about this. I want to learn.”). This shifts things from an unproductive fight to a productive conversation.
The next time you’re arguing with your partner, slow down, breathe, and then—with a gentle, caring, and genuinely curious tone—ask,
“Why is this so important to you?”
Give them time to think it over, and time to speak without interruptions. Really listen. You might be quite surprised by what you learn.
(Then flip it around. Give them a chance to ask you the same question so they can hear what’s driving you, too.)
Similar questions are:
“Help me understand how you got there.”
“What is driving your passion around this?”
“Tell me how you came to your point of view.”
“Wow! That’s very different from my view. How’d you get there?”
“I can sense that this matters to you…a lot. Can you tell me why?”
“Can you share more about this? I would really like to understand.”
As adults, we don’t always need to get our way 100% of the time, but we do need to feel genuinely heard and considered.
When you ask your partner these types of question and listen to their response—not necessarily agreeing but really listening—they no longer have to fight to be seen and heard.
When you both feel seen, heard, and respected—rather than attacked—then it’s much easier to think clearly, put your brains together, and come up with creative solutions for whatever challenge you’re facing—whether it’s dirty dishes or money issues or a question about which city you ought to live in.
As the hostility decreases, you and your partner feel calmer and more creative, and soon, you’ll have one of those moments where you go, “Ah! Of course! We could do ____! Why didn’t we think of that sooner?” The ideal path becomes clear.
At home with your partner, in the workplace, and everywhere else in life, new questions lead to new discoveries—and new solutions that you didn’t consider before.