Expressing a Preference: A Little Relationship Tip That Can Change Your Life

Many people have never learned how to identify their own preferences. Or they have grown up believing they don’t deserve to HAVE a preference. Or they are afraid to speak their preferences, let alone fight for them. Some people think they do not possess preferences, because they are not in the habit of tuning in to their own feelings. Other people hold strong preferences, even rigidly so, and spend little time inquiring of others about their preferences, and instead simply push forward with their own, ignoring the preferences of others.

When two or more people hold different preferences about a given issue, a conflict is created. It can be a trivial conflict, like wanting to order from Hunan Garden vs. Olive Garden for dinner. It can be a simple, but important conflict, like preferring to purchase the brown, leather sectional rather than the red velvet couch for your renovated den. Or conflicts in preference can be complicated and profound: preferring a public school for one’s child to a private school.

When people are good at discussing, and resolving conflicts, large and small, they tend to have more satisfying, effective relationships with others. This is a wide-ranging truth. Being “good at conflict” can mean being successful at work, at home, and with friends. Being good at conflict entails knowing one’s preferences, and being able to explore the preferences of others – and then when the preferences don’t line up, being able to talk about how to make choices that both people can live with.

So how do you become “good at conflict”? Here are the steps:

  1. Tune into your own feelings. Dig around inside yourself to discover your own preferences about …well, anything! Preferences can change and are sometimes situation specific. Wanting vegetarian food one night does not mean you won’t prefer barbeque the next. But other preferences tend to remain stable over time: my friend Kate likes her décor in greens and browns. She will NEVER prefer blues.

    What do YOU prefer…in any given situation? Explore inside yourself. Find out!

  2. Speak your preferences directly, calmly, but politely. This is “assertiveness”. “I’d rather go hiking tomorrow than see a movie. I’m in the mood for the outdoors. “ That is an assertive statement.

    “I don’t feel like seeing a movie – you always want to do things indoors when it’s beautiful out and I’m sick of being a couch potato.” That’s indirect, and a bit passive-aggressive.

    “No way am I seeing a movie tomorrow. I’m going hiking – with or without you.” So, yeah. That’s aggressive-aggressive. So – step two is to work on your assertive statements. Clear, calm, polite expressions of your preferences.

  3. Find out what the OTHER person or people prefer. Why bother? Because that is considerate, and thoughtful, and will build reciprocity in your relationship with the other person. Another reason you want the other people to express their preferences is to avoid Resentment Residue, and over time and many decisions, Resentment Build-Up.

    Worse than plaque, Resentment Residue is toxic to relationships. If you become good at expressing preferences, but your spouse/ co-worker/ friend does not, you risk being perceived as selfish or insensitive. In order to improve your relationship overall, you will need to nurture the other person’s ability to state preferences assertively. When the other person is able to accomplish this, you will find it much easier to articulate your own preferences, and to identify conflicts when they arise

Warning: Conflicts can hide beneath the words of people who don’t know how to state preferences. Unspoken, unidentified conflicts lead to misunderstandings, unnecessary hurt feelings, resentment and guilt. Just because two people in a relationship might be conflict avoidant does not mean they don’t have conflict. It just means the conflict is hidden inside of mushy communication. In order to improve your relationship, try to clean up your words. State your preferences clearly, and ask your friends, partners, and family members to state theirs too.

Common goofs in stating preferences:

The Mind Read

“I prefer spending Thanksgiving at home this year. Since I am sure you want to go to your sister’s, I’m thinking we are heading for an argument.”

The Fix: State Only Your OWN Preference – not the other person’s.

“I prefer spending Thanksgiving at home this year. What are your feelings about it? What options do you want us to consider?”

The Take Back

“I prefer spending Thanksgiving at home this year. What are your feelings about it? If you want to go to your sister’s I’ll deal with it, and agree to go I guess.”

The Fix: State your own preference, and stand firm. Give the other person a chance to state THEIR preference, without mixing yours in by accident.

“I prefer spending Thanksgiving at home this year. What are your feelings about it? What options do you want us to consider?”

The Preference Plus Threat

“I prefer spending Thanksgiving at home this year. I want to know your preference, but if it’s to go to your sister’s, I’m going to be irritated.”

The Fix: State your own preference, and keep an open mind. If you genuinely want to hear from the other person, you are more likely to hear their genuine preference. Only then will you know if there is agreement, or a conflict to resolve.

Bottom line on expressing preferences clearly: One of the basic skills in a well working relationship is being able to know where YOU leave off, and the OTHER person begins. Sometimes people overlap in preferences and feelings, and there is easy agreement and harmony. Sometimes people differ in their preferences, and there are conflicts, small or large, to discuss and resolve. If you become skilled at identifying and expressing your own preferences, and in exploring and listening to those of others in your life, your relationships at home, at work, with friends and family, will likely improve. And sometimes when you are in the mood for Chinese food, your preference will prevail.


Five Tips for Resolving Conflict: When Your Preferences and Their Preferences Are Not In Harmony

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