Why Bother With Yellow Flowers When You Really Want a Turtle?

“Would you take me to go look at the yellow flowers?”

It seems like a simple request, but it was, in fact, perfectly tailored to meet both my nephew’s needs and his in the moment.

I was visiting my family.  My mother had suggested that I go look at the yellow flowers in her garden and I brought my two-year-old nephew along with me to see them.

He spent less than 30 seconds looking at the yellow flowers.  What caught his eye was the ceramic turtle nearby.  While I checked out the flowers, he happily played with the turtle.  Then, while I waited, he continued to play with the turtle.  Finally, after a bit, I brought him back inside where the rest of the adults were.

We adults resumed our conversation, which was not very exciting for a two-year-old boy.

“Aunt Meredith,” he asked, “would you take me to go look at the yellow flowers?”

Time stopped for a second, at least on my end, as I processed this request.

“I don’t think you want to go see the yellow flowers,” I said.  “I think you want to see the turtle.”

“Yes!” He beamed.  “Would you take me to see the turtle?”

My nephew is two and he can create a win-win situation and sell it to me as being all about me.

I’m not asking you to go that far.  I think it’s better to be transparent and tell the person how the proposed solution could benefit everyone involved.

Still, he is only 2.  And we were able to have a conversation where we each saw and spoke about the benefit that the other person could get out of the same event.

When we are in conflict, we can lose sight of anything other than what we want.  We can’t see what the other person wants and we don’t care what the other person wants.  We get tunnel vision.

When you find yourself getting tunnel vision, when all you want to do is focus on is the turtle, take a step back and look for a way to meet both your needs and the needs of the other person.  Look for the turtle AND the yellow flowers.

When in conflict, ask yourself, "What are the unmet needs?"

When you are in conflict, what are your unmet needs?  What are the unmet needs of the person with whom you are in conflict?

You may think that when you are arguing with your spouse about the dishes not getting done, that it is all about the dishes getting done.

It isn't.

There are probably other nights, maybe even a lot of other nights, when the dishes have not gotten done and you have not argued.

What is the difference between the nights that you argue about the dishes and the nights that you don't?  The unmet needs that each of you bring to the table.

Picture this.  I've worked a long day and I'm just getting home at 7:30 pm.  It's not only one long day that I've worked, though.  I worked all weekend as well, so I've really worked 9 long days in a row. 

I don't feel very well.  My stomach is bothering me.  I'm exhausted. 

I bought a can of soup on the way home because I just can't imagine either preparing a real meal or eating anything that isn't easy to digest.

I open the silverware drawer and find a couple knives and nothing else.  I know that there were clean dishes and silverware in the dishwasher that morning because I took a knife out for my breakfast, but the sign on the dishwasher is now set for dirty dishes, not clean.

"Honey, are there clean dishes or dirty dishes in the dishwasher?" I ask.

"What does the sign say?" he responds.

"Well, it says dirty, but I know that there was a lot of clean silverware in there this morning and there is no clean silverware in the drawer now."

"I thought I was doing a good thing by emptying and loading the dishwasher and that you would notice that," he responds.  "You're right.  I didn't empty the silverware."  He sounds dejected and defensive because I have noticed the bad stuff and not the good.

I have no patience for his feelings.  I'm irritated that once again, he can't be bothered to put the silverware away and now it's all dirty as a result.  I yank a soup spoon out of the dishwasher and start washing it.

It is only after I have eaten the soup that I can bring myself to thank him for taking care of the dishes and I only half mean it at best.  He responds half-heartedly as well.

This is not the first time that my husband has done this chore in this fashion.  He does not like putting silverware away.  Most of the time, it is just one of his personality quirks that I endure, just as he endures mine.  It may result in a fleeting moment of irritation on my part from time to time, but usually there is nothing more.

This time, however, I had a lot of unmet needs.  I needed rest.  I needed food.  I needed compassion.  I needed nurturing, even if only from myself.

He also had unmet needs.  He needed compassion and connection and recognition.  He had stepped up to do some chores, recognizing that I had been pulling many long days of work.  We had not spent significant time together for days.  Over that 9-day stretch, when we had had dinner together, he was the one who had made it.  I had just been too busy.

All of those needs, both his and mine, came to a head over dirty silverware.  It wasn't really about the silverware.  It wasn't even about the one soup spoon I had to wash in the moment.  It was about our needing rest and food and compassion and nurturing and connection and recognition.  That was the real discussion to be had.  Once I got some food, I could start to see that.