Relationships: The Power of Neutral

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In 1969, I did my big 6th-grade project on Switzerland. Little did I know, more than 50 years later, I’d be saying this:

Sometimes, ‘ya just gotta be Switzerland, the country whose official position in wartime is … neutrality.

Do We Need Gun Control?

Do you carry a “Should Gun”? You know, that weapon we fire when telling people they should do this or that?

“My son should listen to me.”

“My boss should coach me better.”

“My spouse should help out more.”

“My employer should raise my pay.”

“My neighbors should clean up their place.”

“My daughter should speak to me respectfully.”

It’s human to hold opinions on how others “should” live — and tempting to share them. Once in a while, in the right moment and setting, we might pass those opinions on and be heard.

However, more often than not, it’s good to put away our Should Gun and go with a softer, gentler approach — especially when people are hurting, frustrated, or fearful.

The Power of Neutral

One of the Millennial couples in our large Miller family system was going through a rough patch. Don’t we all? So, the morning after what we knew had been a tense and difficult evening for them, Karen and I gave this advice by text:

Today, we want you BOTH to practice making neutral, safe, nonjudgmental statements to each other. If one wants to express hurt and frustration about Topic A, the other will say this:

“I get it.”

“I know it’s hard.”

“I’m sorry this is happening.”

“It’s frustrating, for sure.”

“Tell me more.”

When the other person vents on Topic A or new Topic B, the same neutral words will be offered.

We all know the QBQ! book, right? Then we know we can’t change each other and arguing isn’t gonna solve problems. There’s no shame or embarrassment in this struggle … you’re both carrying a lot right now. We’ve been there, too. What we’ve learned is this: be there SAFELY for each other.

Over and out, Bop and Nonnie.

Yep, we signed with our grandparent nicknames. ?

The Value of Neutral

What’s so valuable about utilizing The Power of Neutral is it’s the antithesis of the dangerous Should Gun.

Should Gun: “You should think, feel, and act as I say!”

The Power of Neutral: “You’re safe here. When you talk with me, I won’t add to your pain. You can tell me anything.”

Shoulds hurt, they escalate a conflict. Neutral deescalates, heals.

It can be truly painful when we emote and vent to another only to receive a message of shame in return. Nothing shuts dialogue — and the healing that can occur from it — down faster than shoulds.

In the end, our counsel is to be Switzerland, be neutral.

Points To Ponder

Consider the last time someone came to you at home, work, or in friendship to express deep feelings. How did you handle it? Did you make it worse by should-ing on him/her? Or make it better by covering that person with a blanket of emotional safety?

Only you—and they—know how that moment went.

Comments welcome!

PS: If you’re wondering, I got an A- on that 6th-grade project! ??


10 Responses

  1. In regards to being neutral…Do you not think that are times that we are called upon to speak up and speak out or to even take sides? When we stay neutral on things that we know are wrong I feel like we are saying its ok because it isn’t negatively affecting us or our family . Society as a whole has stayed neutral on far too many things and I feel because of that there has been a downward spiral of morality, blatant injustices and a false sense of security which allows people to ignore and turn a blind eye to very real things that are happening . Everything doesn’t require your energy and its easy to just take a simpler , softer approach when dealing with someone who is venting . Easy isn’t always what’s best especially in this day of age when we see all kinds if injustices happening before our very eyes, sometimes with no consequences. I’m reminded of this quote.. “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. “Washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral”

    1. Hi, Melanie. Thanks, for sharing. Yeah, our message here is about relationships — husband and wife, father and son, boss and employee. We’re not speaking here about the big issues of which you speak. 🙂

  2. Thank you. That message really helps in dealing with a situation I am currently having. It came at the best time.
    Again Thank You!

  3. I try to remain “neutral” when co-workers come to my office to vent. I work in technology (for a school district), so I hear a lot of “venting” from many people. I have a saying, “What’s said in my office, stays in my office.” Many people know my office is a safe zone to vent, cry, scream, complain, laugh, etc. We all need a place like that where we know we are not going to be judged for our actions or our words. Plus, I keep candy around, too. 🙂

  4. Thanks John – very timely for your posting as I just unloaded my Should Gun the other day on my soon-to-graduate daughter. We were discussing having a physically-distanced party with friends and she mentioned that there was tension with 2 of her buds. With all good intentions I started using YOU SHOULD try this with your pals. She shut down immediately…I knew right away my use of ‘should’ was the wrong choice of words.
    I would think about using ‘I’m sorry to hear that’, ‘I can imagine the timing of that stress must be hard’. Being open and creating a safe space is good but How can I help if she doesn’t circle back?

  5. John, Thank you so much – I always enjoy reading what you right and need to stay more in tune with your blog posts. This is great parenting advice, even for a 4 year old! Sometimes they just need to let us know how they’re feeling and we need to stay neutral, despite how hard that can be! Appreciate you-

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