Whose problem is it anyway?

“B, we’re sitting down for dinner,” K shouts from the dining room. My heart leaps at her voice—this blog post took longer than I thought it would. I close my laptop and rush to the table. As I sit down, I hear K exhale in frustration. “Sorry I’m late,” I say, feeling regretful. We say our gratitude and everyone starts eating in silence.

A few minutes later, P, our 14-year-old goes to the kitchen, comes back, and says: “There is no milk left!” I feel his disappointment in my own bones. Just then, spurred by the motion, our dog gets up and starts sniffing around for crumbs. No one minds except me. I don’t like dogs roaming under the table or begging for scraps while we’re eating—it makes me feel agitated.

In the span of 5 minutes, I have gone from feeling pressed for time, to regret, disappointment, and agitation. Quite a tangle. I feel like laying it all out, to get it off my chest:

— So what if I’m late for a minute? I was trying to get my blog published. You could just start without me!
— So what if you can’t have milk? There is orange juice, sweet tea, or here, just have some plain water for once!
— Why can’t we just put these dogs in their kennels when we eat? I’m sick and tired of being the one who has to get them to lay down. And no one even cares!!

I have certainly said any combination of these in the past. Yet, even though it felt good momentarily to unburden that emotional load, every time I have come to dislike the outcome: at best I have gotten into an escalating battle of words—”oh, yeah? What about…”—and often I wished I had just remained silent. But holding it all in doesn’t feel good either. On this day, I’m determined not to repeat my old patterns.

There are indeed better ways to express and disclose our feelings and thoughts honestly when there is a problem. To know how and when to do so, we must start with the answer to a simple question: who owns the problem? That is, whose needs aren’t met? Who is experiencing pain or loss? Who finds the behavior or the situation unacceptable?

So, when the dogs roam around and I feel I can’t have my meal in peace, I own the problem. Others are just fine, even enjoy petting and cuddling and treating the dogs. My communication must disclose my feelings and needs:

— When dogs roam and sniff for crumbs under the table, I feel agitated and can’t eat in peace.

When P is disappointed there is no more milk, he owns the problem

—his need is not met. I feel for him, but I don’t own his problem. Here my communication must attend and reflect:

— You’re disappointed we’ve run out of milk. It’s your favorite drink at dinner.

When K is frustrated with my late arrival for dinner, she owns the problem. I must reflect, and since my behavior is causing her problem, I may also suggest a solution:

— You’re frustrated I’m late for dinner. I’m sorry! It’s important to have our meal together on time, so I won’t start new work close to dinner time any more.

Acknowledging, attending, and listening when others own a problem can bring their emotional temperature down. Likewise, disclosing our own feelings and problems honestly and without blaming helps us cool down and be heard.

Just like finding the right thread to pull when untying a knot, sorting out who owns the problem can start to untangle our emotions and resolve our problems in a way that we can stay true to ourselves and remain connected to each other.



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