At the end of one of his presentations at the Couples Conference in Manhattan Beach, California last month, Pete Pearson literally performed a magic trick turning a business card into a flower. But far more impressive was when he showed us how to use “four little words” to transform almost any hostile statement into something that a partner can engage with productively.
The four magic words are: “…what do you think?” They do need to be said in a tone that indicates a genuine willingness to hear what the other person thinks but, when said like that, they can work wonders. Tacked on to the end of a critical or demanding statement, this “add on” can take the sting out of the message, flag what is important for the sender and still make room for their partner to have their own opinion (developing “differentiation of other” for those who are familiar with that concept)(if you’re a therapist who is interested in learning about this concept you might want to look at our training).
Here’s an example. Suppose a client angrily says: “I feel like you never want to spend time with me”. That’s pretty unlikely to get a very favourable response from their partner. Most likely it will get something defensive or even a counter-accusation. Now imagine getting them to say it again but with the magic words appended (sincerely): “I feel like you never want to spend time with me… what do you think ? ” Can you, as a therapist, feel how this might create a more engaged, less defensive response in the partner? Try it with something even more extreme: “You treat me like a piece of crap… what do you think ?”
This is one you can definitely try out on your spouse next time you are feeling exasperated or hurt. When you hear yourself saying some kind of extreme or irrational statement, try adding the four magic words on the end and see if you get a different outcome than ususal.
I’m sure it won’t work all the time but when you see it in action it certainly is less of a “trick” and more a deep secret that can move a conversation through hostility with less wounding and chaos. Something worth having in your repertoire and trying out when clients are being reactive and defensive; maybe you’ll surprise youself with a little magic.