Compromises! Or, the Thumb Trick

Compromises! Or, the Thumb Trick


Sometimes, we indicate preference because we feel strongly about a thing. And sometimes we indicate preference, but we don’t care *that* much. How can we communicate this?


I wrote last week about respecting and appreciating boundaries. For thanking people when they tell you what they want and need, because it will make your relationship better. But what about the cases when you and your partner/friends want different things, and it would make each of you happy to get what you want? How do you judge which path to take, to make the most people happy and the fewest people unhappy?


Well, I’m going to teach you a trick. I use it in all of my friendships and relationships, and I teach it to all of my clients and students.


I’ve had a long day. After work, I had an emergency meeting with a client, I have paperwork to finish, the cat threw up on my laptop bag, and my new shoes wore blisters into my heels. I am a grumpasaurus rex and I want snuggles. My local partner has also had a long day. They’ve spent the day racing to meet a deadline in their grad program and they missed breakfast and lunch. They want some time alone. How do we reconcile these different desires?


Hey, blog-post people, what do you want?


“I want snuggles!”

“I want to be alone in my apartment!”


Hm. That’s not very specific. Can you give me an idea of how much you want those things?


“I… kind of want snuggles?”

“I really want to be alone.”


Okay, that seems a little better, now we have an idea of scale. But how can we get even more precise?


“Getting snuggled would make me really happy, but so would eating sorbet, or taking a hot shower.”

“I can’t think of anything that would calm me down as much as being alone would, right now.”


Well, that’s great, we have more information now. That was some good communicating! But how can we speed that up, or add precision on the front end?


Enter my favorite relationship tool: data!


Take your right hand and make a thumbs-up. That’s 12:00. Now make a thumbs-down. That’s 6:00. Stick it to the side? That’s 9:00. We’re going to use these to indicate some kind of scale of desire.


If you want something all the way thumbs up, at 12:00, that means that you need it. Not having it would ruin your plans, or make you feel horrible. You can’t get what you require without this thing. Getting it would make you So Happy It Would Be So Great omg.

If you want something all the way thumbs down, at 6:00, you Do Not Want That Thing. It would make you miserable to have to do it, and would likely ruin your day, and you’d grit your teeth through the whole ordeal. Blech.

If your thumb is sideways, at 9:00, you don’t care at all. You’re indifferent, and going either way would be perfectly fine. You’d find a way to be happy no matter what.


In between those three points, we have dozens of smaller points.


Okay, blog people, do your thing.


“I want snuggles, and I’m about at a 10:15 on that. It would make me really happy, but not snuggling you won’t make my night any worse.”

“I want to be alone in my apartment, and I’m a solid 6:45. You coming over would mess up my peace, and me going to you sounds extra yucky. ”

“Oh, that’s fair. Okay; I’m bummed, but I totally understand.”


Ooh, that’s some solid communication right now! Love it!


An interaction that I have had multiple times, using this communication short-cut:

“Do you want to go out to dinner?”

“Hm, I’m not stoked about that, but I’ll bet I could get behind it.”

“Well, I’m a 10:00 on going out – it’s not necessary for my happiness, I just think it could be fun.”

“Oh, I’m only an 8:30, and just cuz I already took my bra off. Give me 10 minutes and I’ll be ready to go out.”

“Great, ok, I’ll go find my shoes!”


Now, maybe this sounds unnecessary. After all, if you remove the numbers from that conversation and just use some precise language, you’ll achieve the same effect. True! However, it is another tool to add to the communication toolbox, in case precise language isn’t quite doing the thing. There are a few circumstances in which I find the thumb/clock method to be really helpful:


–             Someone is having difficulty using verbal language, either from being tired, or mental burnout, or another reason. They can nod or shake their head to indicate what things they want, and they can use their thumb to indicate strength of preference.

–             A room full of people need to vote on something, like a movie or a pizza topping. As opposed to verbally asking each person about the strength of their preference, they can hold out a thumb. This is especially helpful if most people in the room *kind* of want something, and one or two people Really Do Not Want that thing. With regular, non-weighted voting, the party would, say, buy pepperoni pizza, even though it would make two people miserable, because 10 other people want pepperoni. With the thumb method, 10 people eat plain pizza, which they don’t mind because the only had a mild preference towards pepperoni, and two people get to eat dinner that they can digest.

–              Two people aren’t great at using very precise language to assess their desire for a compromise, so they each take a moment to see where their preference lies on the clock, and then compare numbers.


If you have a partner or friend who usually acquiesces or goes with the flow, just to make other people happy, maybe have them write down their number first, so they can’t change it to look like they cared less when it turns out that they had the stronger preference. On the other hand, allow your partners’ preferences to affect your own, if that feels healthy. Maybe I was a 10:00 on going out, and my partner is an 8:00 (oh no! A tie!) but I can see how resigned they are to the idea of going out, and I shift myself down to a 9:45.


(One personal rule I have is: if both people are at a 9:00, allow objects at rest to stay at rest. So if my partner and I are at our own homes and both of us are at a 9:00 on co-sleeping, we’d both be fine sleeping together if the other one wanted, but don’t particularly care. In that circumstance, we stay in our own homes, because going outside and walking 8 blocks sounds yucky if no one has strong feelings about it.)


This trick is an excellent shorthand for a lengthy verbal negotiation, and has not yet failed to achieve maximum satisfaction during compromises, in my life.

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