How to have a useful argument

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Often when we are angry enough to argue with someone we are more interested in letting them know how we feel than in focusing on a particular outcome, and that’s often how fights play out (you’re an asshole! No, YOU’RE an asshole!). It ends up being more of a monkey-brain thing than a logical, thought-out process. It is very rare that if you shout at someone (YOU’RE an asshole!) that they will agree with you (I know, you’re right, I’m sorry!)

Firstly, we tend to judge ourselves by our intentions, and others by their actions. I didn’t MEAN to be an asshole, therefore I’m not one. This isn’t always rational: if I step on your foot by mistake, it still hurts you, regardless of whether I meant to or not.

Secondly, it’s not helpful to relate BEHAVIOUR (something you did) back to IDENTITY (who you ARE), and as soon as you’re calling someone a name, you are attacking their IDENTITY. They will almost always defend themselves (fight) or withdraw (flight).

Thirdly, once someone is in fight-or-flight mode, their body isn’t set up for learning: their neurology sends blood to their extremities (which is why toddlers clench their fists and stamp their feet when they are angry) rather than to their brains, effectively stopping them from seeing your point.

There’s another way to argue in a relationship, although it feels counterintuitive when you’re cross. Here are some tips:

  1. Disengage when you’re ready to shout. If you’re shouting, you are in fight mode. The other person will hear your tone of voice rather than your words. Rather take a time out and re-engage when you feel calmer. This is not the same as avoiding the conversation: it isn’t swept under the rug. Tell the other person that you need time to process, and commit to returning to the conversation when you are both calm. It isn’t sulking.
  2. You also don’t need to stand still and be shouted at. Withdraw from a situation like that calmly and commit to returning to it when you are both feeling more rational. Ideally negotiate this course of action before hand, when you are both in a good space. In couple therapy I often spend time teaching couples to lay ‘ground rules’ for arguing, including a ‘time out’ clause. If you can’t manage this on your own, and your fights are regular and vicious, consider speaking to a therapist.
  3. Be clear on what you want the OUTCOME to be. If you are looking for change through the conversation, be clear on that change, and focus on what you want INSTEAD of the past behaviour, not on the past behaviour itself. For example, instead of saying “You never help around the house! I always have to do everything myself!” decide what you want to ask for: “I would really like more help around the house. Do you think you could help me with the dishes this week?” The second option is not attacking and therefore does not invite defence. It’s more likely to open a discussion rather than being an invitation to a fight.
  4. Avoid generalizing. Statements involving ALWAYS and NEVER are inevitably unhelpful. I can’t say “You NEVER help me” because you will be pulled to point out ways in which you DO help, and we will simply get into a back-and-forth argument where neither one of us will win. Rather, if you have a grievance, keep it in the moment: I don’t like THIS THING that you did and I would rather that you do THAT THING going forward. Listing years worth of shortcomings can only produce years worth of reasons/excuses. There is no time machine: we can’t go back and fix past mistakes. We can only move forward.
  5. Focus on the SOLUTION not the problem. Not “You never spend time with me!” which is likely to create guilt and defensiveness. Rather “I miss you. Let’s meet for coffee next week.” Keep the solutions clear and tangible, and future focused.
  6. If you can’t think of the solution immediately, open it for discussion. For example if your child isn’t doing their homework, ask them what would help them to focus more, and be open to experimenting. Also with kids it’s useful to negotiate consequences and agree to them when you are NOT fighting. Calmly sit down for a family meeting and discuss options. Then when the need for a consequence arises, offer one warning and then implement the agreed-on consequence. Because it’s been decided before, you’re less likely to over-punish out of anger and they are (slightly) less likely to resist because they’ve already agreed.
  7. Name-calling is NOT helpful, EVER. There is a vast difference between saying “my husband did a shitty thing” (implying he could choose not to do that in future) and saying “my husband IS a shit” (which relates to who he IS, which he can’t change).
  8. Don’t be discouraged by backsliding. Even if you employ all these strategies you may still have the occasional ugly fight, especially initially as you struggle to establish new habits. It’s ok to disengage, take a breather, and then try again. If you’re finding the habitual responses too strong to change, consider some therapy.

Author: Joce©Psych in a Box

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