It’s unrealistic to think you’ll never argue. But it is actually realistic to think that arguing well can improve your relationship.
I was a single mom of three sons. Now, as adults, they’re all rich in authenticity, integrity and self-knowledge. Sometimes, I think that they turned out great in spite of me. But there is one thing that I purposefully passed on to them because I knew it would help them, perhaps more than anything else. I taught them how to argue effectively.
There’s a funny thing about parenting. We’re doing the best we can, while at the same time we have an inkling that our kids may need therapy later. We try to get it all right, but it’s not likely that our kids will get through it without dragging some unresolved issues along into adulthood – just like we did.
So what’s the answer? A solid understanding that perfect compatibility only happens in fairytales and that conflict is normal in relationships. Plus the tools for arguing in a constructive way – which means resolution without casualties.
One of my friends argues ineffectively. And it’s painful to watch. He doesn’t name the real issue. Instead, he focuses on unrelated events and people, especially what he believes his partner did wrong in the past. He bullies her by doing most of the talking and by making her wrong, so she doesn’t feel safe and doesn’t open up to him. He doesn’t ask questions, so he never grasps her perspective. And he only uses “you-statements” – criticizing, accusing and blaming.
Like I said, it’s painful to watch. My husband and I offer a Conscious Living Program, where we guide participants in using their inner skills to shape the life they want. We’d love to get my friend into one of our trainings. Here’s what we would share with him.
There are specific steps for handling conflict
The first step is to get two Yeses, right up front.
Yes to the fact that a problem exists and that it needs to be solved – and that it exists in both of us, so it’s not just the other person’s fault. Asking the question, “Do you agree that we have a conflict?” can result in the first Yes.
And Yes to a commitment to do whatever it takes to resolve the problem. Asking the question, “Are you willing to do whatever it takes, together with me, to work this out?” can result in the second Yes.
With these two Yeses, we’re halfway to the solution! And without them, there’s really not a clear way forward.
My friend doesn’t attempt to get the two Yeses because he’d rather hold onto his belief that it’s all about his partner. He doesn’t acknowledge that her perspective is as valid as his, and he doesn’t agree to do whatever it takes.
A helpful tip: If my friend would physically move from in front of his partner, to sit beside her, with shoulders touching and heads joined in teamwork, he might find it easier to look at the problem cooperatively.
The next step is to respect each other’s responsibilities. That means saying, “I won’t tell you how to fulfill your role. And I’d appreciate it if you would let me take care of my responsibilities without interference.” It has to be sincere, without sarcasm or blame.
To get to this point, my friend would need to drop all blame. Then he could spend his energy figuring out what he can do to resolve the conflict, plus what he needs to let his partner do without interrupting her.
By focusing on each other’s strengths, they could join forces to find a win-win answer by asking solution-oriented questions: “What can I do to help? What do you expect from me? What can I expect from you? What’s the best solution that will serve both of us?”
The next step is to agree on what action to take, and then to keep the agreements.
What makes agreement possible?
In an ideal world, conflict gets resolved before it escalates into an argument. But since most of us don’t live in that world, we need to know what makes arguing successful.
Name the real issue
We can identify what we’re really arguing about by asking ourselves: “Why am I choosing to be upset?” It won’t work to say, “I’m angry because you did this!” That’s just a way to manipulate the other person into doing what we want. We need to examine what we believe about the situation because that’s the source of our reaction.
My friend believes that his partner is wrong. He hasn’t figured out that she’s right from her standpoint, which means no one is wrong. He also believes that he’s entitled to his reaction. Believing that we’re entitled to bash other people always results in casualties. And children are the biggest losers in a household where ineffective arguing is the norm.
Make it safe for everyone
Guaranteeing safety means agreeing right up front that anything can be said without getting whacked for it, now or later. Criticizing, blaming and shaming are off-limits. It means arguing without making the other person wrong. Think about it. It’s refreshing, and it’s transformative!
Take turns talking and listening
It won’t work to think: “How can I get this person to change for me?” But it will work to think: “How can I change?” Because as we change in relation to a situation, everyone else involved changes along with us. We need to ask ourselves: “What am I willing to give, and what would I like to receive in exchange?”
Pushing against someone or something won’t get us satisfactory results. My friend associates inner strength with force, so he pushes hard against his partner. And in the end, his efforts work against him and he misses out on finding his real power.
How do we drop resistance? By letting people be who they are without wanting them to change for us.
Find common ground
Arguing effectively requires finding something that we can agree on about the issue. It’s not about deciding who’s right. Needing to be right means that we’ve already made the other person wrong, and the argument is doomed.
If our goal is to win, we’ve already lost.
At the moment, my friend still has a desperate need to be right because he believes being right proves that he’s all right. When he figures out that he doesn’t need to make anyone wrong, he’ll begin to enjoy finding solutions. And harmony will become the norm in his household. And that will be wonderful to watch!
When we feel safe and connected, finding common ground is easier than it sounds. Even when it seems impossible to reach an agreement on an issue, we can still say Yes to the other person.
The bottom line is that understanding our partner’s perspective and feelings matters more than what we’re arguing about. And by making that a priority, we can’t lose.