It doesn’t matter who’s on the other end of your frowning face — best friend, parent, coworker, in law, or romantic partner — arguments happen and that’s OK. It's impossible to prevent disagreements from occurring altogether, but it is possible to navigate the situation in a way that allows the relationship to grow. In that sense, you can think of arguments as opportunities to really hear what the other person has to say, to say your piece, and to come out on the other side all the better for it.
The problem, of course, is that emotions and built-up frustration can complicate the situation. Especially when the argument is with a spouse or significant other (who may a host of complaints sitting in the kitchen sink waiting to be unleashed). To make matters worse, many of us haven’t been equipped with examples of what a healthy argument looks like. For that reason, it’s far too easy to fuel the fire instead of extinguishing it. Learning how to steer an argument into a progressive direction requires practice, but you can start by acknowledging the things you might be doing wrong and replacing those behaviors with healthier, more constructive habits.
Mistake #1: Focusing on complaints instead of a solution
An argument likely doesn’t occur unless you have some grievance, but in order to make progress it’s best to express your complaint, explain how you're feeling, then move on quickly to the solution, says Judy Ho, Ph.D., a triple-board certified neuropsychologist, psychology professor at Pepperdine University, and co-host of TV show “The Doctors.”
“Once you’re in the problem-solving phase, take a collaborative approach. Spend some time brainstorming ways to solve the problem and don’t judge each other’s ideas,” she says. “Then, mutually pick one that sounds like a good compromise to both of you and commit to trying it out.”
Mistake #2: Using hyperbolic terms like “always” and “never”
A statement like “You always do this!” or “You never do that!” isn’t just dramatic, it’s likely untrue, says Ho. It also puts the other person on the defensive, and instead of listening to what you have to say they’ll focus on coming up with examples that negate your false statement. Instead, she says to “use moderating words like sometimes, at times and often,” which are gradients that leave room for a candid discussion. It also feels like less of a personal, all-out affront on the other person’s entire character.
Mistake #3: Using “you” instead of “I” statements
Making “you” statements also puts the other person on the defensive. For example, saying, “You ruined…” or “You made me...” Mark Mayfield, Ph.D., a licensed professional counselor, explains that these blaming statements often trigger the other person and can take you down a spiraling path. Instead, use “I” statements, such as, “I feel frustrated when…” or “I need…”
“These statements allow you to express how you are feeling within the situation, doesn’t put blame on the other person, and puts the focus on you,” he says. Further, the other person cannot negate feeling statements, and they’ll also have an easier time empathizing with you if they know how you’re feeling.
Mistake #4: Waiting to speak instead of actively listening
It’s in our very nature to want to respond and defend, and this reaction is heightened when fighting. “What often happens is that we are so heated in an argument, we latch on to one word or a phrase and begin to develop our defense without hearing the entirety of what the other person is saying,” Mayfield says. “We then respond to a portion of what was said and miss the majority of the content. This just perpetuates and escalates the argument.”
It's a learned skill, but really focusing on hearing what the other person has to say will take you much further. Focus on their tone, their body language, their feelings, and the broad points they are making. Repeat the points back to reaffirm that you were listening, express your own and then work on a solution.
“Reflecting is a common therapeutic technique to help soothe and then guide to a more evolved plane. Also, digesting a counterpoint is easier after someone has just heard their own words,” says Dr. Sudhir Gadh, a board-certified psychiatrist with a private practice in New York City.
Mistake #5: Taking short breaths
“Taking short breaths activates your fight, flight or freeze system in your body, which activates the sympathetic nervous system and prepares you to fight or escape instead of think rationally,” says Mayfield. “Take deep breaths, which restores the blood flow from your sympathetic nervous system and places it back in your brain, thus allowing you to think more clearly and engage in the disagreement with a level head.” In addition, taking deep, purposeful breaths helps you feel grounded and calms you down.
Mistake #6: Walking away without a positive ending
Even if you’ve made some progress during your argument, it’s hard to shake off all that emotion. Taking time apart to cool off further is ideal, but it’s still important to end on a positive note — not storm away.
“Wrap up the argument with something encouraging that acknowledges something good the person did in the process. For example, ‘I appreciate you listening to my concerns today,’ or ‘I’m grateful we have an open communication line so I can honestly express my feelings,’” Ho says.
Sometimes sealing it with a hug or handshake is enough, too. Whatever the approach, the other person will appreciate that you put in the effort of expressing gratitude and honoring your relationship in the middle of a disagreement, even if you need to pick it back up at a later date to reach a complete resolution.
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