Like it or not, our lives are ripe with opportunities to argue. Whether it’s with your spouse, your child, or a colleague, it’s not only difficult but also unhealthy to avoid this kind of communication. And though it’s easy to resort to blame, shame or becoming defensive during a debate, these habits aren’t conducive to effective communication, much less nurturing to a personal or professional relationship.
On the other hand, a constructive argument can bolster feelings of trust, empathy and connection, paving the way for greater intimacy and understanding. When handled properly, any conflict can create an opportunity for creative problem-solving and authentic acknowledgment. Kelly Bryson, licensed marriage and family therapist, Nonviolent Communication educator and author of Don’t Be Nice, Be Real (Author’s Publishing, 2002), argues, “Conflict is an opportunity to discuss needs, become closer to our partners, get to know ourselves better. It’s an opportunity for growth if we hold it that way.”
According to Anne Parker, Wellness Counselor at Miraval during an argument it’s helpful to keep in mind the three components of any communication: relating, or what you say and how you say it; receiving, taking in or listening to what the other person is saying; and responding. Parker calls these “the three Rs” for short. She adds that it’s important to “respond to what is actually said, instead of what you think they mean.”
Though communication is an art that can be studied over a lifetime, there are few guidelines that can help you navigate your next conflict with grace.
One strategy, notes Parker, for keeping an argument constructive is to know what the intended goal of the conversation is. Is it a problem solving discussion? Do you need to get something off your chest? Are you looking for agreement, or just successful communication? Be honest with yourself… Do you really expect your partner to just fold and agree completely? She says, “We go into these discussions with a pre-conceived notion of how it needs to end. Have an idea of what the purpose is, and let go of your expectation of how it needs to end.”
Both Bryson and Parker emphasize making “I” statements during an argument. This helps prevent triggering defensiveness in the other person and also communicates that you are taking responsibility for your experience or feelings. Instead of, “You made me angry when you came home late from work.” Bryson suggests saying, “When I came home and you weren’t here, I felt sad.” No blame, no defensiveness, yet you are still expressing your emotional truth. Another related tip be vulnerable. Express your feelings and needs openly and honestly. Bryson notes, “Transparency inspires transparency. Emotional honesty creates feelings of safety.”
I tried this tactic with my five-year-old during dinner recently. She was refusing to eat her quinoa, which she normally likes, but I had prepared a bit differently that evening. “I don’t like it,” she kept saying. Rather than getting angry, taking it personally and ‘making her’ eat it, I said, “Listen, your baby sister interrupted me while I was cooking the quinoa tonight and the truth is, it didn’t turn out the way I wanted it to. The garlic is overcooked, and I don’t love it either, but it would mean a lot to me if you would eat some of it so it doesn’t go to waste.” And voila, like magic, she did.
Another useful tool, says Bryson, is to make observations, not evaluations. Instead of, “You left the bathroom a mess” try, “You left your clothes on the bathroom floor.” When we stop making judgments about others and their actions, we often avoid triggering defensiveness, yet can still communicate our needs and observations. “All judgments,” Bryson argues, “are tragic expressions of needs.”
The second R, receiving, is where many people get tripped up. Receiving requires active listening, attending to what is being said, not anticipating or extrapolating what you think you’ll hear. Parker says, “The biggest lesson is to really listen and that requires being present with the speaker, noticing when your own stuff comes up, and making a choice to stay present and listen.”
A well-known technique for this is called mirroring.
Once the speaker has finished his statement, you reflect back what you think you heard, asking for clarification. You don’t move forward with your response until you both are satisfied with your interpretation. Many people speed right past this step, and thus derail a potentially constructive conversation. Bryson reminds clients of the George Bernard Shaw quote, “The greatest mistake in communication is to believe that it has happened.” Don’t assume that your message, articulate as it may have been, was heard properly. If the receiver doesn’t offer reflection, ask for it. Parker notes, “Holding back a moment to have that reflection can often nip a lot of misunderstandings in the bud.”
Another valuable tip is to listen for the emotion behind the statement or demand. Bryson says, “Try to hear what’s going on with the other person with empathy and compassion, no matter how they express it. Even when someone’s telling me how incompetent I am, what I’m listening for is the emotion behind it.” Thus, communication becomes a mindfulness practice. Should the urge to become defensive rear it’s ugly head, remember to stay grounded. “Breathe and feel your feet,” Parker advises.
Finally, don’t move forward to finding a solution until a true feeling of connection has been established. “Many people try to move to the solution too early in the game,” says Bryson, “When this happens, bad agreements get made. We need to establish connection and trust first.” Once both parties feel heard and acknowledged, then you can move towards a solution. Bryson notes, “One thing that’s lacking in our culture is positive action doable language requests.” For example, you ask “Would you be willing to call me if you’re going to be late next time?” This way we take responsibility for our own needs and find a way to ask for them. He clarifies, however, “If you’re going to be angry and hurt if your partner says no, then it’s a demand, not a request.”
“The greatest compliment that was ever paid to me was when someone asked me what I thought, and then attended to my answer,” writes Thoreau. Parker uses this quote with her clients because it reminds them of the importance of feeling and being acknowledged. Parker says, “When [two people]have the opportunity to feel like they’ve connected with each other and have been acknowledged, then the outcome of the discussion actually becomes less important.”
In the case of my employee, our confrontation became an opportunity for greater understanding and appreciation of our respective roles and responsibilities. I actually left the conversation feeling grateful that the conflict had taken place. As for my daughter, she continues to argue for the sake of arguing just about every day – but by revealing my feelings and being vulnerable with her, I can nearly always dismantle and diffuse her attack. So, though I still tend to get defensive, make evaluations and generally desire to be “right,” I now value the opportunity that conflict provides. And hopefully, I’ll lose less sleep the next time a confrontation comes my way.
Communication Pitfalls – What to avoid when arguing with your beloved:
1) Don’t express judgments instead of feelings or needs.
2) Don’t debate the details of what happened. Parker describes this as the ‘”He said/she said stuff.” “In reality,” she notes, “very rarely are two people going to remember something exactly the same way.”
3) Don’t argue while one person is distracted (doing the dishes, working at the computer). Parker advises, “Agree to have the discussion when both parties are available and can give focus.”
4) Don’t fall into a state of reaction. Bryson notes that the pace of the conversation speeds up when this occurs.”[Couples] express themselves in bite-size pieces,” he observes. “It’s an awful way to try and find connection between people.”
5) Don’t forget to ask for or express empathy. Often, notes Bryson, a need for empathy expresses itself as sarcasm.
6) Don’t compromise or “give-in.” Bryson asserts, “When you do something you don’t want to do, your heart isn’t in it.” Keep negotiating until you find the win-win for both parties.
7) Don’t engage in the debate unless you feel connected to the other person emotionally.
8) Don’t sweat the small stuff. Parker advises her clients to ask themselves, “Can this be different than I would choose and I’ll still be okay?”
9) Don’t forget the love. You’re a couple — you are on the same ‘team.’ Ground yourself in love and compassion and watch the tension melt.