The trouble with arguments is that they don’t work.
I’m not talking about a good debate, where you have some great ideas, and they clash, and you start a healthy back-and-forth that feels fun. I mean arguments – where tension starts to rise, responses start to get personal, and you go around in circles without getting anywhere.
Often this kind of conflict takes on a life of it’s own, where you end up arguing about who does more of the chores or what time you came home last night, while bigger issues like caring, teamwork, and appreciation hide under the surface.
This is what many of the couples I work with mean when they say, “we can’t communicate.” They start what seems like a simple conversation, and within minutes it escalates into criticism, blame, hostility, or stonewalling.
It’s not just couples either – unwanted arguments happen in families, between friends, and at work. With some skill, though, you can learn to stop them, so you can get on with solving the real concerns.
What doesn’t work
Have you ever felt like you know you’re right, but the other person doesn’t understand? Or maybe every once in awhile you just have to have something go your way? For some people, the feeling of urgency nudges them into using some of these tactics:
- speaking more loudly
- bringing up evidence
- speaking with a tone of urgency
- refusing to let the topic drop
- following the other person from room to room
These strategies create problems, though. A raised voice can sound like an attack. Evidence provides an opportunity to get sidetracked by debating the evidence. Urgency often comes across as impatience or frustration.
If the conversation stays on track, you can keep trying to solve the problem. If it turns into an argument, you might need something another strategy.
A game changing strategy
One of the kids in our neighborhood has a great way of handling the frustration of not getting his way. Like many six-year-olds, he loves winning. Young kids about this age are often obsessed with winning, losing, and rules. If there is a contest, Frankie naturally wants to come out on top.
Of course, the ball doesn’t always bounce that way. When Frankie plays Four-Square with his family, sometimes he misses a few returns. He doesn’t want to compromise his winning or his generally buoyant mood, so he just announces some new rules, and with such humor that everyone laughs. This game – the one where Frankie always wins – is known as “Frankieball.”
Adults, or course, have to use more finesse. The “I Win No Matter What” game is not so endearing when you’re twenty, or perhaps fifty.
Still, there’s a middle ground. When the game isn’t working – when discussions veer into argument territory – it’s helpful to pause and consider some new rules. Sometimes it’s better not to play at all.
There are many ways to graciously step back from an argument. Here are four simple statements you can use that will stop an argument 99 percent of the time.
1. “Let me think about that.”
This works in part because it buys time. When you’re arguing, your body prepares for a fight: your heart rate goes up, your blood pressure increases, you might start to sweat. In short, you drop into fight-or-flight mode. Marriage researcher John Gottman calls this “flooding”. Your mental focus narrows, so that you think about the danger in front of you rather than nuances and possibilities. Because of this, the ability to problem-solve plummets.
When there is no lion about to pounce, flooding gets in your way. Taking time to think allows your body to calm down. It also sends a message that you care enough to at least consider someone else’s point of view, which is calming for the other person in the argument.
2. “You may be right.”
This works because it shows willingness to compromise. This signal is enough to soften most people’s position, and allow them to take a step back as well.
Yet it’s hard to do. Sometimes my clients worry that giving an inch is very close to giving in. In my view, it’s usually the opposite: acknowledging someone else’s point of view usually leads to a softening. Look at some examples:
- Comment: Blue jeans aren’t appropriate to wear to work.
- Response: You may be right.
- Comment: This project is going to be late.
- Response: I’m working on it, but you may be right.
- Comment: You didn’t handle that very well.
- Response: You may be right.
Notice that with this Aikido-like sidestep, you are not agreeing that the other person is right. You’re only acknowledging that there might be something to their point of view, and implying that you’ll consider what they said.
3. “I understand.”
These are powerful words. They work because they offer empathy. They stop an argument by changing it’s direction – trying to understand someone else’s point of view isn’t an argument. They are sometimes hard to say, because pausing to understand can sometimes feel like giving in. It’s important to remember that:
- Understanding doesn’t mean you agree.
- Understanding doesn’t mean you have to solve the problem.
With the pressure to assert yourself or fix it out of the way, you can just listen.
4. “I’m sorry.”
These words are perhaps the most powerful in the English language. One administrator I know says that half his job is apologizing to people.
Many people are reluctant to apologize, fearing that an apology is an admission of guilt and an acceptance of complete responsibility. This view unfortunately often makes the problem worse.
Apologies sometimes just express sympathy and caring: “I’m sorry you didn’t get that job.”
More often, though, apologies mean owning some part of the responsibility: “I’m sorry my comment came across that way. It’s not what I meant.”
Occasionally an apology is an admission of complete responsibility, and in those cases a heartfelt expression of regret becomes all the more important: “You’re right, I didn’t get it done on time. I’ll do everything I can to make sure it doesn’t happen again.” Apologies change the game from “It’s Not My Fault” to “I Understand.” Apologies are powerful; they have prevented lawsuits, improved business communication, and healed personal rifts.
Of course, sidestepping an argument is only the first step in sorting through an emotionally charged issue. Sometimes you have to dig beneath the surface so that you can talk about the beliefs and feelings underneath. Then there’s work to be done in negotiating a compromise or coming to an agreement. However, arguments keep you spinning in circles, and usually make the problem worse.
Sometimes the only way not to lose is to stop playing the game. Like Frankie, you can change the rules. Instead of, “One of Us Has to Win,” you can play, “Let’s Take Some Time with This.” With a simple statement, you can buy time, show willingness to compromise, offer empathy, or own part of the problem. These strategies are the basis of good communication. When the object of the game is to stop arguing, both players can win.