No matter how you see an argument, it doesn’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 in a way. I mean an argument that comes with tension, responses start to get personal, and you go around in circles without getting anywhere.
Often this kind of conflict takes on a life of its 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 couples 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 even 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.
Why Argument 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:
- 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 to anybody. 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 but when it turns into an argument, you might need another strategy.
A game changing strategy
As Adults, we have to learn how 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.
Try a New Strategy
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.
- “I want to think about that.”
This works in part because it buys time. When you’re having an argument, 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 you to calm your nerves. 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.
- “You might 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. 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 consider what they said.
- “I perfectly understand.”
Those are powerful words. They work wonders because they offer empathy. They stop an argument by changing its 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.
- “I’m truly 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 find it hard to say “I’m sorry”, 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 the mail.”
More often, though, apologies mean owning some part of the responsibility: “I’m sorry my comment came across that way. It’s not how I meant it.”
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 this doesn’t repeat itself.” 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.
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 is to 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 a 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 the argument, both players can win.