How to have constructive arguments with the people in your life.
“We need to talk.”
As much as you might dread hearing those four words, talking is indeed the solution to resolving conflict in any relationship. The key is doing it the right way.
“Talking is the answer. We need to talk openly, honestly and with respect to the people in our lives when we encounter conflict in order to resolve the issues and strengthen the relationship,” says Allison Arnold-Wigginton, LMHC, with Ocala Psychiatric Associates. Wigginton works with children and families and also treats those dealing with substance abuse and addiction, as well as adults with varied mental health disorders.
Although there are myriad books and seminars on how to have a “good” argument and resolve conflict, Wigginton explains that it basically comes down to these simple steps:
- Identify the reason you are angry.
- Allow time for your anger to subside and prepare to talk about how you feel.
- Agree on a good time and place to talk about your feelings with the other party.
- Talk openly, honestly and respectfully about the problem and how it affects you.
- Be prepared to listen to feedback and brainstorm solutions to the problem.
- Compromise to find a solution that both parties accept.
- Agree on the action to take place moving forward.
Resolution of an argument follows the same steps, no matter what the argument is about or who is involved in the conflict.
Sounds pretty straightforward, doesn’t it? Then why, you ask, do disagreements in your house tend not to be resolved in this manner? It’s probably because you’re making one (or more) common mistakes when it comes to conflict resolution, including:
- Attempting resolution when you are still angry
- Reacting instead of thinking
- Bringing up multiple issues at one time
- Involving others who don’t play a role in resolution
- Seeking justification for your actions/emotions
- Interrupting the other party
- Focusing on your response rather than listening
- Negative body language
- Defensive attitude
“When you attempt to resolve an argument when you are still angry, your frame of mind only leads to a heated emotional exchange where demands, disrespect, blame, name calling and hurt are inflicted on each other. The true focus of the argument or problem gets lost, and each person only focuses on proving they are right and the other person in wrong,” says Wiggington, who says this is the most common mistake she sees.
She adds that involving other parties, such as seeking advice from a family member or friend to support and justify your anger and actions is common but rarely beneficial and only inflames the situation.
“Our spouses are not usually out to harm us. At the core, it is often a misperception and temperamental difference that causes disagreement between spouses,” observes Jamie Schofield, M.A., CAMT, with Faithfully Guided, Inc., a pastoral counseling practice, which is a 501(c)(3) dedicated to renewing individuals, marriages and families in Ocala.
“We often come together in relationships by complementing each other’s strengths and weaknesses,” Schofield notes. “However, over time, in marriage, we can end up resenting each other because of our differences.”
Timing Is Everything
It becomes easier to see the other person’s point of view when you allow time between your initial anger and the actual discussion to resolve the conflict.
“Time is your friend. It will help you see within yourself the real reasons you are angry and work through your hurt, frustrations and desire to lash out and seek revenge,” says Wigginton. “Time also allows for perspective, an opportunity to see the bigger picture and how responding to a situation can either hurt or help the relationship.”
Although you may feel an urgency to “settle things’ immediately, few things in life cannot wait a few hours or even days in order to address them properly and in the right context, whether you’re dealing with a loved one, friend or co-worker.
Keep in mind that for the best possible outcome, choosing the right time for discussion is crucial.
“It is definitely not the right time when your spouse is walking in the door from work all day,” says Schofield.
“Ask your spouse when would be a good time to talk. Then, agree on a place where you both feel comfortable,” she advises. “Most couples don’t pick a set time to discuss the issue and then stick to it. Many couples don’t like talking because issues drag out and end poorly. Keep it simple. Set a timer for 30 to 45 minutes. If you need to continue, set another time for another day. This helps you practice communication boundaries in your marriage and essentially builds trust.”
Know your own limitations. It’s impossible to have a meaningful argument if you are tired, sick, hungry, distracted or still angry about the situation.
“You have to be in the right frame of mind to work toward a solution,” says Wigginton, noting that the other party also has to be ready to talk.
“Often, it can be easier if you talk to the other person in a quiet, public place,” she says. “We seem to be on our best behavior in public, but often, at home, we feel we can display emotions and behaviors that are unhealthy, disrespectful and not focused on problem resolution.”
Rules & Guidelines
For husbands and wives, it can be extremely helpful to use the “paraphrase” technique.
One person states his or her position but talks for no more than a minute, during which their partner listens quietly without comment or interruption. At the end of that minute, before offering their own opinion, the listening partner first paraphrases what their partner said.
This technique forces both parties to actually listen and understand the other’s view. Continue the discussion in this manner until a resolution/compromise can be reached.
Another useful tool is concretely defining your desires, wants or needs.
When a wife says, “I need you to be more loving and supportive,” her husband is probably thinking, “I’m still here, so obviously, I love you.”
Instead of asking him to “be romantic,” this particular wife needs to explain in simple, clear terms what she means. (Write me a love note, rub my back, take me on a date night to our favorite restaurant, let’s go for a 15-minute walk after dinner, etc.) If she doesn’t explain clearly, her husband needs to say, “Tell me exactly what ‘being loving and supportive’ means to you.”
“That’s Not Fair!”
You’d love to have a dollar for every time you’ve heard that line from your kids. Arguing with your children is a no-win situation, yet many parents unwittingly fall into this scenario.
Obviously, there will be disagreements between parent and child, but routinely arguing with your child actually empowers him. Continue to fall into this trap and he’ll see himself as an equal adversary who has the right to challenge you whenever he disagrees. Arguing with your child also takes away the boundaries that are crucial for his security.
“Children require love, support, structure, rules and boundaries to feel secure and to develop both mentally and physically into healthy and successful adults,” says Wigginton. “Arguing with your children takes away their feelings of love and support and jeopardizes their sense of security.”
Although your child needs to know you have the final say, he also needs to feel heard, understood and respected.
“Parents can make the mistake of talking too much. We need to learn to listen first,” remarks Schofield, who suggests asking open-ended questions, such as “What makes you think that way?” or “Why would you choose to respond that way?”
“The goal is to slow down and get to the heart of the issue so you can have a relationship,” she emphasizes. “What is going on with the child who is presenting in this behavior? Forgive each other and allow for mistakes to be made so you can teach them how to handle conflict in healthy ways.”
“After having their feelings and point of view validated, children will be more open to conversation, negotiation and ultimately accept hearing a potential ‘no’ with less anger and disappointment,” adds Wigginton.
Conflicts In The Workplace
“In today’s society, there are many emotionally charged topics, and these issues can seem like a never-ending struggle that leads of ongoing arguments with friends and co-workers,” says Wigginton.
The good news is that once you have mastered the basic steps of conflict resolution, you can use this process in any situation, whether at home, between friends or in the workplace. In fact, you’ll likely find it easier to have a constructive argument with a friend or co-worker than with your spouse or partner.
“With your spouse, the challenge is that you are around them more often, so being disciplined and self-controlled is necessary to put these strategies into motion until they become a healthy habit, which takes a minimum of 30 days or more,” says Schofield.
In order to have the best chance for a positive outcome, if you have a disagreement with a co-worker, go to them directly. Avoid gossiping and involving others. (Mentioning the situation on social media is a definite no-no.)
“Sitting down with another trusted person at work may help provide the accountability for you both to talk out your differences,” Schofield suggests.
The amount of time it takes to resolve an argument depends on the particular situation and the communication skills of those involved.
Ideally, we want conflict to be smoothed out as quickly as possible, but this doesn’t always happen. If the same argument continues to arise time and again, this may be a red flag indicating you need outside help.
“If you’ve tried to overcome a particular argument and have not been successful, it may be time to seek the guidance of a trained mental health professional, pastoral counselor or your own minister or priest trained in conflict resolution to guide you in the right direction,” offers Wigginton.