How to Turn a Fight into a Constructive Dialogue
Learning to argue effectively is a skill we all need, especially now.
As I’m writing this story, everybody I know is quarantined due to the COVID-19. Among many other inconveniences, we now find ourselves confined with the same people all day, every day.
No matter how much we love and appreciate someone, the more time we spend with them, the more we argue. It’s only natural.
The problem is, when we mishandle a disagreement, it intensifies. The escalation becomes a race to slander and even hurt each other — no wonder why some people avoid confrontation at all costs.
But there’s another side to the coin. Psychology suggests that arguing facilitates expression and awareness of another’s feelings and perspectives.
A lot of information is made available in times of conflict. When we fight, we share thoughts, intentions, feelings, and even solutions. These pieces of information are all important and worthy of exploration.
Arguing effectively is about embracing conflict as a healthy part of our relationships. The idea is to use communication tools to achieve mutual understanding and solve the problem we’re facing.
1 — Play as a team
Despite being filled with negative emotions, when I fight, I’m always trying to solve a problem — looking for a solution. I think we all do. Yet, we somehow end up far away from the common ground where our frustration and anger are attenuated. We become too blind to see that we’re not enemies, but instead, we’re teammates. In reality, we’re both unhappy about a situation and trying to figure it out.
Motivational speaker Jay Shetty said it better:
“When you’re fighting, remember that it is not you against each other, it’s both of you against the problem.”
There are simple ways to remind your counterpart of Shetty’s words.
- Be specific: make sure that you are focusing on the current problem and the current problem only. Avoid general terms like “always” and “never,” especially when complaining about misbehavior or a perceived offense.
- Breakdown the problem: when a situation is complicated, it’s best to deal with it in fragments. Allowing issues to build up can make them overwhelming. When overwhelmed, we become prone to overreacting, and we lose focus.
With that said, you also need to be careful you don’t put off conflict indefinitely. If you use this technique to flee confrontation, it backfires. Running away becomes another problem you have to handle later, so make sure to tackle the issues one by one or schedule the postponed part of the fight. Think of it like an important meeting or call, because it is.
These first steps pave the way for a constructive problem-solving exchange instead of succumbing to a problem-creating dispute. From there, you can start focusing on your communication.
2 — Pay attention to what comes in and out
American inventor and philosopher Charles Franklin Kettering wrote:
“A problem well stated is a problem half solved.”
In other words, clarifying the problem is the first step to solving it.
Rather than pushing to establish one-sided solutions, your goal is to ensure a continuous, mutual understanding as soon as the talking starts. As a result, the dispute becomes a vessel for each part’s thoughts and emotions. The more information you have, the clearer the problem becomes. With that, jointly-found solutions become more likely to emerge. You can increase these odds if you pay attention. Paying attention is required not only when you listen, but also when you reply.
With active listening, a particular technique stands out: It’s the reformulation of what your partner says in your own words until they agree on it.
When my sister yelled at me, “you never take care of yourself, your work can wait!” I answered, “it seems that you’re mad because I didn’t take sick leave the doctor recommended.”
This exercise, often used by psychologists, allows you to zero in on what your partner is trying to share. With every exchange, their output becomes more precisely articulated. Put differently, They understand themselves better, and so do you.
Besides, reformulation slows down the conversation, making room for more rational thinking and less impulsive reactions.
During the argument with my sister, my reformulation showed her that I’m aware of my lack of self-care. Thus, she stopped throwing ‘shoulds’ and ‘shouldn’ts’ at me and started to listen. I explained that I took a day-off instead of three and that I’m working from home for the rest of the week, and that was the end of the fight.
Remember that the ultimate goal is a team effort; you’re both trying to figure things out. To do so, you need as much accurate and truthful information as you can get. In achieving this goal, misunderstandings serve as obstacles.
Nobody likes to be misunderstood. This includes the person you’re arguing with. Misinterpreting what they’re saying can quickly worsen their mood. That’s the last thing you want. No one’s reasonable when they’re angry. Luckily, this can easily be avoided.
All you need to do is communicate your perception of the situation instead of presuming to know your partner’s intentions.
Play around with the language you use. Robert Waldinger, an American psychiatrist, and Professor at Harvard Medical School, recommends shifting from ‘You’ to ‘I’ statements.
Instead of saying, “You never answer my texts! You don’t know how stressful and worrying that is, do you? You’re hurting me.” Which could be considered passive-aggressive, you could say “I felt ignored when I didn’t receive a reply. Not to mention the frustration.”
In this example, the partner could’ve been in a bad mood and didn’t want to reply carelessly. Perhaps, there was an emergency (that kept them from responding), then they forgot; it happens.
When you can effectively communicate, you show that you are open to dialogue and possibilities. You also give your partner a chance to correct, explain, or validate. Hence, you build a secure environment for fruitful discussions and honest answers.
3 — Practice outside the actual fights
It goes without saying that previous techniques are easier said than done. A lot of us get overwhelmed and lose control during a fight. That’s why practice is useful. Just like athletes who prepare under relaxed conditions before the actual pressure-filled match, you can practice having an argument.
Instead of ignoring small inconveniences, exploit them as a means to train yourself. Approach your counterpart using the previous techniques for a small scale problem.
One evening after work and going to the gym, my roommate and I were supposed to prepare our lunches together for the next day. When the time came, she disappeared into her room instead of helping me out. I was upset. While I was cooking, I had the time to reflect on my feelings.
When she came out, I said: “I am slightly frustrated because I felt abandoned in the cooking task. I perceived your actions to mean that my time is less precious than yours. Also, you didn’t say anything, as if I didn’t deserve an explanation”.
My roommate, then, told me that she was in a bad mood because of a problem with one of her social media clients. She was required to send a sensitive e-mail the next morning and was struggling to word it. She apologized and said that she’d tell me beforehand should it ever happen again.
It took us five minutes to sort things out. Then, I helped her with wording the e-mail and discovered a thing or two about how editorial calendars work. I avoided holding an unnecessary grudge, practiced reframing my reactions in a fight, and learned something new. As you may have noticed, there’s potential in small arguments as well.
At the end of the day, you’ll never be able to change what’s happening around you. This includes misunderstandings and bad moods, which lead to fights. Nevertheless, you can be aware of how to respond.
Improving your communication won’t make the arguments disappear. It will, however, provide you with new perspectives to deal with and grow through them.