Ask An Adult: How Can I Argue Constructively, Without Stropping Or Bursting Into Frustration Tears?
The Debrief: We talk to experts and figure out how you can survive an argument without bursting into tears, stuttering or saying 'I HATE YOU'
Illustration by Anna Sudit
Arguing, debating, heated discussion; call it what you will, unless you’re one of those people who thrive on having a good bust-up, they aren’t great experiences. Especially when had in the middle of Sainsbury’s over a piece of salmon (oh, come on, we’ve all had a tiff about something completely insignificant that’s turned into a full-blown rant. Haven’t we…?).
Whether the argument is about Fifa, salmon or something more serious, you should never shy away from the confrontation, according to Karen Meager, managing director at Monkey Puzzle Training and Consultancy, who says that if you feel strongly about an issue then ‘you should feel empowered enough to bring it up and discuss it.’
But what makes us argue in the first place? Karen says it’s priorities and reading each other’s minds, which makes sense. ‘When people are intimate and know each other well, there’s a danger we assume we know more about our partners than we do and then we think we know what they’re thinking and basically make it up.
‘It then becomes the cause of the argument. We make meaning out of people’s actions and often jump to conclusions and that causes an argument. This is particularly true in romantic relationships,’ she says.
Of course, there’s also the moment when every argument between straight couples escalates at the mere utter of ‘What’s wrong, are you due?’ But aside from those occasions when you’re likely to crumple into a sobbing mess at any moment, how do you divert the argument from the emotional to the rational?
Karen suggests discussing the issue at hand rather than the personal side of things, asking the other person questions such as, ‘What’s the main problem here as you see it?’ and ‘What would you like to have happen’ or, alternatively, calling a break from the discussion altogether in order to gather your thoughts and proceed more rationally.
For Charley Peal, having ‘discussions’ is all part of her job as a doctor, but she’s learned a few tips and tricks along the way: ‘I know people tend to trust what I say, but it can be difficult discussing complex medical issues when patients may have a different agenda,’ he says.
‘To get my point across effectively, I have to completely understand their point of view and preempt any challenge they may produce. Empathy is key too, while remaining objective, backing each point up with logical argument and ensuring that I use language that’s understood by the patient.’
She adds that, while this professional approach has played a big part in how she argues in her personal life, the main thing is to keep a level head – no matter what happens. Everyone has their own way of cooling down, and recollecting when things start escalating skyward, so it’s important to know what yours are, and how to bring yourself back from bouncing off the walls.
Stephen Reicher, a psychology professor at St Andrews University says that the main way in which politicans get their point across (because, after all, who’s better at keeping a level head during fierce debates than Cameron, Clegg and co?) is to act as one: ‘Good leadership is… about clarifying what “we” believe in and how particular proposals help realise what we believe in.’
Politicians define themselves as ‘one of us’ by saying they understand and share our values and priorities, which shows that they’re in a position which can enhance these – you can try out this technique yourself, by aligning yourself with the person you’re talking to.
By recognising their standpoint and emphasising that yes, you totally get where they’re coming from when they forgot to get eggs and then forgot your birthday and then forgot that dinner date. Life is stressful! You forget stuff too, remember that time you forgot that stuff?! Well that wasn’t OK, and you need to work on it, so why don’t you work on it together?
Basically, destroying all sense of ‘us and them’ will allow you to argue your point way more effectively, because your opponent – sorry, friend/partner/family member/colleague – isn’t automatically put on the defensive.
Obviously, there are loads of ways in which politicians try and do this – brace yourselves, because they’ll all be coming at you in the run-up to the May election – but the one tactic in particular we should be on the lookout for is the word ‘we’.
‘If you want one word with particular power, it is the word “we”. If a politician gets away with its use then half the battle is won,’ says Prof Reicher.
As our politicians show, there’s definitely an art to arguing constructively but what can we mere mortals do (apart from saying ‘we’ a lot) so we aren’t just left with a puffy face, bloodshot eyes and little else? The key points to remember, explains Karen, are as follows:
Be clear about how you feel
But don’t make it seem like the other person’s responsibility. So words like ‘you made me upset’ will get more of a rise (and consequently, an escalation) than saying, ‘I’m upset by that’. It’s short and sweet – there’s nothing worse than someone going on for nine years when they could have been direct and straightforward about their emotions. And it provides space for discussion, rather than forcing the other person to defend themselves.
If someone has behaved in an unacceptable manner, discuss the behaviour rather the person.
Try not to say stuff like, ‘You’re so lazy, you never clean up’, but replace it with things like, ‘I don’t think it’s OK when you don’t clear up and leave the flat in a mess like this.’ Why? Well, as soon as you label the person, they will take it personally (obviously) and are more likely to react in an explosive way.
By discussing behaviour, as opposed to getting personal, you’re more likely to bring on a rational conversation. Again, it’s all about avoiding forcing someone to defend themselves, or making them feel under attack – because people act very irrationally when they feel attacked.
As in, listen to the other person’s point of view rather than your own voice. Don’t say a lot, really listen to what they’re saying and ask questions for clarity. Most people are just waiting for the other person to stop talking so that they can make their point.
If you really pay attention to them and honour their perspective (you don’t have to agree with it), then they’re more likely to listen to you when it’s your turn. And then the argument is more likely to be cleared up, because it’s a group effort rather than one person trying to shout the other one down.
Know your outcomes
Be clear about what you want to happen as a result of this discussion. Many of us are afraid of saying what we want, but it’s key to productive discussion. Be specific. Don’t say, ‘I wish you’d do your fair share around the flat’; say, ‘Could you fill the dishwasher and wipe the kitchen down before you come to bed?’.
It’s not about the other person being stupid, but a everyone thinks differently so don’t assume they know what you mean, otherwise the problem could continue which would lead to way more (and bigger) arguments.
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