Arguments are a part of most relationships, friendships, and workplaces. Humans are social creatures, and inevitably we will come across a person’s perspective or a topic area with which we disagree. While we try our best to be respectful, it can be difficult keeping things neutral.
If arguing is a normal part of life, how do we do it better? How can we de-escalate an argument, keeping a minor disagreement from turning into a major blowout?
The tips below aren’t meant to help you win an argument, but rather to help defuse the argument. Each argument is unique, but many share common traits. Arguing well, and learning to keep arguments from blowing up into something bigger, is a good skill to learn for any relationship — whether it be romantic, with friends, or at work.
1. Take a breath and pause
Most people’s normal immediate reaction is to quickly respond to what was just said by the other person. Force yourself to ignore that reaction, and instead slowly count to 3: 1… 2… 3… This allows you time to collect your thoughts and consider alternative ways of responding.
For instance, we often want to defend ourselves from a personal attack, and use the opportunity to attack the other person back. Neither strategy is likely to help move the argument toward a mutually-agreeable resolution. Instead, take a moment to think of why those people with whom you disagree with are saying what they are, and what they would like to hear that may affirm you at least heard them (even if you don’t agree with them — listening is not the same as consent).
2. Respond rationally rather than emotionally
Arguments escalate because we allow our emotional minds to take over in the heat of the moment. It can be an exhilarating feeling, but such emotions tend to feed the fire of an argument, rather than working to douse the flames.
Try your best to ignore the emotional content of the other person’s argument (including personal insults or attacks) and focus on the core issue that requires working through toward a compromise or concession.
3. Remember, you do not have to prove yourself
Sometimes we continue on in an argument not for any good reason, but because we feel like we need to prove ourselves. We’ve tied our own self-worth, self-image, and self-confidence to winning. Even if by doing so, we hurt a loved one or someone we respect.
Despite what we tell ourselves, arguments are not about proving ourselves to be better or smarter than another person. We aren’t. We are human, fallible creatures just like others, and we will make mistakes and be wrong, too. Don’t make an argument about your needs or self-worth.
4. Decide the value of the argument early on
Not every argument should carry the same weight, just as not every decision we make in life has the same importance. Whether you eat a banana or an apple is a decision of very little consequence. In the same way, an argument about whether the sky right now is perfectly clear or whether there are a few, barely-detectable, high-altitude clouds is probably not one worth having.
Are you arguing about something you really care about? Is it where you’re going to go to dinner tonight, or whether you want to have another child? If you don’t particularly care about the outcome, let the other person “win” and save your energy for an argument that you’re really invested in.
5. Try to put yourself in the other person’s shoes & keep an open mind
Imagine your boss comes to you with a concern about not being kept up-to-date where you were with a specific project — one that his boss also wants to know the status of.
“I can see how it looked like I wasn’t making progress on the project, because I didn’t communicate it very clearly to you,” is a good example of demonstrating seeing things from your boss’s perspective.
“Look, I can’t help it if you don’t know what I’m doing. I’m practically done with the project, I just hadn’t told you yet!” is a very poor example of how to respond, because you’re not taking into account your boss’s own position and need to know (as your boss is in a position of authority over your work).
6. Learn to disagree with respect & find common ground
A lot of people aren’t really interested in whether they “win” an argument or not. Instead, what they really want is simply to be heard. A simple acknowledgment that you hear those you argue with and what they’re saying, but respectfully disagree with them is often enough for others to disengage from the argument.
Finding common ground for a compromise is a valuable strategy to employ in wording toward a quick resolution of an argument. Diplomats employ this strategy daily, and you can too by working to find the things you share in common, and building upon them. “You want steak for dinner, I want seafood… So let’s go out to a steak and seafood place!”
There Doesn’t Have to Be a Winner
Remember, there doesn’t have to be a “winner” to every argument. Two people can simply come together, discuss something of mutual interest, and then walk away without either person changing his or her mind. Or a simple compromise can be reached more quickly if both people are open-minded and are willing to give a little.
Arguments are a part of life. Learning to navigate them more deftly will help you get over these little speed bumps and get back to enjoying your life more quickly.