How to Argue Without Getting Stupid

If you are in any type of relationship and you have found yourself getting into stupid arguments over stupid things, then you have probably sought out advice in some form (books, friends, magazine articles, pastors, counselors, etc) to help you with this issue. The problem with most advice, though, is that it primarily focuses on what NOT to do. Those suggestions are helpful, I’m sure, but I have found that telling people what not to do is usually counterproductive. For instance, if I tell you, “Ok, whatever you do, do not think about a blue car while your read this post”, what are you already doing? Thinking about the imaginary car, of course. And the more I tell you not to think about the car, the more you think about it. This is often what we do with ourselves when it comes to advice that tells us what not to do. It only makes us focus on the thing that we do not want to reinforce. The “Do Not” is helpful from an educational point of view, but we need  a “Do” that can replace the negative behavior and give us an alternative path out of the proverbial hamster wheel.

Therefore, let’s focus on some Do’s, instead of Do Nots, today for arguing.

Do #1: Protect the Other Person

There is a part of our primitive brain called the amygdala that is in charge of our fight or flight response. It can be helpful to us from a survival perspective, flooding our bodies with adrenaline, and helping us get the heck out of Dodge. But the downfall of the amygdala is that it dims the logical part of our brain, making it difficult to process and problem solve easily. This is why, if you become angry, you are more prone to say or do something that your normal genius self would never do. It is similar to the Marvel superhero Hulk. While he is Dr. Bruce Banner, he is brilliant and able to solve complex problems that others could not. But when his amygdala takes over, he turns all big, green, and ferocious. The only way to access the genius within, is to remain calm.  This gives you the opportunity to look at the argument objectively, and to do all of the remaining Do’s below. If you need to take 20-30 minutes to let the adrenaline flush out of your system BEFORE responding to the person you’re arguing with, fine. Better to be reasonable and respectful, than to smash everything (including feelings) in your path.

The added effort to calm your self so that you do not go all Vesuvius on the other person will not only express respect and caring for them, but it will also help them to feel as if they are not in danger in any way, i.e., physically, mentally, emotionally, verbally, etc. In other words, your efforts to protect the other person, to make them feel safe in the argument, will keep their amygdala and survival instincts from being triggered.

According to Dr. Gary Smalley in his book The DNA of Relationships, there are 5 ways to help the other person feel safe in a relationship. In short, these are:
1. Respect the wall – “Walls are always built by people who feel threatened,” Dr Smalley says. They are there for a reason. Trying to tear it down, or go around it, will only make them more defensive or untrusting.
2. Honor others – in other words, treat them as valuable…see others as God sees them. Keep a running list in your head of all their good qualities, especially if you’re arguing.
3. Suspend Judgment – adopt an attitude of curiosity instead into their point of view.
4. Value Differences – Dr. Smalley says, “If a relationship is to feel like a safe place, it must make room for all of both people…And if certain parts of me (or certain parts of you) are not welcome in our relationship, then we no longer have room to be who we are. And what’s safe about that?”
5. Be Trustworthy – Trustworthiness, Dr. Smalley says, is demonstrating that we recognize the incredible value and vulnerability of the other person.

The continual work of protecting them breeds communion with the other party so that communication, connection, and collaboration can be accomplished.

Do #2: Make the Other Person the Most Important Person in the Argument

Let’s be honest. When most of us are arguing, our primary objective is to win. Preserving the relationship goes out the window, as well as problem-solving with the other person. We do not care what  strategy we have to employ or who we have to throw down the hill,  as long as the end result is that we are the king of the mountain. It is only after we have calmed down, or when we see that we have deeply wounded the other person, that we begin to question our tactics, review our words, or make any apologies for our behaviors. We were so focused on winning, on promoting our point of view, that we never stopped to realize that in order for us to win the argument, we had to intentionally place the other person in a losing position. This may be ok to do when you have received bad customer service from a business, but it is never okay to do with the people you love. Additionally, when we try to win, we are implying that we are superior in some way to our opponent, usually either in a moral, intellectual, or psychological way.

But when you make the other person the most important person in the argument, all of the above problems dissipate. You focus on understanding their heart and their mind, rather than persuading them that they are wrong. You are, in the famous words of Stephen Covey, “Seeking to understand before you seek to be understood.” Making the other person the most important person in the argument means that you actually listen for areas of agreement, instead looking for where their arguments are weakest. You are not to play prosecutor to their defense attorney. You are to place your position and views temporarily aside, until you fully understand their position from an intellectual and emotional point of view.

Do #3: Join Them in How They Are Talking to You

On this last point, I need to take a moment and explain that one reason we often have “stupid” arguments with others is because we do not understand that there is more than one way to discuss a problem. In fact, you may find it surprising to hear, but in my experience there are actually five (yes, 5!) ways in which you can talk about something with someone else.

The first way you can discuss something is by talking about the Situation. When the situation is the focus of the argument it usually entails the facts of something, such as the sequence of events, the details of the story, or eliminating perceived fictions or untruths. In short, it is discussing what happened. It is an attempt to introduce objectivity into a discussion and can be very helpful, if everyone understands that this is the topic of discussion. However, it can also easily lead to tangential arguments because someone might say, “It didn’t happen that way, it happened this way.” Or, “No no no! I didn’t do x until after you did y.” And now we are off chasing rabbits. But if you can both talk about the situation and how we got to where we currently are, it may provide a foundation for problem solving later on.

The second way to discuss something is talking about the Logic. This is exactly what it sounds like. It is me pitting my intellect and deductive reasoning against yours. This rarely helps, because I am basically implying that you do NOT know what you are talking about, but you are fortunate enough to have me here to show you the way. I don’t know about you, but I don’t like being called stupid, either directly or subtly. Besides, as we discussed above, logical thinking and processing will not be possible as long as we are flooded with adrenaline and letting our amygdala take over. Logical discussions can only be productive when both parties feel calm, understood, and safe (thus, another reason for protecting them and making the other person the most important person in the argument).

The third way is to talk about the Emotion. Yes, this is talking about “how it affected me.” This is typically the area that men want to avoid (we tend to do Situation or Logic by default). Many men will even say that they do not know how to talk about their feelings. The fact of the matter is, we do.  We just don’t know that we do. So, if you are having difficulty identifying how you felt during a situation, use what I call the “one word technique.” Remember, when you look up an emotion in the dictionary, it is just ONE WORD. Therefore, that is all you need to express your feelings. The simplest way to identify this feeling is to state your situation, then place an I feel statement after it, such as “When you came home at 4 a.m. and hadn’t called me all night, I felt _____.” In that blank, put only one word. If you put more than one word, especially if your follow “I felt” with the words “like” or “that”, you are not stating a feeling. You are stating a thought, belief, or idea instead. Just say, “I felt ___” and leave it at that. If you will do this, you may be surprised to discover that this can be the most productive foundation for problem solving. People don’t generally want to be viewed as malicious by their loved ones and will want to know what they can do to prevent these feelings from reoccurring in their family or friends.

This leads us to the fourth and fifth way of discussing things, which is Principle vs. Process. This is where people discuss what should or should not be done, but in two different ways, and it is often the reason why so many “stupid” arguments occur. They may agree on what happened but one of them is emphasizing what they should do from a principle point of view, while the other person is focusing on what the should do from a process point of view. Principle people are focused on the fundamental beliefs or propositions that form the basis for their behavior or reasoning. Process people have principles, but they focus on the best method to use in order to accomplish a specific goal or end.

If you find that you often argue one of these sides while your partner argues the other, you need to understand that you cannot discuss process without first agreeing on the underlying principles. If one of you is very organized, for example, and the other one could care less about organization, then it does not help to discuss process until you have both agreed upon a set of principles that both of you can live with. This will require a calm head and an intentional effort to make the other person the most important person in the argument, so that you can desist from pushing your side. The goal is to find common ground so that we can dialogue toward a code of conduct we can agree upon. But if you and your partner are simultaneously discussing the shoulds from both angles (principle and process), neither of you will feel heard, and frustration will eventually evolve into anger.

Therefore, it is highly important to understand how the other person is talking about the issue, and for you to JOIN them on this level. This shows a willingness to work with them and prevents you from falsely assuming you are talking about the issue in the same way. Just start where they are and move forward from there.

Now, about that blue car from the beginning. Why are you still thinking about that? It’s time to go do something else.

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