Think back to the last argument you had. Whether it was a political debate with a colleague or a heated discussion about finances with your partner, recall how you felt.
Was anxiety tightening your chest? Was your brain bubbling with reasons you were right, but you struggled to articulate them? Did you raise your voice? Did you roll your eyes? Did you leave the conversation feeling more frustrated than when you started?
This kind of exacerbating disagreement is all too common, and is partly why many of us find it easier to avoid arguments altogether.
After all, being a peacekeeper is seen as a more desirable trait than being confrontational – especially for women, whose traditional role involves remaining calm and ensuring everyone feels comfortable.
But, says Buster Benson, Silicon Valley entrepreneur and author of Why Are We Yelling?, suppressing our desire to address issues we deem important can be detrimental to our health and wellbeing, and can damage our closest relationships.
‘If we make a habit of pushing down frustrations to keep the peace, we’re left with constant low-level anxiety that wears away our mental and physical health,’ he says.
‘By avoiding issues we care about, the problems don’t go away – they just disappear under the surface, ready to come back and bite us in more obvious ways in future.’
According to Benson, there seems to be a lot of yelling, ‘if not at each other, then into our pillows’, which calls for a rethink. Instead, he says, it’s crucial to learn how to address conflict constructively.
‘Arguments might feel uncomfortable, but discomfort is key to our growth,’ he explains. ‘They can remove threats, reduce risks, result in deals or conclude with decisions, allow growth and understanding, and strengthen our trust andconnection with others.’
Here’s how you can learn to disagree productively
1. Rethink your approach to arguing
Benson describes an argument as ‘an unacceptable difference between two perspectives’. It’s therefore easy to assume that the best way to resolve a disagreement is to change someone’s mind. But attempting to change someone’s mind often causes them to dig their heels in deeper. ‘Changing minds is really hard,’ says Benson. ‘You can only really change your own mind and behaviour.’ Realising that the end goal of an argument should be some form of mutual understanding and improvement –rather than a perfect alignment of viewpoints – will help you avoid disappointment and frustration.
2. Anxiety sparks
By nature, arguments begin with anxiety; where you’re confronted with a perspective that feels threatening. But how can you prevent heightened emotions from derailing your disagreement? ‘Narrate exactly what is making you anxious, and ask the other person to do the same,’ suggests Benson. For example, a disagreement about who should pick up the kids could be rooted in who is taking most responsibility for parenting. Ask what you can do to help you both feel less anxious about this. Getting to the root cause can also prevent issues coming up again.
3. Consider your surroundings
In many arguments – whether with a colleague or child – one person holds more authority. Try to find neutral spaces to have these discussions, like on a walk or having a cup of tea. ‘Go to places where the power dynamic isn’t reinforced by your surroundings,’ Benson says. That could also involve sitting at the same level or facing the same direction.
4. Only represent yourself
Arguments are destined to go off the rails when you assume you know what the other person is thinking. ‘When people’s perspectives differ from our own, we oversimplify them, exaggerate their flaws and fill in the blanks with stereotypes,’ explains Benson. Speak only from your own perspective, using phrases like ‘I feel’ and ‘I think’, and invite others to do the same.
5. Ask open questions
If you feel the other person is attacking you, your body may experience a fight-or-flight response to either hit back or run away. Instead, try asking open-ended questions. ‘Ask, “Can you tell me a bit more about what you’re trying to say?” or “I’m interpreting what you’re saying as an attack, but what am I missing?”’ suggests Benson. ‘This will encourage the other person to step back from battle mode and will buy you some time to calm down.’
6. Speak from the voice of possibility
According to Benson, we often use three internal voices to approach arguments. ‘There’s the voice of avoidance, which resolves conflict by simply not getting involved,’ he explains. ‘And the voice of power, which forcefully shuts arguments down.’ Then there’s the voice of reason, which uses supposed rationality, logic or morality. ‘The problem with that is it has to be based on some kind of belief system, so it isn’t well equipped to have productive disagreements with anyone who doesn’t respect our primary system of authority,’ Benson explains. For example, a socialist might struggle to argue constructively with a capitalist.
Instead, he says we should approach disagreements from the voice of possibility. ‘Seeing a disagreement as a sign pointing to something we don’t fully understand; seeking to learn from it,’ says Benson, ‘It investigates other perspectives and asks, “What else is possible? What are we missing?”’
7. End on good terms
Disagreements should never end with a slammed door. If an argument is about what is useful, ideally it will finish with some kind of compromise, solution or plan. But if it’s about what is true or meaningful, you may simply need to express understanding. ‘Point out what you’ve got out of this exchange, even if it’s just seeing a new perspective,’ says Benson. Thank them for opening up.
The three types of arguments
Understanding what type of argument you’re having can help you work out how to resolve it. Every time an argument sparks consider whether it’s a head, heart or hands disagreement…
HEAD: WHAT IS TRUE?
This is when an argument can be settled by data or evidence, whether it can be objectively verified as true or false. This type can sometimes be easy to resolve – like looking something up – or hard, because everyone has their own version of ‘truth’.
HEART: WHAT IS MEANINGFUL?
An argument based on personal taste, preferences, values and judgement calls that can only be determined within oneself. The resolution to this type of argument requires empathy and understanding.
HANDS: WHAT IS USEFUL?
A disagreement that can only be settled with some form of test, or by waiting to see how things play out. To resolve it, you’ll need to put something into practice and revisit it later.
Why Are We Yelling? The Art Of Productive Disagreement (Macmillan) by Buster Benson is out now.
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