Arguments are an inevitable part of life. If you ever have a relationship with anyone, it is very likely that at some point, you will disagree. Disputes are a normal and expected part of intimacy – whether you argue with your spouse or partner, business colleague or boss, or friend or even acquaintance, arguments are part of how humans connect, understand each other, and sometimes even bond. If, however, you find yourself getting into frequent arguments, your arguments get more intense than seems effective, or you struggle to resolve disputes, try these 4 Tips for Handling an Argument, to improve your communication and increase the probability you get the results that you want.
- Use “I Feel” Statements
If you are rolling your eyes because you’ve heard about “I” statements in therapy mumbo-jumbo self-help books before, please suspend your judgment and read on. “I” statements are not about being mushy-gushy, “I’m okay, you’re okay,” and only using language to appease the other person. Used correctly, “I” statements function to reduce the other person’s defensiveness and help you to get your point across clearly. Often, arguments are started or sustained by miscommunications and misinterpretations. Making statements such as, “you are a [fill in the blank with your favorite accusation]” or “you make me feel” put the other person on the defensive and make them unable to hear and understand you, let alone meet your needs. These kind of “You” statements can leave the other party feeling confused, criticized or blamed. That is a recipe for that person putting up their dukes and fighting back. Now, both of you are unhappy, and the argument is unresolved. Being mindful of your language and using “I” statements help you to communicate your experience without blaming the other person, greasing the wheels for their willingness and understanding. Start with “I feel” or “I want” or “I don’t like” and then describe the situation without judgment. (See past blogs on my website for more information about what Nonjudgment is and how to use it.)
- Lower The Intensity
If you have heard the phrase, “fight fire with fire” you may know it refers to the idea of responding to a fire by lighting another one. Sometimes in an argument, we instinctively want to “fight fire with fire.” We want to be the winner that convinces the other party to change their opinion, agree to our demand, or simply say those magic words, “You are right.” The problem is that as you each raise your intensity to be the winner, it escalates the dispute, the argument can get out of hand, and no one wins. Next time you argue and observe yourself becoming more intense (louder voice, bigger mannerisms, harsher words), STOP. (This is a DBT Skill that encourages you to Stop, Take a step back, Observe, and Proceed Mindfully.) Take a deep breath in the moment, take a break from the discussion if you need to calm down (and use Willing Hands or Half-Smile, some other DBT Skills that come in handy during an argument), and lower your intensity. Ask the other party to do the same. E.g., “Let’s both lower our voices. I’d like us to get through this together calmly and respectfully.” Then it can be possible to talk calmly as equals, hear each other, and respond effectively, working to get everyone’s needs met.
- Take a Break
There is an old saying, “never go to bed angry.” Although this statement probably intends to help resolve an argument, it can convey that when we argue, we must keep arguing until we resolve the disagreement. This is simply not true, and it is not the most effective way to handle an argument. If you are in an argument, sometimes the very best solution in that moment, is to take a break to calm down. However, just walking or storming off can make the argument worse. Instead, as calmly as you can, let the other person know that you need a break from the discussion. Taking a break can give you each time to reflect, give your nervous system a chance to calm down, and help you to come back more clear-headed. Negotiate a time to resume the discussion later.
- Practice Acceptance
Some arguments happen because we have different points of view. You can get wrapped up in trying to make another person agree with your outlook. Perhaps you even want them to adopt your opinions. However, there are times you must “agree to disagree.” In other words, sometimes no matter how long or skillfully you talk, you will continue to have a different opinion from the other person. In those moments, you can practice the skill of acceptance. (Radical Acceptance is another DBT Skill useful in the midst of an argument.) You will be accepting that the other person has a different viewpoint and that you may not be able to change it. Acceptance does NOT equal approval. You do not personally have to approve of or adopt their perspective. Acceptance means that you accept the reality of the situation, even the parts of it that you don’t like. You let go of trying to change things that won’t change.
With these 4 Tips, you can practice handling arguments differently. Start with small, low-intensity disagreements and move to more emotional arguments once you’ve mastered some of these skills. If you often get into arguments, struggle to communicate, or feel unhappy in your relationships, you might seek the support of a professional therapist to help improve your communication and get more of your needs met.