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How to argue with a friend or loved one without becoming heated

Communicating rather than pushing ideas, values or opinions on others can lead to understanding

There is an art to arguing that we may not always tune into when emotions are high and listening is not active. Photograph: Sanja Radin

Arguing can be seen as difficult because it is naturally viewed as hostile, aggressive and upsetting. However, there is an art to arguing that we may not always tune into when emotions are high and listening is not active. This results in harsh and abrasive moments that friendships and relationships may struggle to see past. Arguments pose problems but the challenge is to argue with style, with heart, and have better arguments that result in a win-win for everyone.

This is part of a series about relationships: Balancing, managing, understanding and fixing friendships and connections.

Arguments occur because people are passionate, and whether its something small or big, our opinions are valid to us but don’t always reflect the also valid opinions of others. Our differing views and the need to rationalise these ideas can lead to conflicting thoughts and emotions.

How can we challenge each other without conversations becoming heated?

“Arguments tend to occur at times when we’re invested in something and emotions are running high,” says Susan Leigh, counsellor and hypnotherapist. “Whether it be a relationship, a job, a cause, if we care a lot about something and then start to feel unsafe, threatened, or too exposed, we may feel the desire, even urgency to protect ourselves. But we may find ourselves responding in a reactive, defensive way, maybe saying things we didn’t intend to say, so causing a row to develop.”

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In arguments we may not feel listened to or words can hurt and these often result in knee jerk reactions and both parties come away wounded as a row escalates. This poses a problem for communication in any kind of relationship.

“Post-argument may result in our seeing the other person in a very different way,” says Leigh. “We may never have envisaged them being so angry, saying such hurtful things, being so cruel, or thinking in such an out-of-character way. The aftermath may reinform our opinion of them and not in a very flattering light.”

The “shock waves” created from strident arguments caused by certain actions, revelations, viewpoints and opinions, which cannot be unsaid, can create a shift in interactions. . “An argument can prompt us to become defensive, as we aim to offer examples and justifications about our behaviour, about what’s happened and why things have gone wrong,” says Leigh. “But this can result in the continuous rehashing of the same old arguments and hurts, with nothing being resolved. Times like this can be frustrating, where afterwards no one feels listened to or understood.”

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The aftermath of a poor argument needs repair. This means not letting the air hang heavy with hostility and coming back to restore the relationship. To do this at least one party must choose to clear the air by potentially clarifying misunderstandings, accepting mistakes and human error, and encouraging everyone involved to appreciate and respect the differing opinions and perspectives of others.

“This can become a time of greater respect and improved communications, where all have taken on board the comments, sometimes about small, seemingly trivial things, but which help the other person feel listened to, more respected and calmer,” says Leigh. She recognises that a constructive argument needs to be a two-way conversation where each person has the opportunity to speak uninterrupted to ensure they feel listened to and understood.

When arguing, it is not always the case that a full agreement can be reached on the discussion. Leigh says: “It can still be constructive when everyone involved respectfully agrees to disagree, done without rancour or bitterness. It’s fine to have differences of opinion and heated debates, even if afterwards each side still retains their original viewpoint.”

Margaret Parkes, a systemic psychotherapist recommends that when words become sharp and voices are raised, the “communication vision” is changed from having an argument to the more palatable idea of having a discussion. In this way, the function of the communication shifts to prioritising the need to understand the feelings of the other respectfully, leading to a win-win agreement.

“This can be achieved only by valuing and accepting the difference of the other and by listening to understand rather than listening to respond,” says Parkes. “The reason arguments develop is because one or the other or both are trying to control the response of the other and are not respecting each person’s difference. This is a form of enmeshment and needing external validation.”

When leading with a discussion, Parkes suggests that both people must learn to say how they feel and let go of expecting a particular response from the other for validation. “This is what leads to arguments,” she says. “If the couple can’t agree to disagree agreeably even after couple counselling, they may have to leave the relationship as control is taking place and the relationship becomes destructive.”

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When we discuss issues with another, Parkes recommends the emphasis is put on communication to ensure feelings are expressed, heard and understood, and that connection is maintained over becoming reactive. This is the art of having an argument that lies in communicating rather than pushing ideas, values, or opinions on others.

Parkes says this kind of communication:

  • Helps wrong meanings and assumptions to be avoided thus enabling the relationship and trust to grow.
  • Facilitates healthy connection thus arguments are avoided allowing each person to grow individually and together.
  • Allows each person to grow individually and together as there is no control in the relationship because each person’s difference is respected, valued and understood.

We all come to arguments with our own attributes. Parkes ascertains that there are aggressive people who seek to be understood but never to understand. There are passive people who seek to understand but rarely seek to be understood. And then there are assertive people who understand mutual respect and will seek to understand first and then to be understood.

Parkes suggests that if we stay assertive, in other words respectful of ourselves, we can let go of an aggressive person’s response and we will not lose ourselves or our values in a potentially intimidating argument.

“The communication will only get out of control if we let it,” says Parkes. “It is essential we spot toxic people who are not respectful and who are unhealthy to engage with. If this is the case, don’t engage with them. Try put everything in writing. If it is a work environment have someone there as a witness as much as possible.

“If we are passive, we are at risk of attracting these people because they know they can control us, thus passive or pleasing people are vulnerable to coercive control. Passive people must spot them before they are spotted.”

Relationships

Geraldine Walsh

Geraldine Walsh

Geraldine Walsh, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes about health and family