How to have a productive argument

We get some expert insight into managing arguments – whether with a partner, colleague, friend, or family member – on how to discover your ‘conflict style’ and communicate better even when you’re furious!

CREDIT: This is an edited version of an article that originally appeared on Happiful

Like it or not – and, let’s be honest, most of the time we don’t like it – conflict and arguments come hand-in-hand with relationships. That’s not to say that rows are pleasant, or something that we should become accustomed to if they’re affecting us negatively, but they are normal – and could even be good for us, according to research from the University of Tennessee which found that couples who argue effectively together report having happier relationships.

Of course, the keyword there is ‘effectively’ – no one wins when things turn nasty – but what does that mean, and how can you make sure that you’re arguing effectively, fairly and, ultimately, resolving issues once you’ve got them out of your system? Whether it involves couples, family, friends, or colleagues, we teamed up with relationship counsellor Bibi Jamieson to get to the core of conflict.

On the fence

“The word ‘argument’ is often seen as a negative one; however, an argument is simply an exchange of thoughts, ideas or opinions, between two or more people,” Bibi says. “The way we communicate in, and respond to, this exchange is what most people experience as ‘negative’ because it can be uncomfortable, especially when we meet with criticism, ridicule, or defensiveness.”

Do you ever wake up the morning after an argument and wonder what all the fuss was about? Perhaps because the thing you were actually arguing over was, ultimately, pretty insignificant, but things went from zero to 100 without you really noticing, or maybe old complaints snuck their way in? This is what Bibi is referring to; that style of communicating different ideas is what leaves you feeling hurt, frustrated and angry afterwards.

“Conflict arises when we have a different value system to another person – and why wouldn’t we? We all have different collective and individual value systems shaped by culture and personal experiences that make us the beautifully unique individuals we are,” Bibi explains.

Hedgehog or rhino?

So, once you’ve reframed your stance on conflict, the next step is to work out what your ‘conflict style’ is. Bibi asks, are you a hedgehog or a rhino?

“Rhinos charge into conflict, sometimes in an aggressive way, and they want to get it out in the open here and now. Hedgehogs avoid conflict, they roll up into a ball, and shut down, putting up their spikes so no one can hurt them,” she explains. “Knowing which one you are, and how it affects others, means you can be more considerate and understanding towards each other in conflict.”

These are traits that you may learn about a loved one over time, but there are other things that you can look out for immediately, whoever you’re speaking to. Take a look at the other person’s body language, and also rework your own so that you are open and calm. “Rolling eyes, clenching jaws, crossing arms or shouting are signs of hurt and anger, and will often trigger a similar defensive response in others,” says Bibi.

“Reflect back what you observe, and what you assume it means. For example, ‘I can see you were really upset when I said that.’ This shows you notice and care about the other person’s feelings; it also gives the other person a chance to confirm or clarify – for example, ‘I’m not upset, I’m just really tired.’”

Waving the white flag

Coming hand-in-hand with setting boundaries is deciding how far you want to go, and calling off the discussion if it’s no longer productive, or if you feel overwhelmed – because, if you’ve ended up in tears, it’s unlikely that you’re going to be able to either express your point or take in the other person’s. So, call it quits for now.

“You could also discuss your stop signals or phrases during arguments that let the other person know that you are flooded, or too triggered to continue,” says Bibi. “In this case, tell the other person you need a break – or if you notice they are triggered, ask if they need a break. A pause allows you to calm yourself down and stops arguments from spiralling. Breathe, go for a walk, get some air, whatever it is you need to emotionally regulate.”

As you begin to tune-in to your responses, your ability to work out what does and doesn’t work for you when it comes to dealing with arguments will become much clearer. “Talk about what you observe of each other and how it makes you feel. For example, ‘I go silent because I feel terrible that you’re hurt, and I can’t find the words to express that,’” Bibi suggests.

When it’s all said and done

We’re not saying that the knack of arguing effectively is something you’ll pick up overnight – it really does take time – but it’s true what they say about things being ‘better out than in’. Our feelings and fears rarely go away on their own, and they can quickly consume us if they go unchecked.

When we learn how to express, and be true to ourselves, and actively work towards a brighter future, the effects ripple out into the rest of our lives – and, that’s something worth laying down arms for.

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