My best friend and I had a fight a couple of weeks ago. The curse of neither-of-us-are-backing-down reared it’s ugly head, and we were yelling. We were yelling. We weren’t listening to each other, we weren’t giving benefit of the doubt, we weren’t keeping things in perspective–hell, we weren’t even arguing about the same thing in the end.
The unnecessarily intense interaction made me think about how to do conflict better…a little more grace, more love, more not-being-a-dick. It took a lot of reflection, but here are five important things I learned:
1. Start by assuming good intentions.
If you go into a disagreement feeling like a victim, you’re going to argue like a victim. And while victims are great at accusing and ranting, they’re pretty bad at actually coming to a solution. Don’t get me wrong– if someone has betrayed you in a major way, victim it up. But if you’re actually trying to solve something? Going in with a defensive attitude is totally unproductive.
Very rarely will someone intentionally do something just to make your life harder (and if they do, you should probably cut them loose). So why confront someone as if they are purposely trying to hurt you? Instead, talk to people as if you know they care, you know they’re on your team…even if there are some issues to address. It’s much easier to bring things up (and to be receptive when issues are presented to you) when you can always count on a side order of “benefit of the doubt.”
2. The most important question of all: “Wait, what are we really fighting about?”
So often, petty arguments aren’t really about what they seem on the surface. They are symbols of deeper issues. And that makes for a whole lotta miscommunication.
Example: The argument “You never do the dishes” could be about doing the dishes. But it could also be about “I don’t feel like you respect my space” or “I feel like I’m doing more of the work around the house” or “I don’t feel your support right now” or “WHY DON’T YOU LOVE ME?!”. And none of those things are about the dishes, really.
BUT, if the argument focuses on those stupid dishes, then none of those actual root issues are addressed. Or worse, when they are addressed, it comes ten minutes into the conversation with a burst of hot tears and accusatory language and geeeeez, that escalated quickly. That’s how shit gets confusing and angry, folks. Simmer. Make sure you are both arguing about the same thing (so often, people are not). And when an argument goes in a weird direction, stop and ask: “Wait, what are we really fighting about?”
3. Avoid blowups by recognizing when you’re “collecting evidence.”
In an attempt to be right and not look like we’re overreacting, we have a tendency to “build a case” and legitimize how we feel before attempting a confrontation. When we do that, we skip the calm, loving “Hey, this is how my world looks right now,” conversation, and silently build up to a cold, grudge-filled trial.
“You did these 7 things in the last week that pissed me off. I have been writing them down, and they are now alphabetized in this list. What do you have to say about THAT, hm?”
Naturally, when we put someone on trial, they defend themselves against our evidence because that’s how trials work.
We end up arguing over individual instances (“I’m working overtime! And I did the dishes three days ago!”) instead of the actual issue at hand (“Oh, you feel overwhelmed? How should we work this out moving forward?”).
By approaching conversations with “Hey, I just caught myself collecting evidence on you, can we talk?” you are taking responsibility for your expectations and feelings, rather than waiting for enough ammunition to put all the blame on someone. You make it about being real, instead of being “right.” Obviously, that’s a much better strategy.
4. People yell because they want to be heard
Ah, the good ol’ screaming match. When we start arguing with people, especially if we refuse to see their points or perspective, it’s only a matter of time before they raise their voices a little. Or we raise our voices a little. Although it seems like an emotional response, maybe even irrational, yelling actually makes a lot of freakin’ sense.
It’s pretty simple, really: We learn from a very young age to speak up when someone can’t hear us. Talking louder is a very natural response to not feeling heard. Mix that with a little bit of frustration and you have a high-volume warzone (where, ironically, no one is listening to anyone).
While your body assumes that TALKING LIKE THIS will help you make your point, experience tells us that it really won’t. The best way to be heard is actually by being clear, honest, calm, and timely…not by bringing the roof down. So take those deep breaths (they really work, guys) and remember that when someone raises the volume in your general direction, sometimes THEY JUST REALLY WANT TO BE UNDERSTOOD AND IT IS THE ONLY WAY YOU WILL HEAR THEM, OBVIOUSLY. They may be wrong, but this isn’t your cue to talk over them or defend yourself—it’s your cue to listen better.
5. When it gets competitive, no one wins
There is a point in every big argument where a simple disagreement turns into a capital-F Fight. And who wins capital-F Fights? Um, no one.
Learn to recognize when things are getting into a competitive space, and cut it off then—because in relationships, “winning” an argument by brute force is rarely a true victory. Here are a few signs your disagreement has turned into a showdown:
Your body temperature rises, your body language becomes aggressive, and your focus narrows
You lose sight of all your initial goals (to be understood, to be legitimized, to find a solution to an issue) and take on short-term goals (to have to other person give in, to be “right”).
Displays of emotion (tears, yelling, etc) from the other party seem like a victory, rather then a sign that you’ve crossed a line
Oh, and you cross lines. Because YOU’RE RIGHT, dammit.
Any game that is won by someone you love bursting into tears is not worth playing. Period. So when it goes there—and it can, of course it can—give it a break. Disagreements can be productive. Capital-F Fights rarely go anywhere positive.
So, as always, let’s be good to each other.
(I know I say that almost every post, but man, it’s so worth repeating.)