Most if not all people I have counseled, don’t complain because they argue with their partner, they lament instead, they can’t argue well.
I have yet to meet that person in my practice or personal life whom has ever proclaimed: “I like to end my arguments in full blown fights, the nastier the better, in fact, I enjoy the silence treatment I get or give after one of those. It is a pleasure to lose control over my emotions and say or do really hurtful things especially to those I love the most. My ultimate goal is to get childish and righteous and create negative energy all around”.
Who hasn’t once or multiple times intended to address an issue with their partner via a respectful conversation and instead end up wiping the foam off one’s mouth? When arguing takes a wrong turn over and over again and it becomes a dirty fight, it means one or both are using the wrong skills. I’ve been there and regretfully, lacking the right skills, done that. There is another way.
Interestingly, from birth, we come equipped with 5 different types of crying pitches to get our needs met. As we grow, language evolves to help us express needs, wants, share opinions and voice choice. Eventually, beliefs, culture, values, thoughts and experiences merge and shape our worldview and with it, our compulsion to argue what doesn’t align with it. How we do it, matters.
My personal relationships and over 18 years working with individuals and couples, taught me that when challenged, 2 arguing styles predominate: nasty-arguing or worthy-arguing. I also learned that when describing our own go-to style, we tend to consider ourselves worthy-arguers; my experience is however, that if unrefined, most of us fall into the nasty-arguer-spectrum much more often.
- Nasty-arguing creeps up out of the interchangeable friction between one wanting to be heard and one activating defenses to prevent it. The more damaged one’s self esteem, the more diffuse the boundaries, the greater the defense and the nastier the approach.
The undertone is: “I matter, you don’t. Who needs you? Who cares? Shut up. Me first, me only”.
It can be a two-way street (both attacking/defending) or unilateral (one blocks all reasonable talking attempts). It is reactive and seeks to self protect only.
The predominately left over feelings are of defeat, exhaustion, resentment and inflated entitlement: (“you won’t subdue me!”)
- Worthy-arguing unfolds between 2 or more people when they clearly, respectfully and maybe passionately, expose needs, requests or point(s) of view with the intent to seek to truly understand, negotiate if needed and treat it as the birthplace of emotional and intellectual growth.
The undertone is:” We both matter. I choose to share this and also choose to hear you. You first, topic second. I’m genuinely curious about how you see this issue and why. I can disagree and be interested and respectful at the same time”
It is collaborative. It does not exist unilaterally. It is responsive and inclusive.
The predominantly left over feelings for both are of hope, closeness and excitement.
Learning how to argue effectively, may very well be, our personal AND global oasis.
Those of us that long for bold peace and relational harmony implore and expect our leaders to master arguing, because we know, deeply in our souls and cell memory, that ineffective negotiators can catapult us into chaos. In our personal lives, we crave the same.
Where do our argument-moves come from?
Like most things, it all starts from the acorn up.
We either, and, or:
- Mirror how we saw our parent(s) argue/negotiate/deal with us and others.
- Recycle how we were approached by them
- Apply limits as we were directly shown or taught.
We inhabit the negotiation energy we absorbed from our caretakers and if unchanged, we literally or creatively re-create it and pass it along to the generation that follows. We all need to at the very least, do a thorough inventory of our arguing skills.
From nasty-arguing to worthy-arguing:
Since argue-free relationships do no exist, (if you disagree, well…) it befits us to master this skill. The way out of nasty-arguing and into worthy-arguing compels more than good intentions. Rather, the shift comes from 4 places and a lot of deep breathing:
- Self awareness. This is the ability to learn how to be truthful and objective about what you say, what you do and why you choose those moves when you argue; better acquired with unbiased and trained professional help. We tend to have multiple blind spots about ourselves (I had a client whom consider that calling his wife a “whore” during their arguments, was his right to free speech).
- Self worth. This is accomplished by coming to terms with knowing we are no better and no worse than our fellow human being. When our self esteem is fragile, we tend to argue by either going “down” into toxic shame or “up” into grandiosity and from that place, either give up (“ I am not worth it”) or beat up (“You are not worth it/It’s not worth it”). Damaged self worth is rarely improved without full self awareness. When we receive a put-down from our partner (i.e.: you are selfish!) and deal with it by putting them down (i.e.: oh yeah?? Well, here: you are useless!), we are inadvertently but aggressively attempting to restore our own damaged version of self. Expert on violence, James Gilligan, summarized it brilliantly: “All violence is an attempt to replace shame with self-esteem”.
- Boundaries. These are limits; invisible lines between you and others. Healthy boundaries are liberating because you can hear someone else’s nasty-arguing while you respectfully and consciously keep your cool and decide what to do next. You know you have healthy boundaries when you can stay connected and protected at the same time: “I hear you and don’t take your disrespect personally, I will give you a couple of chances to pull yourself together (lower your tone, no hostility) so we can talk to each other”. The extremes of poor boundaries in arguing show up when one or both wall the other person off, rage, give in, give up or ignore.
- Accountability. This is crucial, because none of us get it right all the time. It is the ability to say to oneself and whomever you argued with: “my bad was…, I have a hard time with…, I am taking concrete steps to repair what I damaged…, I am deeply sorry and I am doing this, this, and this to adjust my approach…”. If we can’t accept wrongdoing, we are not equipped for repair which leaves us in a perpetual state of shameful righteousness and inevitably, a relational stance of: “I am better, invulnerable and unapproachable”, hardly an effective move.
We can not contribute pollution and expect to inhabit harmony.
We do not have to get mean to make a point.
We do not have the right to impose our immature selves onto others.
When arguing, please remember to always deep-breathe; it is the easiest and quickest way to regulate your stress hormones and avoid going off the proverbial deep end.
Choosing to show up to the negotiating table with the skills to feel anger/disappointment/injustice and express it without rage, to disagree without contempt and to lead without shame or grandiosity would graduate us into worthy-arguers, a superb way to object while handing down to the next generation a crucial and essential model to replicate.
My best to you and your relationships,