Ideally we’d agree with all parties on answers to this question at the start of any significant relationship, before the first inevitable important disagreement. Attempting this while arguing is like trying to fix an aircraft while flying it. Without that agreement, these nine strategies can help limit the risk of damage when we’re up to our armpits in challenging conflict.
They are for most people easier to grasp than apply, because acquiring and entrenching our current behaviours has taken as long we’ve been alive; it takes real commitment to change them. (Which is why I offer the Hear & Be Heard programme; it supports a surprising degree of progress.) If you’ve completed Hear & Be Heard, these will reminder you of just a few of the tools.
1 What we resent in other people is often in some way connected to what we most dislike or are conflicted about in ourselves. We tend to project or displace those inner conflicts on to others, without awareness of our doing so. Deal with the inner conflict and the external resentment disappears, diminishes or is at least perceived with greater objectivity as an opportunity for self-growth.
2 One important way of dealing with the inner conflict is to go to the source and forgive ourselves. When we forgive completely, we let go of whatever it is we held against ourselves; it is gone, no longer there. We no longer project it on to others.
3 You can’t intentionally change what you don’t notice, so the first step to changing yourself is greater self-awareness – of your physical state, thoughts, emotions and attitudes, how you’re focusing your attention and on what, and of whether you’re fuelling your purpose and ideals or reinforcing old emotional chain reactions and other aspects of yourself that no longer serve you well. Pay attention, to bring more of your unconscious processes and behaviour into awareness.
4 If influential people in your upbringing (those who shaped your understanding of how to be in the world) modelled win-lose, lose-win or lose-lose approaches to dealing with differences, it’s certain that at times as an adult you will follow their modelling – until you have habituated different practices and attitudes. Unless those habits become well-embedded skills through frequent practice, you’ll default to the earlier patterns under challenging circumstances.
The following five ideas are from Linda Anderson Krech and Gregg Krech of the ToDo Institute. Although written about arguments with our spouse or loving partner, they are equally applicable to any relationship we care about. (I wholeheartedly recommend the Kech’s wise support for interpersonal relationship matters and especially the power of gratitude to alter attitudes.)
“Here are some ideas from [the] ToDo Institute courses for improving your problem-solving efforts, while in the grips of an angry moment. There’s no doubt that changing our ways of responding in such moments is a real challenge, but that’s part of the fun. Behavior is controllable — remember that old and rusty idea? And don’t forget about purpose. There is often a bigger purpose that goes beyond the angry moment — whether it is becoming a good [leader, manager, neighbour, colleague or friend], a commitment to non-violence or teamwork, or the development of a loving relationship with your partner.
1. Inquiry Before Condemnation. Sometimes something the other person did, or didn’t do, stirs up angry and resentful feelings. Rather than lashing out, try beginning by getting the facts about what happened. Perhaps there is a legitimate excuse for why he was late, or why she didn’t call, or why he made that comment. Before you judge the situation, make sure you truly understand the situation.
2. Breathe. Start with basics and remember to breathe during the argument — long, slow breaths before speaking, while pausing, while listening. These breaths can help to restore your presence of mind. Don’t underestimate the power of such a simple act. That pause for a slow in-breath can make the difference between speaking wisely or lashing out hurtfully.
3. Use Your Voice Consciously. The way you speak, your volume and your tone of voice, have everything to do with the way your message will be received and the success you will have in resolving the conflict. Be very attentive to the volume in which you are speaking. Raising your voice is a very provocative thing to do, and often escalates the situation. In fact, making a special effort to speak softly may be what is called for. A sarcastic bite to your words can override the most constructive content of your words. Avoid taking on a sarcastic tone at all costs, although the temptation to do so may be quite strong.
4. Don’t Interrupt. Interruptions can be very provocative. By cutting into the other person’s message rather than allowing it to come to its own conclusion, you are communicating a sense of urgency that can automatically escalate the situation. Just the fact that you are interrupting, regardless of the content of your words, sends the message that you are more interested in being heard than in listening. Take some breaths and listen to the message that is being delivered to you. Don’t allow your sense of urgency to get the upper hand.
5. Take a break. If you feel unable to cope skilfully with the situation, given the degree of your agitation at the moment, you might suggest a temporary break from the discussion. Take a walk, clean the bathroom, exercise, etc. Live for a while with things unfinished, then revisit the argument later, possibly with a fresh perspective. As you shift your attention elsewhere, you may find that your heated emotions may cool off a bit.”
To read the original article, How Shall We Argue? by Linda Anderson Krech and Gregg Krech, visit their ToDo Institute website.