What’s this about “productive arguing? Isnt the goal to avoid arguing?
Well, not really. Every couple (and other family members) have disagreements from time to time. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, as long as it is not excessive and there are plenty of positive feelings in the relationship. We need to accept the fact that there will be disagreements, and work on the ways we argue.
First and foremost, both partners in an argument need to stay grounded in respect, self-control, and the desire to reach a positive resolution. An argument is effective and productive if it improves the situation and brings the parties closer together. In productive arguing, there is no “winner” - both partners win.
Some problems that get in the way of effective arguing:
-one or both partners are more concerned with being “right” than with finding solutions/resolution
-one or both partners are not exercising self control (yelling, name-calling, etc), leading to escalation and more hurt
-partners often confuse intent with impact. Our words and behaviors may have a negative impact on someone even when our intent was loving or neutral. The offended party needs us to understand how they felt (the impact); if we rush too quickly to defend ourselves (our intent), our partner will still feel hurt and may not be able to listen.
Try using these guidelines if you find yourself in an argument with your partner that is not easily resolved and is creating further tension, defensiveness, and frustration.You may need to step away from each other and cool down first.
Instructions for the Talker
I-messages Use “I-messages” when talking. Convey how you feel in response to your partner's behaviors, rather than focusing on blaming your partner ("I feel lonely and unloved when you work late 4 nights in one week.")
Remain Calm and follow fair fighting guidelines.
Feelings Share your feelings openly. Feelings must come before solutions.
Be specific and concise Get to the point, and give your partner opportunities to respond. If you are vague, or you talk too long without breaks for your partner to contribute, (s)he feels overwhelmed and/or helpless.
Instructions for the Listener
Listen Listen closely to your partner with an open mind and a true desire to better understand.
Reflect/Paraphrase Reflect/ paraphrase what your partner said so they know you are really listening and understanding. (Use phrases like “So when I did that, you felt attacked”, or “I hear that you felt…”) Stay focused on achieving understanding, not debating or getting into your own stuff yet.
Clarify/Check Ask if you got it right, ask for clarification, and allow the person to correct you or add more information (“Is that right?” or “Is this what you meant?”)
Repeat Repeat the Listen-Reflect-Clarify cycle as necessary until your partner feels heard and understood. Really try to understand her feelings and subjective experience, even if you don’t agree with it. This requires putting any defensiveness you feel aside. Remember, the impact you had on your partner may be different from your intent, and both impact and intent need to be flushed out.
Validate: Now that you understand what she felt/expereinced and why, validate those feelings. Convey to your partner that even if yo do not agree, you can understand how she felt the way she did based on her subjective experience.
Wait Do not make your own points or switch Talker/Listener roles until the first Talker is satisfied and feels heard and understood. Ask permission before switching roles.
The Talker next becomes the Listener, and vice versa.
This exercise can be challenging, but it is rewarding! If you and your partner are having serious difficulties and can't even come close to following this process, you would probably benefit from the help of a therapist.
Maysie Tift is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and a Certified Master Hypnotist with offices in San Rafael, CA and San Francisco, CA.