Arguments Are Something You Win Together
It’s normal for friends, family, and significant others to fight. Arguments are a key part of what makes relationships function.
An argument with a loved one is not about winning. Your goal is not to defeat your opponent but to reach an agreement with them. In this case, fighting isn’t conflict, it’s communication.
Framed this way, there is such a thing as a productive argument. I thought I would offer some advice for how to make these disagreements more constructive1,2.
Choose Your Battles
Determine if you actually want to have an argument with this person. Not every relationship deserves your time and effort, so don’t invest the time if you don’t want to. If that’s the case, find a way to exit the disagreement while ensuring that future interactions with this person are tolerable. Failing that, find ways to avoid them as much as possible.
Even if the relationship is valuable to you, decide if this is the right time and place for the argument. You should take a break when things aren’t constructive! For example, if you feel yourself getting angry, take some time to cool down. This can be hard to do, but can resolve some disagreements on its own3.
One mistake I see often is fighting prematurely about something. For example, a couple might disagree about where they want to live 5 years in the future. While important, now is not a good time to have this argument. In 5 years time, the situation will look different, and any discussion you have now will have been a waste of time. For now, take comfort in the fact that you will have the knowledge and maturity to resolve the problem in the future.
A related mistake is to argue over a hypothetical. For example, a couple might “take sides” in an argument that another couple is having, and disagree about what they should do if they were in the other couple’s situation. In general, I think it’s a bad idea to argue over imagined scenarios. They lack context and actionable solutions, so it’s hard to benefit from having such an argument. Focus on issues that can actually be resolved by making better decisions in the future.
Setting the Stage
Once you have decided you want have this argument, there are a few things you can do to mentally prepare.
It’s nice to have some “fair fighting rules” that both people at least try to abide by. These are reasonable things to ask of your partner, but you should be forgiving if they don’t always follow these rules (and vice versa).
One helpful rule is to use non-accusatory wording. Prefer ‘I’ statements to ‘you’ statements and avoid claiming that someone ‘always’ or ‘never’ does something. Switching from an accusation to an ‘I feel’ statement can soften your arguments while getting the same information across.
Your discussion should focus on how you do things in the future, not on litigating the past. Both sides should admit their mistakes and then turn towards what they will do differently next time.
However, not everything has to be solved at once. Relationships are always a work in progress, and the specific disagreement you are having is probably something you will revisit. Don’t aim for perfection, just try to come to a basic agreement that you can build upon. Sometimes it’s enough just to put a name to an issue in order to start solving it.
When considering solutions, avoid zero-sum thinking. The goal is to explore your choices together. Your range of options extends beyond “I win” or “They win”; many of the possible compromises can make you both better off.
Analyze the Disagreement
Because arguments are emotional, it can be helpful to try to dispassionately assess the situation with your partner and get to the root of the problem.
The first step is to break the disagreement down into isolated chunks. Identify the handful of differences you are having, and deal with them as independently as possible. If you notice discussion of one problem bleeding into another, try to refocus on the subject at hand.
For each problem, try to set aside your ego and emotions; what’s the real issue? Ask fair questions of your partner and hear them out. At the end of your discussion, you should be able to articulate your partner’s point in a way they would find satisfactory. A surprising number of arguments can be resolved simply by giving both partners a fair hearing.
It can be helpful to try to come up with neutral examples related to your problem. Flip the roles that you and your partner play in the example and be honest about how it would change things. It also can be helpful to consider things from a third-person perspective4.
At the end of all of this, you should come to an agreement about the things you will do differently in the future. Once again, it doesn’t have to be perfect, it just has to be something you can build upon.
Arguments are a normal and healthy part of any relationship, be it with your friends, family, or significant others5. Fights are one of the only times people talk openly about important issues. By fostering honest, empathetic, and future-oriented conversation, you can turn one of the most difficult parts of a relationship into one of the most valuable.
- Your mileage may vary. If you find it hard to resolve disagreements on your own, seek out a neutral mediator or professional help.
- What are my credentials here? What background do you want from someone giving advice about conflict? I wouldn’t want suggestions from someone who gets into a lot of fights, but I also wouldn’t want to hear from someone who has never had a serious fight. It would also be weird for someone to take the credit for their disagreements going well. Communication is a two player game, and idea of excelling at it individually misses the point.
Caveats aside, I will say that I’ve taken part in my fair share of disagreements and helped others through disagreements of their own. These have been resolved in healthy ways, partly because of the way I approached them but also because I have the good fortune of being surrounded by reasonable people. I want to pass along my framework for thinking about disagreements.
- That being said, don’t use this as an excuse to avoid the discussions you really should be having.
- It’s important to avoid using examples as a debate tactic, make sure that these are fair and foster a deeper understanding of your partners position.
- Though I focus on arguments with loved ones, these skills are applicable to other disagreements as well. Managing relationships important for startups too.