Arguing is Normal

To have a truly fulfilling relationship, you must speak up about things that bother you.1 No relationship is without some arguing. But, when negative things do come up, it is important to know how to communicate those things effectively and fairly. There are basic strategies for arguing fairly, as well as many ways of communicating effectively when having that important discussion.

Laying the Ground Rules

First, make sure both of you are calm and collected. If one or both of you is upset, take a break from the conversation. Choose a time and place to continue the conversation when both of you are ready.2 You want to choose a time to talk when you both have plenty of time and no other immediate concerns.3

Decide which issue or conflict you would like to resolve. Both of you may want to resolve the same conflict. Or, maybe one of you has an issue to discuss with the other. Either way, it is most likely you will make progress in resolving an issue when you stay on topic. Don’t get off track and discuss other areas of conflict, past conflicts, or past relationships. This will keep you from resolving the issue at hand.4 Staying on topic will keep you committed to resolving the current conflict.

A Time to Listen…And A Time to Speak

A very important communication skill is active listening. When you actively listen, you temporarily refrain from talking; your only task is to focus on what your partner is saying.5 The purpose of this is to understand your partner. After listening, paraphrase to your partner what he or she has said, without adding your own thoughts or opinion.6 As you are listening, avoid getting defensive. Do not use this as an opportunity to think about what you are going to say next. Remember, you are only focusing on your partner’s point of view.7 By paraphrasing, you show your partner you have heard and listened to what was said. Then ask your partner if you heard and understood correctly.8 Both of you can take turns at this skill.

When it is your turn to speak, avoid blaming and criticizing your partner. Insulting is a major deterrent to healthy communication. It may cause more resentment and unhappiness in your relationship.9 When criticizing, statements often begin with “You always…” or “You never…”. Often, name calling will be involved, as in the statements, “You are irresponsible” or “You are selfish.” Communicating in this way will drive a wedge between you and your partner instead of resolving the conflict. When stating your feelings, it is important not to insult or be sarcastic.10

Focus on Yourself

To express your feelings, try making statements that begin with “I feel…” or “I experience…” or another statement that focuses on what you feel and how you are affected by your partner’s behavior. Take responsibility for your own feelings and thoughts.11 When sharing how you feel, the purpose is to let yourself and your perspective to be known. Examine yourself for other, ulterior motives. Is your motive to manipulate, change, or put down your partner? Is your motive to defend yourself? If you have said something with a wrongful motive, an apology can be very powerful.12 In addition to using I-statements to express your complaint, say something positive and complimentary along with it. This will help soften the argument.13

An important and fair technique for communicating is called “documenting”.14 This is when you provide a concrete example of what you are bringing up with your partner. If you feel unimportant to your partner, for example, provide him/her with an example of a situation you felt demonstrates this perception. Do this rather than accuse your partner of intending to be a certain way.

Cryptic Communication

Knowing some basic ground rules for arguing fairly will go a long way. While you are arguing, there are many forms of ineffective communication to watch out for. One of these ineffective forms is being indirect. There are many ways to be indirect. Sometimes people beat around the bush instead of directly stating their thoughts. Being passive and reserved is another way to avoid directly stating what one is thinking. Other times people will communicate “cryptically”, giving an underlying message the other person must work hard to interpret. Likewise, someone may have a hidden agenda behind what he/she is saying, not revealing his/her true thoughts and intentions. Sometimes people want to shroud their words in mystery and make the other person work hard to uncover the meaning. Yet another way of indirectly communicating is doing so through body language instead of words.15

Mind Reading

More ineffective ways of communicating include misunderstanding and misinterpreting what someone is saying. To prevent these problems, listen to what the other is really intending to say. Refrain from making a statement that contains an assumption about the other person. This is called “mind reading.”16 Saying something like, “You like putting me down” would be mind reading because you assume you know what the other person is thinking or intending. Likewise, avoid making generalizations by using words such as “always” or “never”.17 These are unnecessary and most likely inaccurate statements because they are too extreme.

Who Wins?

It is important to find ways for both people to be valued in the discussion. Check yourself if you are unresponsive and uninterested in the other’s perspective. This can manifest itself when one does more talking than listening. Still more ineffective ways of communicating include being dishonest, and being hostile and critical. Avoid controlling or manipulating another while communicating. Remember the goal of communication is to make your thoughts and feelings known and understood. You cannot control the other’s response or actions. Finally, attempting to be right and to win the argument is ineffective. It may be tempting to try to “win”, but the relationship will lose.

Direct and Respectful

Communicating in an effective way would be doing the opposite of these things stated above. Good communication is direct, leaving the other person with no doubt as to the purpose and the meaning of your words. This means being assertive and overcoming your fear of stating your true thoughts and feelings. For this to be effective it must be done in a friendly and respectful way. Make sure to be open and to use words clearly so that there is no hidden agenda and no attempt to make the other person search for an interpretation of what you mean.18 Allow the other person to speak and respond while you listen. Listen for what the other person is saying and try to understand and interpret that correctly. Remember to be honest, open, and direct. This is effective communication.19

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