After reading my article, Why We Argue on HighExistence, a friend of mine inquired as to the logical steps involved in a constructive argument. The story I presented in my article provided reflection on how I could have avoided a negative situation. Here, I give a practical guide to stopping a destructive argument in its tracks. Enjoy.
Some Things to Keep in Mind
Often, we become so consumed with winning an argument that we forget we are dealing with another complex being who has thoughts, feelings, and insecurities just as we do. And though winning may feel like the stronger position, it is not so. The reality is that one who acts this way has submitted to their anger and insecurities. Why else would they need such validation?
Furthermore, by stepping into the role of the aggressor, one attempts to place the other person in a position of submission. If the other person is prone to that, then they will easily step into the role of the helpless victim. If not, we have two aggressors butting heads. It becomes a vicious, often malicious, attack on the enemy (who is always wrong and beneath us) OR it becomes a flight from or submission to the enemy. Either way, it is no longer a healthy debate between two equals.
I said this in the previous article and I say it again: the key is learning to be present in these tough situations. What that means is taking a moment to breathe, check-in with oneself, and to accept what is there. You cannot argue effectively if you are unaware of what is going on inside.
A very helpful tool is to take on an inquisitive demeanor. Understand, this does not mean sarcasm. When someone says or does something that is particularly disturbing to your peace of mind, genuinely ask yourself first, “What am I feeling and why?” Then make an active choice to accept what is there. For most people it will be anger or some other emotion that will produce an angry response. When we acknowledge what is there, we put space around the thought or emotion. Only then are we on the path to peaceful conversation.
When you’ve accepted your current state, turn your awareness to the other person. Understand that constructive argument is not about suppressing or repressing your emotional state. It is about channeling it in a healthy way. Stay genuinely inquisitive. There is no reason you can’t maintain a calm demeanor while experiencing an enormous amount of anger inside. Be honest and clear. You are allowed to say, “what you said or did made me very angry/sad/hurt, etc. Can you tell me why you did that?” If the other person is prone to aggressive argument, this will almost definitely take them off guard. They may get defensive. They may verbally (hopefully not physically) attack you. Just listen. Really try to understand where the other person is coming from.
Furthermore, don’t be afraid to call them out on their tactics. If you know without a doubt that the other person is trying to goad you into malicious argument by saying hurtful things, you are allowed to say, “I see what you’re doing, and maybe we need to have this conversation later when you’re less enraged.” This will result in one of two responses. Either the person will become even more enraged, or they will stop, meet you in the middle, and try to talk.
If they fly off the handle, you are well within your rights to calmly walk away. If they decide to attempt rational conversation, then true constructive argument can begin. Then, you will often see that what you thought you were arguing about is not the subject matter at all. In almost any emotionally fueled argument, the true subject matter is each person’s perspective on what has occurred—how it makes them feel, what thoughts it provokes.
Constructive argument is about accepting one’s own emotional/mental state and then accepting the other’s. Additionally, we must be willing to create a conducive space by welcoming an open dialogue wherein each person is allowed to say anything they want (except if it is malicious or destructive toward themselves or the other person). In this way, we become two people having a conversation. Remember, that’s what an argument should be. No one needs to win.
There are a thousand ways to spin an argument, and it will never go exactly as you imagine or desire. Maintain the intention to stay present, and more than not, you will know what to do. If you come to a resolution, great! If not, drop it. At least you’ve put your qualms on the table in a healthy way. The issue may surface again, and that is OK.
Checklist for Arguing Constructively
1. STOP. Notice your breath. Acknowledge your emotional state.
2. Be inquisitive. Ask yourself why you are thinking or feeling this way. Are you being unreasonable or is the fear/anger/pain merited?
3. Make the decision to accept what is there. Don’t suppress. Breathe deep and sit with it.
4. Turn your attention to the other person. Calmly confront them with what you are feeling and thinking. Stay inquisitive. If appropriate, ask the reasoning behind their words or actions.
5. Avoid incendiary reaction to their response. Truly Listen.
6. If they are incapable of speaking to you in a reasonable manner, acknowledge this and walk away.
7. If they match your inquisitiveness, start delving into the issue. Ask questions, listen deeply, say what you need to say and allow them to do the same.
8. If there is no resolution in sight, drop it and agree to revisit the issue at a later time.
By Terence Stone
Chief Editor and Founder of Urban Spiritual, I’m a classically trained (and training) actor and singer living in New York City, who has performed in the U.S. and Europe. I’m also a writer, traveller, meditator, arts-lover, and well-being enthusiast.