The Zen of Arguing: 11 Rules to Win Your Next Argument

The Zen of Arguing: 11 Rules to Win Your Next Argument

Last week, in the wake of the Chris Martin and Gwyneth Patrow break up, we talked about Conscious Coupling, and what my husband and I do to arm ourselves against the potential for splitsville down the line. It’s not foolproof, but it’s a step in the direction we want to go in: together forever.

This week, I’m thinking we should dig a little deeper and get to the heart of something that inevitably tears a couple apart: the almighty argument.

Did you know that arguing is a skill? Of course you did. If it weren’t, there wouldn’t be books written about it:

How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie
Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When the Stakes are High and
Crucial Confrontations: Tools for Resolving Broken Promises, Violated Expectations and Bad Behavior by Kerry Paterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler.

(If you haven’t already read these books, I highly recommend them)

When it comes to arguing – not just with couples, but with any two people – the key to success starts with the recognition that you are two entirely different people. That seems obvious, but you would be surprised how many of us forget that fact when we find ourselves in the throes of an argument (guilty).

If we are two entirely different people, then it is entirely impossible for both of us to see everything the same way. Our points of view differ from subject to subject. If that weren’t true, life would be very boring. There would only be one flavor of ice cream (gasp), one style of politics (no comment), one show on TV (Modern Family, obviously), one style of movie (the one where the good people win) – you get the point.

So now you know: we’re not always going to get along. Even the loves of our lives will drive us to the edge of insanity a time or two (or many) throughout the course of our relationships (it’s called make up sex for a reason).

Which brings us to the second key to success in an argument:

If you want to make sure you both walk away as winners – and still happily coupled – remember this: you’re on the same team. So no matter how upset you may be about something, you should make every effort to argue from the same side.

So how the heck does one do that?

Well, if you listen to Dale Carnegie, you wouldn’t get into an argument in the first place! Sage advice, to be sure, but not advice that can always be adhered to. We are a lot of things, but perfect is not one of them. Thank goodness!

Here are 11 things you can do to argue like the respectful, loving person I know you are:

1. Be patient. Be silent. Take 3 deep breaths before you respond. It has been said that a moment of patience in a moment of anger can save you a thousand moments of regrets. Whoever said this is a genius, because it’s more true that I care to admit. You have to remember: when you say something out loud – whether you mean it or not – you cannot take it back. The words pierce through the air, and dance into the ears of the listener, lodging themselves into their memory forever. So the next time your partner does or says something that makes you want to turn into the Hulk, stop and take 3 deep breaths. If you’re still mad, take another 3 breaths. And if you’re still mad, stay silent. Politely and kindly tell your partner that you are feeling angry and you don’t want to say something you’ll regret. Request a minute to gather your thoughts and take the time you need before you respond.

2. Resist the urge to scream, yell, or use profanities. Let’s revisit How To Win Friends and Influence People. If you scream and yell, how could you possibly influence anyone’s behavior? Far from that, you will either make your partner more angry, you will hurt their feelings, or you will scare them into submission. None of these options are good. So enlist the help of point #1, and while you’re taking your deep breaths, think about how you feel when you are being reprimanded or yelled at. I’m willing to bet that it doesn’t feel so good. So if you, in turn, are doing it to your partner, how do you think they’re going to feel? What’s more is that when we are feeling attacked, as yelling tends to make us feel, our first instinct will probably be to yell back and defend ourselves from the onslaught. So now the argument has become a screaming match, rather than a civilized discussion about the actual issue. Awesome. Go team. Don’t let this happen to you. Be calm and carry on.

3. Try – really try – to see things from their point of view. Really put yourself in their shoes. Sometimes when I’m arguing with my husband (spoiler alert: we do argue), I will ask him to try to see things from my side. Often he will say, “But I would never feel that way about such-and-such-a-thing.” That’s not putting himself in my shoes. That’s seeing things through his eyes while wearing my shoes, which is the reason we are having this argument in the first place. So, for the sake of your relationship, put in some effort and really try to see why this perfectly rational person – your loving partner whom you adore – is seeing something differently than you are. It doesn’t mean you have to agree with it! Understanding the other person’s logic will help you to come to a true understanding of why they feel the way they do, without you necessarily having to agree with them. This can allow you to resolve the argument amicably with both of you feeling heard and understood, and hopefully armed against this same argument happening again the future.

4. Take the poison out of your tone. You know what I’m talking about. You’re trying to remain calm, you’re trying not to yell, you’re trying to see things from their point of view, but your voice is chalked full of menace. You’re clearly annoyed. And if you think your partner can’t hear that in your voice, think again. When you speak from this place, often times the effect is to make the other person feel like you’re not being genuine. And if that is the case, an apology means absolutely nothing, because your partner won’t have believed that you meant it when you said it. So genuinely take the poison out of your tone, and really truly want to know their side of the story, no matter how stupid you think it might be.

5. Avoid using the term: “You made me feel…” Listen, here’s the hard truth: no one can make you feel anything. You are in complete control of your reactions at all times. That’s not to say that something someone does or says won’t make you feel a certain way – not at all. We humans are emotional beings, and we really are a slave to our emotions a lot of the time. But an emotion is just a perspective. Nothing more. Sometimes, we need to shift it in order to get on with our day, our lives. So even though your partner may have made you feel angry/annoyed/etc, telling them so could (and often does) cause them to be defensive. But you obviously want them to know how you’re feeling so you can resolve the issue and move on. So the next time you get into an argument, rather than saying, “You made me feel  _____ when you did this,” say it this way instead: “When you  ______ , I felt upset because…” This way, you keep the responsibility of your feelings on yourself without putting the onus on them. Yes, you still want them to know that you felt badly when they did something, but by taking the accusatory tone out of the argument simply by using “I” instead of “you”, you’ve almost guaranteed a happy ending. By sharing the responsibility for the actions that caused the argument in the first place, you’re taking the high road and putting your relationship before your emotions.

6. Listen and then sum up your understanding of their argument, saying it with kindness and a genuine desire to understand: “So what you’re saying is that when I did this, you felt  _____. Is that right? Well I can see how you would feel upset by what I said/did. That was not my intention. I’m sorry.”

7. Replace “but” with “and.” During most discussions, the use of the word “but” can throw things off course. Saying “but” has a tendency to totally negate everything that came before it. As a best practice, I like to replace “but” with either a period or an “and:”

“I can see how you would feel upset by what I did, and I’m sorry. I was trying to get somewhere fast and I didn’t think about how that would affect you.”

Done. Now imagine that sentence with a “but:”

“I can see how you would feel upset by what I did, and I’m sorry, but I was trying to get somewhere fast.”

By adding in the “but,” you are making an excuse for whatever it was that you did to make the other person feel slighted. An excuse rather than an explanation. An excuse tries to justify the actions. An explanation only tries to explain them to aid in understanding and coming to a resolution. The difference might feel slight to you, but it can make a world of a difference in an argument!

8. If you know you’re wrong, just admit you’re wrong. Period. Hopefully your partner is not the kind of person who will say I told you so and rub it in your face. If they are, try to help them understand that that behavior is disrespectful. It undermines the integrity of the relationship, not to mention you. It takes a lot of strength of character to admit when you’re wrong, and it’s an action that deserves respect and goes a long way in the health of any relationship.

9. When you accept an apology, mean it. I hate to say this, but us women do this a lot: our partner says he/she is sorry, and we say we accept it, but really, we don’t. We go on passive aggressively being irritated with our partner until inevitably there is another blow out. Don’t do that. If you’re not ready to accept the apology – that’s ok. Just say so. Sometimes when my husband does something that hurts my feelings, and we argue about it, I will accept his apology but tell him I’m going to need some time to let it sink in and really get over it. It’s just honest. When someone wrongs you – someone you love – it hurts. So a mere apology doesn’t always fix all of that hurt instantaneously. Oftentimes you still need some time after the apology to get over it. That’s perfectly ok, as long as you are respectful about it, and you communicate your feelings with your partner about it too. Tell them thank you, and that you need some time to get over it. Take that time, go for a walk, give yourself some breathing space, and then let them know when you’re over it and thank them for giving you the space to think and feel.

10. Take responsibility. Say something like: “I can see how my actions would lead you to feel that, bla bla bla.” No strings attached. Just take responsibility. You can explain if you feel the need to later, be first let the responsibility have its own space. It will go a long way in the resolution of the argument.

11. Be sympathetic. Think about it. When someone is being sympathetic towards you, it makes you feel heard, understood, even loved. So do this in an argument too. Say how sorry you are that you made this person feel a certain way, even though you didn’t intend you. Say something like, “I can understand how that must have made you feel, and I’m really sorry about that. That must have felt really frustrating. I didn’t mean to do that.” Trust me – they will want to hug you for being so understanding, and the argument will be on its merry way to a resolution that leaves you both feeling like winners.

These rules have definitely been our guide book to the way we argue, and I have to say, they work every time.

So whether your next argument is with your partner, your friend, your business partner – or anyone – keep these tips in mind. Argue better, argue smarter, and leave the table with a resolution that works for both of you.

Your friend,