How can I argue more civilly?
October 18, 2012 4:56 PM   Subscribe

How can I argue more civilly?

My boyfriend and I are currently in a big fight. The kind where you aren't entirely sure if you are breaking up or not. It seems as thought the fight is based on such a small disagreement about such a small topic but the overarching problem is that he feels like I'm dismissive and insulting when we disagree about ANYTHING.

He isn't alltogether wrong. Even if it's something really trivial or just a debate about politics or philosophy I tend to get really really invested in being right. I've tried to just avoid the topics all together (but this is often read as dismissive.) And obviously a relationship without being able to disagree is bound to become shallow.

I usually recognize after the fact that I was rude, dismissive, insulting etc. (other than when it's my tone, for some reason I find it hard to recognize when my tone is being condescending or insulting.) But by then the damage is usually already done.

It has gotten to the point where saying "I'm trying" or "I'm working on it" isn't enough. He's pretty much said this CAN'T happen anymore because it makes him feel belittled and he feels like accepting this behaviour from me is not respecting himself (which seems fair.)

I don't know how to suddenly change overnight, but I guess I need to to save my relationship. Does anyone have any advice on how to control emotions during disagreements or differences of opinion or just to basically control emotions and tempers in general.

*Sidenote* I tend to get overly emotional and even cry or be about to cry when this happens. Advice to control that would also be helpful.
posted by pandorasbox to Human Relations (21 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
I usually recognize after the fact that I was rude, dismissive, insulting etc.

After he says something, count to five -- literally count, in your head -- before you respond. You need to set up a buffer so that you think before you speak.
posted by lobbyist at 5:05 PM on October 18, 2012

Always at least start from the premise that he is sincere and that what he is saying is meaningful to him.
posted by sallybrown at 5:14 PM on October 18, 2012 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Try to stop and actually listen to what he's saying before responding. Before you open your mouth, repeat what he said in your head and try to understand his point of view.

Another idea, which has worked for me in the past, is to have a code word or phrase that your boyfriend can use when you're starting to get this way during an argument. When he says the word you have to stop what you're saying, force yourself to calm down, and return to a normal speaking voice. It can help to take a 2 minute time out before continuing the discussion.

As far as being emotional and crying during an argument... I can get that way too. I find that if I stop what I'm saying and take a few deep breaths, it can help me calm down and return to a more rational frame of mind.
posted by barnoley at 5:23 PM on October 18, 2012 [6 favorites]

Can you instead try to argue less? Avoid these disagreements or differences of opinion altogether?

It's possible to have a difference of opinion without having an argument. To do so you'd have to accept that someone else may hold a view which is not "right" (or let's say "valid") under your own set of beliefs and opinions and values and knowledge, but which is valid under theirs. Or, even if they hold a view which is internally inconsistent or factually false, accept that holding that view gives them some pleasure or utility, and therefore they are acting rationally in persisting to hold it. It's a relativist position (everyone is right given their own situation) rather than absolutist (my way should be right for everyone).

Next time you have a disagreement, instead of trying to convince your partner he's wrong, you could try asking him to show you why he believes he's right. Imagine that you're a journalist interviewing a beloved musician or something, so that you come from a place of respect rather than antagonism. Try to understand what values and beliefs and knowledge are underlying his position, and then you might understand the source of the disagreement, and you'll do it without making him feel that his beliefs don't matter.
posted by PercussivePaul at 5:24 PM on October 18, 2012 [4 favorites]

I don't know if this will help you, but it was recommended to me just yesterday: Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most (says the overly-emotional person who cried in the office today.)
posted by peagood at 5:24 PM on October 18, 2012 [2 favorites]

I agree with the advice to stop and count before responding. Sometimes if my partner and I are in an argument and it's starting to get heated, one of us will stop talking and say "by the way, I love you." It takes the pressure off for a second and reminds us of the big picture.

When you get into a discussion, practice looking for points of agreement, rather than points of disagreement. Try to keep in mind that it's unlikely that either one of you is completely right or completely wrong.

Also, I used to thoughtlessly get fighty with my partner if I was tired or hungry or having a bad day and wearing a rubber band on my wrist was very effective in helping me break that bad habit. You could give that a try--for me, it was really useful to have a tangible reminder to stop and think before I said something snippy.
posted by JuliaJellicoe at 5:24 PM on October 18, 2012

Best answer: I tend to get really really invested in being right

why are trivial things like others' opinions in subjective topics (like politics/philosophy/etc) worth this kind of investment? a difference of opinion is not an attack or rejection of you as a person.

I used to be a really argumentative person (i thought i was 'passionate', most people who brought it up with me used the words 'vicious' and 'attacking'). I mostly got over this due to a long term relationship with a guy who, very early on, expressed his singular 'deal breaker' for the relationship: if I ever became prone to hyper-emotional arguments with a lot of name-calling or irrational threats, he was gone. Now I'm not accusing you of that nor am I saying that I was that bad, however, a hard line like that made me stop every single time I got angry enough to want to start shit with him, disagree in an insulting manner, call him an idiot, etc. Because I knew that was the line, when I got mad, before anything came out of my mouth I'd ask myself is this worth torpedoing the relationship over?. It never was. That understanding gave me enough time to think about what I was about to say and where I was taking the discussion.

a tactic that worked during the same time period with people who weren't him (like stupid coworkers) was to try to compose a haiku expressing my feelings before I responded to them. So if I wanted to shriek you're a goddamn idiot how can you believe that here are all the ten thousand ways you are wrong let me outline them for you since you are too stupid to comprehend them, before I opened my mouth, I'd come up with something like:

you are a moron.
die in a fire, dipshit
make the world better.

...this usually distracted me from the boiling anger, made me feel childish for both thinking it AND needing to compose a shitty poem about it on the fly, and amused me enough to not need to unload on them.
posted by par court at 5:36 PM on October 18, 2012 [18 favorites]

Do not assume that you know why he says what he says when showing his ignorance; even if his ignorance is oceanic, he may flub the occasional answer due to nerves or distraction (whether something visual or a stomachache or what-have-you) or simply to mess with your head. Provide whatever rationale you find theoretically acceptable.

I employ this method FREQUENTLY (whether while working with the developmentally disabled or during interactions with family, a friend, stranger, or verifiable pain-in-the-balls) and have seldom regretted playing it on the mellow side.
posted by mr. digits at 5:45 PM on October 18, 2012 [2 favorites]

One should add that this technique is suitable for all frustrating interactions, not simply when dealing with ignorance. I don't have to use the method FREQUENTLY when dealing specifically with the ignorant or whatever. Just clarifying.
posted by mr. digits at 5:47 PM on October 18, 2012

Best answer: There are two useful things you can use argument for:
1. To provide someone else with honest and compelling reasons for a new belief.
2. To help ensure that you discover the truth of a matter.
Note that these are essentially exactly the same thing - each participant can reason, each can teach and each can learn.
The rest is pointless self-destructive fighting and drama.

It sounds like you are generally attempting neither of these things, but instead your goal is to justify sticking to your guns. That's not a useful goal, and in addition to problems arguing with people, it will result in you thinking you are correct on subjects where you are actually wrong. It is better to be correct than to believe you are correct.

My method (which I think is pretty successful), is to never say anything unless I am saying it to directly work towards 1 or 2. Anything else is going to make the argument worse.

When someone else says things that are not 1 or 2, don't respond in kind, steer things back to 1 and/or 2.

In short, keep your eye on the ball. Making someone think you are right is not the goal. Discovering, together, what is the best position and why, is the goal. Anything else, just STFU and stay on target,
posted by anonymisc at 5:48 PM on October 18, 2012 [8 favorites]

Response by poster: I should clarify, it is not that he is showing ignorance, in fact I think part of the problem is that I tend to be somewhat self-conscious of his intelligence and feel like I need to "win" to prove I'm smart enough for him.

Kind of silly, I know. But insecurity is a tough one to beat.

Thanks for the answers so far!
posted by pandorasbox at 5:51 PM on October 18, 2012

Also, a promising suggestion I've heard is to always be holding hands while arguing.
It helps keep you connected and empathetic and communicative, making it harder to get angry and dismissive.
posted by anonymisc at 5:57 PM on October 18, 2012 [5 favorites]

Best answer: I think that arguing about politics or philosophy is way different than arguing about relationship stuff - how he treats you or what the boundaries are for cheating - or arguments at work when you are deciding on an actual course of action.

I used to be like you in both of these types of conversations. I am now incredibly more healthy and better received in both.

When it's the former - a debate about ideas that doesn't have "real" outcomes - we aren't actually deciding American public policy here, on our couch - there are a few things that I keep in mind to help me be better:

1. In these types of conversations/"arguments", it is more important to be liked than to be right.
Nothing is actually on the line. At all. Except your friendship/relationship/personal and professional networks. Why are we having this conversation? As a form of socialization and emotional/intellectual bonding. To strengthen our relationship.

2. I can loosely group people into two categories:

a. Those I like and respect, and whom I know have valuable ideas and perspective to offer. I need to converse with them in a way that reflects my affection and respect and is conducive to learning as much from them as possible.

b. Those I don't like or respect - I just totally avoid having these sort of idea conversations with them at all. (Who cares if they think I'm a ditz who doesn't know about politics? I don't care about them at all).

3. Coming from a totally self-interested perspective: I already know what I know. I learn absolutely nothing by talking.
The only way that I can personally benefit from this interaction is by listening and asking good questions. That's how I get something out of it: I will better understand the values/reasoning/thought processes/concerns of this person sitting across from me (who, as established in #2, I like and respect). Or I will learn something new and interesting. Or I will have my own ideas challenged. I gain nothing by being "right" (which in this case - let's be real with each other here - probably means "running roughshod over the other person in such an aggressive way that they feel compelled to admit they agree with me now while silently thinking I'm an asshole"). I have the potential to gain a lot by listening and asking questions - both interpersonally, and intellectually.

4. I have to constantly monitor my facial expressions, tone of voice, and body language. No eye rolling, no grimacing, no harsh tones or raised voice, no crossed arms.

5. WWBCD? What would Bill Clinton do?
Everybody thinks the dude is whip-smart and wonky and also super-likable and charismatic. WWBCD? He would listen intently, ask thoughtful questions, and look for areas of intersection - where do our values align? What fundamental moral agreement can we find off of which to base some some sort of further compatibility?

6. Catchphrases:
The most powerful thing is questions. Ask thoughtful, respectful questions. Try to understand your conversation partner!
"Yeah, that's a good point. I guess I just think about it a little differently."
"I hear where you're coming from. It's little different than how I usually approach it, but I totally see your point."
(with a smile or a chuckle) "This might be one we'll just have to agree to disagree on."
"It's a tough thing." "There's no right answer." "There are a lot of ways to come at this."
"Clearly we're not going to solve this one tonight."
"Let's call it a draw and I'll order another round."

7. Closing the loop to #1 - My goal in these conversations is to make my partner feel loved, respected, interesting. They will then (naturally) feel good about me.

(Read Dale Carnegie - How to Win Friends and Influence People. Seriously. It's all about making OTHERS feel good.)
posted by amaire at 8:38 PM on October 18, 2012 [9 favorites]

Pick up a copy of the book "nonviolent communication".
posted by ead at 10:01 PM on October 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

ask questions.

seek information and understanding of a viewpoint.

determine biases, bad reasoning, improper premises, faulty conclusions, defective argument techniques by way of questions and observation.

what you do next is an entirely different can of worms, but if you approach an argument as a puzzle, it's better than approaching it as a war.

a search for a "list of logical phallacies" (e.g. this ) turns up a lot of nice summaries of how some advocates try and win their arguments. it's worth studying to see what's happening in your chats.

again, what you do with that info is another thing. you may find you are dealing with an impoverished intellect, or you may see YOU are the impoverished intellect, or you may decide to find a more compatible opponent.

remember... ask questions.
posted by FauxScot at 3:54 AM on October 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

Get really familiar with these phrases.

"From my perspective, it looks like...."
"In my opinion...."
"When you do x, it makes me FEEL like y.."

The aim is essentially to acknowledge that perceptions can differ without someone necessarily being Wrong.
posted by corb at 7:51 AM on October 19, 2012

Best answer: I should clarify, it is not that he is showing ignorance, in fact I think part of the problem is that I tend to be somewhat self-conscious of his intelligence and feel like I need to "win" to prove I'm smart enough for him.

Kind of silly, I know. But insecurity is a tough one to beat.

I think a lot of people go into arguments and discussions like they are in a high school debate, and some imaginary objective third party judge is going to declare someone to be the winner. That's not really how real life discussions work or what the point of them is. If the discussion is about an actual outcome of something, like what you're going to do together on Thursday, then your goal should be to come to a unanimous decision that both of you are happy with.

Similarly, if it's a discussion about something more abstract like opinions on some topic, then I like to think of the goal as having some sort of shared understanding out the topic that you didn't have beforehand. That means as a participant, you have to look for something new to understand about the other person's position by listening to them and being introspective about your views, and you have to present your own views in a way that the person will most likely be receptive to them. So you have to be diplomatic about what you say and how you react, and things like zingers and put-downs that might make you feel like you're scoring points in the imaginary debate are counter-productive in terms of getting the other person to open up and consider your point of view. As with a lot of things in life you should try to make this kind of interaction win-win, even if one person is objectively wrong they should leave a discussion feeling like they learned something new that they hadn't considered before rather than that they just experienced a humiliating debate loss.
posted by burnmp3s at 7:54 AM on October 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

I have a post-in on my fridge of wisdom for arguments and for much of life:

Show up
Pay attention
Be honest
Don't be invested in a particular outcome

This covers a lot of the (specific and useful) things that have already been said, but is sometimes easier to remember in a particular situation. Each of the four items can be something you catch yourself out about.
posted by acm at 10:17 AM on October 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

I should clarify, it is not that he is showing ignorance, in fact I think part of the problem is that I tend to be somewhat self-conscious of his intelligence and feel like I need to "win" to prove I'm smart enough for him.

Kind of silly, I know. But insecurity is a tough one to beat.

Does he know this? Have you expressed to him specifically, "one of the reasons I get attacky is because I'm afraid I'm stupid next to you?"
posted by endless_forms at 11:35 AM on October 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

You could try to practice very simple mindfulness techniques during arguments or times you feel reactive in order to be more self-aware of what it is exactly that is upsetting you. It's basically taking a pause in the middle of the argument (or whenever) to notice what your breath feels like, the sensations in your body, and naming the emotion you feel ("there is anger", "there is judging", etc.) There's also this zen teaching of asking, "Is it true?" after every thought. There's lots of people with lots of different perspectives who feel right, obviously.

It's hard to put logical "strategies" into place when your response mode is more knee jerk.
posted by mermily at 7:16 PM on October 22, 2012 This is a good book.
posted by mermily at 7:19 PM on October 22, 2012

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