Normally we think that arguments are a bad thing for relationships.  Recently however, researchers at the UCLA medical school reported that constructive arguments are good for you. Not only can they improve the relationship but the experience of arguing constructively actually improves your immune system and increases  our defenses against disease.  Today we’re going to talk about: How to have a Constructive Argument.

What is a Constructive Argument ?

For some the very term, “constructive argument”, may sound like a contradiction (like a jumbo shrimp).  Experiencing anger is difficult for everyone and toxic to many.  There is a common fantasy that, in good marriages, anger can be avoided and that conflicts can be resolved without dealing with negative emotion. What hooey !

In real marriages, conflicts occur frequently and not without intense emotion.  Sometimes the emotion is hidden but it’s there, nonetheless. The problem is that folks don’t know how to handle intense negative emotion that is involved in dealing with conflicts and fall into one of two traps. Either they escalate a disagreement into a nasty fight or they avoid addressing the conflicts altogether.

Constructive arguing is a third alternative, i.e. a method for resolving interpersonal conflicts which acknowledges the reality of strong negative emotion but manages it reasonably (constructively).

Five Steps to Arguing Constructively

1. Prepare.  (Don’t be impulsive)
Unfortunately, many attempts to address conflicts are done impulsively, under duress where in both parties are locked into a fixed position.  The predictable result is the everyday argument which involves unpleasant and unproductive  emotional expressions such as yelling, cussing and name calling. These outbursts distract and confuse the flow of the argument and prevent it from reaching a resolution.

— Thinks about the problem before bringing it up
— Define the problem carefully and objectively.
— Review past attempts to deal with issue and identify the impasses.
— Write out an outline of your concerns
— Share. Give outline to your partner and schedule a time to talk. ( This advance notice gives him/her a chance to think and prevents “ambushing”.)

2. Be Realistic (Let go of unrealistic expectations)
Accept that dealing with differences:
— Is a very difficult but necessary skill to acquire. (You can’t avoid problems forever.)
— Involves dealing with upset and unpleasant feelings. (They’re not fun but you won’t die.)
— Take time, effort and compromise. ( Nothing that’s really important is easy.)

3. Maintain Empathy
–Decode: Understand what you hear
Remembers angry statements must be Decoded to be understood. (Don’t be Literalistic)
The best way to handle emotion and keep it from ruining the discussion is to understand that personal attacks don’t mean what they seem to mean. They are like a code or foreign language  which needs to be translated to be understood.

For example, when a person in a discussion is frustrated by a conflict that has no obvious resolution, s/he may shout at or ridicule  his/her partner. ( You’re stupid !)  This response is often  followed by, “Oh yeah, you’re stupid.” and the fight is on.

Decoding cuts through the attacks and gets to the underlying fear which is the source of the angry expressions. For example a name-caller feels frustrated and  powerless (too small) to  cope with his/her partner. Thus s/he  “raises” his/her voice or makes a cutting remark to cut the partner “down to size” in order to feel bigger and stronger.

Although it’s counter-intuitive, the louder a person is in an argument, the weaker he feels. If your image of your partner is non-threatening, it is easier to think straight. Realizing that your partner feels weak allows you to respond with empathy. Empathy is important because it helps us to remember that our partner is not the enemy and that we really do love him/her.  Remarkably, empathy has the power to  reduce not only our fears and our partner’s anger  but also restore reason to the conversation.

— Be careful what you say
Translate  Anger and Fear into I-Statements ( Don’t  Attack or Counter-Attack )
Likewise, responding with non-offensive I-statements reduces the risk of the emotion escalating.

4. If things get heated, take a break (Don’t Force the Conversation)
A major problem for ordinary arguments is the inability to stop talking when things have gotten out of hand.  In spite of the best decoding efforts, sometimes things just get over-heated .  When they do it is important to recognize the impasse and call time out. Trying to force a conversation when one or both partners has become distraught is futile and  exacerbates the situation.   Having an agreement and signal which indicates you need a break can keep things from getting worse .

5. Keep at It ( Don’t Give up)
Make a commitment to sticking with the process until it is resolved. This commitment may involve several thorny discussions.  I have found that, although difficult, most* couples experience real progress if they are willing persevere and not give up. Most importantly, working through problems is what leads to deeper intimacy and trust in a relationship.

The Rev. Michael Heath, LMHC prepared these remarks  for Bridge Street  10/26/2011.

*Obviously if things aren’t working, no matter what you try, seek professional help.