People waste so much time arguing. You do, and I do. Some people say “I don’t like arguments” or, “I/we never argue”. That’s rubbish. We all do it.

Perhaps some of us don’t actually engage in verbal combat with others, but we still rehearse and re-run our arguments in our heads, sometimes at 4 o’clock in the morning.

Argument – the debating of a subject in order to reach consensus or an agreed conclusion – relies on reason and logic. It assumes that both parties are of sound mind and will discuss things according to the rules (of logic). From this viewpoint arguing is a civilized pastime uncoloured by emotion.

Arguments – the verbal equivalent of physical combat – are no-holds barred exchanges of vitriol and venom designed to gain advantage of the adversary by disabling them. Vitriol, in case you’ve forgotten, is the old name for sulphuric acid, and venom is poison, say no more.

Arguments cause untold harm. The irony is that nobody ever wins and nobody escapes unscathed (that is, everybody gets scathed). Fuelled as they are by passion, people in arguments are certainly not ‘of sound mind’. The whole idea of passion is that it makes us mad. Cultures everywhere equate anger with temporary insanity.

Do it right – learn to argue properly

The first rule is, Don’t. Arguments are destructive. Some people like to think that they ‘clear the air’, but why did the air need cleaning in the first place? Get a filter! Think of a filter in an aquarium that helps keep the water oxygenated and free of harmful matter. Fully functioning relationships don’t let things build up; they have mechanisms for talking, expressing views, understanding values etc etc. The same goes for ‘bringing things to a head’.

A second rule could therefore be, Learn to listen. Arguments frequently erupt when someone doesn’t feel heard, understood or valued. The process of listening properly (mindfully), opens up our thinking and engages both parties.

The third rule should really come first in any relationship (confused? Be patient I’m making these up as I go along). The third rule is: Agree the rules before you start.

Successful relationships of any kind, professional or private, have tacitly agreed rules of engagement. People know how to go about discussing potentially ‘hot’ topics and how to respond in a non-inflammatory way when one or other starts to lose it. They see the display of emotion as a signal of urgency, rather than an attack, and respond accordingly (by listening and acknowledging, for example, rather than defending or attacking).

If all this is a little too cool and detached for you, remember this. According to research psychologist John Gottman, 68% of domestic disputes (the things we all argue about at home like money, desires, parenting…), will never be solved.  That’s because they are not really the things we argue about at all, they are just triggers, or excuses.

See also

Get my free handout on Effective Listening.

Gottman, J. (2007), Why Marriages Succeed or Fail, Bloomsbury Publishing, London.