Like it or not – and, let’s be honest, most of the time we don’t – conflict and arguments come hand-in-hand with relationships. That’s not to say that they’re pleasant, or something that we should become accustomed to if they’re affecting us negatively, but arguments are normal – and could even be good for us, according to research from the University of Tennessee which found that couples who argue effectively together report having happier relationships.
Of course, the keyword there is “effectively” – no one wins when things turn nasty. But what does that mean, and how can you make sure that you’re arguing effectively, fairly, and – ultimately – resolving rows once you’ve got them out of your system? Whether it’s between couples, family, friends, or colleagues, we teamed up with relationship counsellor Bibi Jamieson to get to the core of conflict.
Before we get into the specifics of dealing with arguments, Bibi suggests that it’s time to shift your perspective entirely.
“The word argument is often seen as a negative one. However, an argument is simply an exchange of thoughts, ideas, or opinions, between two or more people,” Bibi says. “The way we communicate and respond to this exchange is what most people experience as ‘negative’, because it can be uncomfortable, especially when met with criticism, ridicule, or defensiveness.”
Do you ever wake up the morning after an argument and wonder what all the fuss was about? Perhaps because the thing you were actually arguing over was, ultimately, pretty insignificant, but things went from zero to 100 without you really noticing, or maybe old complaints snuck their way in? That’s what Bibi is referring to, that style of communicating different ideas is what leaves you feeling hurt, frustrated, and angry afterwards.
“Conflict arises when we have a different value system to another person – and why wouldn’t we? We all have different collective and individual value systems shaped by culture and personal experiences that make us the beautifully unique individuals we are,” Bibi explains.
So, once you’ve reframed your stance on conflict, the next step is to work out what your ‘conflict style’ is. Bibi asks, are you a hedgehog or a rhino?
“Rhinos charge into conflict, sometimes in an aggressive way, and they want to get it out in the open here and now. Hedgehogs avoid conflict, they roll up into a ball, and shut down, putting up their spikes so no one can hurt them,” she explains. “Knowing which one you are and how it affects others means you can be more considerate and understanding towards each other in conflict.”
These are traits that you may learn about a loved one with time, but there are other things that you can look out for immediately, whoever you’re speaking to.
Take a look at the other person’s body language, and also rework your own so that you are open and calm. “Rolling eyes, clenching jaws, crossing arms, or shouting are signs of hurt and anger, and will often trigger a similar defensive response from others,” says Bibi. “Reflect back what you observe, and what you assume it means. For example, ‘I can see you were really upset when I said that.’ This shows you notice and care about the other person’s feelings. It also gives the other person a chance to confirm or clarify, for example, ‘I’m not upset, I’m just really tired.’”
“If you start with blame, criticism, or contempt, you are likely to be met with defensiveness”
Of course, just because an issue arises, doesn’t mean that you need to address it there and then, or that you owe it to the other person to engage in the conflict. Know that you can and should set your own boundaries about how and when you are comfortable to face the issue – and also consider the same questions from the other person’s perspective.
“For example, starting a deep and meaningful conversation at 7am with someone who’s not a morning person is not a good idea!” Bibi says. “Think about where you argue, for example you can decide not to engage in arguments over text messaging, or at work. Boundaries can also be placed on how you interact physically, for example, ‘Please look me in the eye when I speak.’”
Go into as much detail with your boundaries as you need – “You can even discuss which swear words are acceptable and those that are not!” Bibi adds – and lay down your terms so that you create a safe space to have this argument. And once you’ve established that space, stick to the rules.
Coming hand-in-hand with setting up boundaries is deciding how far you want to go, and calling off the discussion if it’s no longer productive, or if you feel overwhelmed – because if you’ve ended up in tears, it’s unlikely that you’re going to be able to either express your point or take in the other person’s. So call it quits, for now.
“You could also discuss your stop signals or phrases during arguments that let the other person know that you are flooded, or too triggered to continue,” says Bibi. “In this case, tell the other person you need a break – or if you notice they are triggered, ask if they need a break. A pause allows you to calm yourself down and stops arguments from spiralling. Breathe, go for a walk, get some air, whatever it is you need to emotionally regulate.”
As you begin to tune-in to your responses, your ability to work out what does and doesn’t work for you when it comes to dealing with arguments will become much clearer.
“Talk about what you observe of each other and how it makes you feel. For example, ‘I go silent because I feel terrible that you’re hurt, and I can’t find the words to express that,’” Bibi suggests.
“Speak about common factors or events that lead up to arguments, reflect on conflicts you’ve handled well, make light of the silly ones – laugh about them if you can. This all helps to understand what your conflict style is, and discuss constructive ways to understand each other’s communication styles.”
We’re not saying that the knack of arguing effectively is something you’ll pick up overnight – it really does take time.
But it’s true what they say about things being ‘better out than in’. Our feelings and fears rarely go away on their own, and they can quickly consume us if they go unchecked. But when we learn how to express and be true to ourselves, and actively work towards a brighter future, the effects ripple out into the rest of our lives. And, that’s something worth laying down arms for.
To connect with a counsellor to discuss couples therapy, visit counselling-directory.org.uk
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