Arguing Constructively: Go for Understanding, Not Venting

April 6, 2021

This post is an updated version of an article I wrote a few years ago entitled, “How to Argue Constructively.” I’m including it here on because it may help you get the flavor of my approach to couples therapy and communication skills.

State Your Purpose to Achieve Understanding

One characteristic of constructive arguing is to have a common, realistic purpose. If you typically argue to win, you could be stuck in the mode of I’m-9-years-old-and-arguing-with-my-brother-in-the-back-seat-of-the-car. A constructive argument is one where the effort and tension bring about a good result for both people without damaging the relationship. To do this, it’s helpful if one person states the purpose.

For example, Rhonda might say, “There’s something I want you to understand about…” “I know we don’t agree about where to go on vacation, but will you hear me out?” In this example, the wife discerns that neither of them are close enough in their thinking to press for a decision. She is wisely content with promoting understanding, if he will listen. But the conversation quickly turns tense with each of them firing reminders at each other.  Rhonda and her husband Mark are trying to use what they have learned in couples therapy sessions.

She takes a few deep breaths, resisting the urge to fill the silence. During the few seconds of silence, she slips into observer mode and rightly sees this argument is going down the wrong path. “I’m not trying to get you to decide tonight. I’m just wanting you to give me a chance to try a different way of explaining my point of view.” She is restating her purpose. By doing so, she relieves the strain on the engine of the conversation by taking her foot off the gas pedal of intensity. Note to self: we are not arm wrestling.

Another way to state the purpose effectively is to stop; let the silence hang. For example, Rhonda’s husband, Mark, might say, “It’s more important to me that we understand each other even if we can’t agree.” The part about “even if we can’t agree” is essential because many people use the phrase “understand me” to mean “agree that I am right.”

When you state your purpose during the argument, word it in such a way that it affirms the relationship and respects the person. Your purpose is to understand and be understood. Your purpose is not to win or convince. Plant the seeds of your ideas gently, respectfully. If some progress is made toward understanding each other’s concerns, consider that success. Then, circle back another time to talk further.

Your Purpose Is Not to Vent

There is a mindset that you must find if you want to have arguments that don’t routinely exhaust you or discourage you. The mindset of a constructive argument involves a conscious decision to resist the urge to vent. Venting can often be healthy and helpful. But if you want to argue in a way that solves problems, you must have a larger purpose than just getting things off your chest so that you feel relieved.

In fact, you must brace yourself to counter several of your own communication-destroying urges: the urge to say everything you are thinking, the urge to deliver a low blow, the urge to get verbal revenge. The list of potentially damaging urges during a fight goes on and on.

Here are a few steps you can take during an argument that can help you develop a mindset conducive to constructive arguing:

  • Learn to check in with observer mode every 1-3 minutes. Yes, that’s right. Watch the clock.
  • Consciously decide against venting and sarcasm at the beginning of the argument. If you catch yourself hurling sarcastic barbs, then you are probably venting. Take a deep breath, slow down and switch gears.
  • Extract and defer hot topics for later. Topic surfing is so tempting, but it just inflames emotions and suffocates understanding. Use this phrase to avoid following rabbit trails, “I’m willing to talk about that, but only at another time.” “Right now we are talking about…”
  • State the point you are trying to make concisely at least twice.
  • Ask your “partner” to explain something again and then listen without interrupting. It shows good faith that you are trying to listen and not just be heard.

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