It Takes Two to Argue

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Arguing is one of the most upsetting events we experience in a lifetime, and it has a tremendous potential for damaging relationships. But I believe that if you don’t want to argue, and you have the skills, you can stop arguments before they start.

Anatomy of an Argument

Before I describe a specific method for staying out of arguments, let me describe the essential features of arguments that make them so painful and keep people arguing. Generally, arguments don’t happen without some perceived injury to one or both parties. Pay special attention to the word “perceived.” If someone is actually harmed, but they don’t notice it or don’t put much stock in it, an argument will not ensue. On the other hand, if the injury is entirely imaginary, that’s more than enough for a knock-down, drag-out fight. In the realm of arguments, perception is king.

The second essential ingredient to an argument is emotional upset. An “argument” without emotional charge is a discussion. While perceived injury is required to start a fight, high emotions are necessary to sustain it. Arguments persist because strong feelings drive us into fight-or-flight mode. One of the most pronounced and damaging aspects of this state of consciousness is that logical reasoning is difficult or impossible during strong emotional upset.

So here we have two human beings, using language: a logical system for conveying meaning, and the logical parts of their brains are shut off. It’s no wonder that arguments seem to leap between topics at random and we sound like lunatics when our angry words are quoted back to us when we’re calm.

It Takes Two

Now that we’ve identified the two necessary ingredients for most verbal fights, we are ready to look at methods for defusing arguments or converting them into discussions. In some sense, an argument is like a fire. Every firefighter knows the fire triangle: fuel, heat, and oxygen. Take away any of these conditions and the fire will stop. Arguments are like fires in that they rage out of control and seem to defy our desire to extinguish them. But like fires, if you can deny the argument its essential components, the argument, like the fire, will “go out.”

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What makes arguments different from fires is that there are at least two people, both of whom may have perceived injuries and emotional upset. In a classic argument, one person starts with an injury and quickly develops emotional upset. They express this, verbally but aggressively, to their counterpart, who may feel injured in turn either by what’s being said or how it’s being said. The battle is begun with two people who are injured, emotional (and therefore partially or wholly irrational) and possibly even screaming at each other. With both partners so engaged, there’s no easy exit from the argument and these types of fights have a tendency to go on and on, and then flare up again days later.

Tug of War

For a fully-involved argument, perceived injury and emotional upset must be present on both sides of the fight. Another great visualization for an argument is a tug of war. One person’s injury and upset can be likened to how hard they’re pulling on one end of the rope while the other person’s injury and upset opposes it on the other end. With these forces in balance, nothing can end the contest. As in tug of war, an argument can only last as long as both people agree to “pull,” or to remain in upset and perceived injury.

So now we come to the hard work for people who wish to end arguing in their lives. If you would not have arguments, you must commit and practice not “picking up the rope” of an argument. This is difficult. We naturally and unconsciously match our emotions to those around us, so if someone comes at us angry, anger can arise in us before we have time to think much about what’s happening. When someone throws up a grievance in our face, there is a very normal desire to defend ourselves and debate whether this injury is real or perceived. Both these tendencies make arguing natural, but not necessary.

Finding motivation to avoid arguing is important. What mattered for me as I learned these skills in my own life was that by avoiding joining in an argument, I could keep better control over myself. I came to know that an angry person didn’t have to make me angry. I had a choice. Understanding that when someone is angry or upset, they aren’t themselves in a very real sense, I chose not to take what they said too seriously and that allowed me to escape feeling injured by that person’s words. I worked on holding their viewpoint separate from my own and resisting the urge to “pull them over to my side.”

Improved self control is wonderful, but the biggest benefit of refusing to join in arguments is the effect it has on others. If someone was upset with me, I made it a point to get as calm as I could. Instead of them pulling me into anger, I was pulling them out of it. It didn’t work every time, but it worked often enough that I was motivated to keep developing the skills. When they threw up their grievances at me, I resisted the impulse to argue back. I learned to listen to them and even convince them I heard what they were saying. It becomes almost farcical to argue with someone who demonstrates they understand your point.

Learning to resist being dragged into the emotional state of others and to resist arguing about whether an offense is real or imagined takes time. It doesn’t always calm the other person down, but if you don’t go to where they are, and don’t contradict what they say (no matter how absurd) they may still be angry with you, but you need not argue with them ever again.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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