Healthy relationships are a vital part of wellbeing. Without meaningful connections with others, we’re far more likely to be unhappy and unhealthy. While all relationships suffer less-than-perfect moments and disagreements, it’s how we deal with these situations that determines whether our relationships grow stronger or weaker. Here are seven tips to having a healthy argument with a partner, or anyone else in your life.
1. Respectfully engage
If the argument appears seemingly out of nowhere, try to de-escalate the situation, and find a moment to collect your thoughts. Changing your physical state – for example by taking deep breaths or going for a short walk – can help you to relax before re-engaging in the discussion. Ideally, make the other person feel valued by making yourself available to talk at a pre-planned time they’ve selected. Remove distractions and give your partner your full attention. Turn your cell phone to vibrate. At the beginning and at the end of your conversation, thank him or her for listening to you, and sharing their own thoughts and feelings. Convey presence and interest through paraphrasing what they’ve said, clarifying, and asking for feedback.
2. Begin with the end in mind
Visualize in advance the positive outcome you desire, and give words to it. Do you and your partner have shared goals you can leverage to frame the discussion? For example, if you disagree about household chores, perhaps your shared value of a peaceful home can anchor your discussion. Claim your piece of the disagreement, creating joint ownership of the issue at hand, and the envisioned solution. Get your partner’s support and buy-in by verbally “contracting” or agreeing to rewards for co-creating your positive outcome. For example, “If we can generate a chores list we both feel good about, we get to finally crack open that expensive champagne we’ve been saving.”
3. Ask positive questions
Using prompts like, "How might we ____?" frames the conflict as resolvable, and becomes a jumping-off point for new possibilities. Founder of the change movement Appreciative Inquiry, David Cooperrider has said that “human systems move in the direction of their persistent inquiry.” In other words, by asking positive questions – ones designed to generate a constructive response – you’re assuming the best of the situation, and that a satisfactory outcome can be achieved. In essence, you're changing the context of the discussion through language.
4. Sync up
You're on the same team, so your goal should be empathy, not persuasiveness or sympathy, which can surprisingly underscore the divide between you. Imitation and mimicry facilitate empathy, so if it feels comfortable, try mirroring the other person in small ways. Uncross your arms, lean in slightly, and look your partner in the eyes. When you are expressing genuine interest, you will naturally do this, but it doesn't hurt to practice. (In happy moments, this can even result in synchronized rhythms between the neurons in your and your partner’s brains.)
5. Spot the strengths
The more you can generate those positive emotional states, the more your communication will benefit. Neuroscience shows that positivity-infused communication can increase understanding, empathy, and even help people anticipate what others will say—all helpful ingredients during an argument. Developing a lens of character strengths (such as gratitude, optimism, justice, and self-regulation), prepares you to perceive and engage with your partner in a more positive way. This online assessment can help you and your partner to better understand each other’s natural areas of excellence and adopt a “lens of strengths.”
6. Describe, don't evaluate
Describe the object of your argument in objective language, trying your best not to ascribe judgment. Doing so minimizes defensiveness in your partner and provides them with helpful information. Say what happened, not why you think it happened or what you think it means. Describe the behavior or event, and its outcomes or reactions to it. (For example, "You didn't call to say you were coming home late, and I felt sad", not, "You don't care that I'm always home by myself.") When giving specific feedback, focus on the person's effort and strategies, not the person's qualities (or lack of character strengths!). This encourages continued effort and creative problem-solving by your partner.
7. Capitalize on the positive
The best way to settle arguments is to prevent them from happening. Psychology research shows that people who perceive their partners to be active and constructive responders to good events report fewer daily conflicts, engage in more fun and relaxing activities, and report more trust and intimacy. Instead of using a passive constructive response ("That's great. What's for dinner?"), really engaging the person in a way that allows them to relive the positive experience is the key ("Tell me exactly what your boss said when you got the promotion. How did you feel?") Believe it or not, the way our loved ones respond to good news (whether or not they "capitalize") is more important to the health of our relationship than how they respond to bad news. Capitalizing leads to increases in positive emotion, and more intimate, positive and trusting relationships.
Struggle and conflict are a necessary part of relationships and simply a fact of life. But by adjusting the way we communicate, both verbally and physically, and the way we approach a disagreement, we can minimize the destructive potential of these interactions. We build our deepest connections with our partners and others not by seeking to conquer, but by bringing out the best in one another.