Q: “I hate getting into arguments, I never know what to do. What’s the most important thing I need to know?” - Bethany



A: Have you ever asked yourself, “what is the purpose of an argument?” Or more specifically, “what is the purpose of this argument?”

When we get into arguments, it usually takes us by surprise and we become reactive. It’s not something we really think through. So, I imagine, the idea of questioning the specific purpose of the argument never once entered your head. But, it should be the first thing you do! Otherwise, you are just swinging wildly and causing a lot of collateral damage for no reason.

Is the purpose to change the other person’s mind? Because that never happens. EVER! No one ever changes their mind on the spot because they were beaten down in an argument. If that’s your purpose, forget it. You are just wasting your breath.

Is the purpose to hurt the other person? That’s wrong, destructive, it makes you no better than them, and you will regret it later.

The 4 possible positive purposes of an argument:

1. Clear up misunderstandings

Almost all disagreements are based on some kind of misunderstanding. Trust me, it’s true. Even when you think the situation is obvious, there’s almost always some kind of misunderstanding. If an argument is based on personal/relationship drama, this is almost always the purpose you should choose.

WHAT TO DO:

If your goal is to clear up misunderstandings, then there’s no reason for personal attacks or accusations. Stay calm, despite the other person’s emotions, let them know that you are sorry for anything that may have made them upset and that you think there’s a misunderstanding here and you want to help clear it up.

For this interaction to be productive, you both need to be on the same page. Instead of each of your focuses being against each other, your focuses should be pointed in the same direction. You should both be focused on trying to discover where the misunderstanding is. You are on the same team with the same goal.

Instead of making accusations, you need to spend your time asking questions. Ask them for specific details so you can hear their side of the story. Try to get as clear of a picture as you can so you can hopefully identify where the misunderstanding is.

Try to identify the motivation behind each person’s actions. Then try to identify the motivation behind their motivation. Ask yourself if you might have done the same thing if you were in their shoes, and had the same past experiences they did. Maybe their motivation stems from their being abused as a child and that’s something you can’t understand (unless of course you were abused as a child).

If the timing and place isn’t right to have an open, personal talk, then suggest you schedule a heart to heart talk at a time and place that is better. You want to be able to open up about private things. This is very important because as soon as you start asking them why they had the motivations they did, things can start getting very personal very quickly!

2. Learn from each other

This is usually the case when the person has a very different view than you do on an issue. The reality is that neither of you are going to change each other’s mind. But, 99% of the time there is more to the issue than you realize. And 99% of the time you do not fully understand the other side.

Trust me, I can’t count the number of times I’ve been humbled to realize how much I misunderstood the side opposite mine!

WHAT TO DO

Instead of arguing, ask questions. Try to learn as much about their position as possible. Why do they believe what they do? How do they explain certain inconsistencies you have noticed? Does the person have a more personal reason behind what they believe? What is it?

Almost all controversial issues have a gray area. If things were truly black and white there wouldn’t be many people on the black side. And there’s no rule book that says every problem has to have a perfect solution. Usually, all the possible solutions to issues have downsides and drawbacks. This is a great chance to learn more about the drawbacks of your solution and some of the positives to another solution. It doesn’t mean you are changing your mind. It just helps you know more about the issue and how to relate better to others.

Don’t see yourselves as opponents, but rather two people on the same team, with the same ultimate goal (to make life better), but with two different philosophies of how to achieve that goal.

3. Put a pebble in their shoe

I love this illustration. I first heard it from Greg Koukl. You can’t change the other person’s mind right then. But, you can give them something to think about, something that keeps bothering them (like a pebble in their shoe). Eventually, it might motivate them to start down the road leading to a change of heart. Most of the time it doesn’t work, but sometimes it does!

WHAT TO DO

You should go about this just like #2. Learn as much as you can from them. Ask questions. Don’t try and outright convince them, it won’t work. If they ask you questions, answer honestly. But, if you believe you are right, then leave some pebbles in their shoe. Have you ever gotten a pebble in your shoe before? It just keeps annoying you every time you walk on it. Eventually, it drives you nuts and you have to take it out. [Note: Don't actually leave a pebble in their shoe. I'm fairly sure that will not help your cause, and might actually get you punched in the face.]

Be nice and respectful. The more aggressive and prideful you are, the more they will be repulsed from whatever you say, and emotion will prevent them from changing their mind.

If you want the other person to eventually change their mind, you need act in a way that will give you the best chance of succeeding! Your best chance is to tell things from your perspective. Honor their beliefs and ideas, but then tell your story in humility. Put yourself below them and be humble. Tell the story of how you came to believe what you believe and the things that convinced you. Don’t try to force it on them, just tell your story.

The more they like you, the more likely they are to change their mind later.

People don’t want to be forced into changing their beliefs. They want to feel like they discovered it on their own. So don’t be forceful. Just tell your story and let them figure it out on their own.

Pebbles are best placed inside questions. Instead of using a strong rebuttal as a “gotcha”, place it in the form of a sincere question. Just ask “so how do you respond to people who say…”. This way it’s not you who is confronting them. And no matter how stupid their answer is, don’t push the issue. Just let your “pebble” rattle around in their shoe. (Again, not a real pebble. Seriously, I know there’s one person out there…)

4. Blow off steam

Sometimes, emotion just builds up and needs to be released. This can be very dangerous, though.

WHAT TO DO

Usually when people come at you out of nowhere and start attacking you, they are needing to release anger and/or frustration. The most important thing is to not get defensive! It’s really hard, because your natural reaction is to fight back. But don’t! Just realize that they are just needing to blow off steam and are taking it out on you.

Sit back, and wait it out. Let them get it all out of their system. Show a look of concern/sympathy on your face and only say things like “I’m so sorry you are upset” and “Oh man, that must have really been hard for you”. Forget what they are saying, it’s how they are feeling that matters.

Later on they will feel horrible for what they said and will probably apologize. Then, if there’s something you two need to work through, you can talk about the issue calmly and reach a solution. But anything defensive you try to do while they are emotional will just escalate it.

If you find yourself needing to blow off steam as well, recognize it and go blow it off somewhere else. Beat up a punching bag or something. Don’t go complaining to anyone who knows the people involved, that can come back to bite you. Talk to someone who doesn’t know the people you are talking about and express your emotions that way.

Then, when you are calm, approach the person and clear up the misunderstandings (as in purpose #1 above).

If you are both needing to blow off steam, it’s a good idea to stop the argument right there, and explain that you are too emotional right now to have this conversation. If you must continue the argument, make sure to only say how you feel and stay away from any accusations. Never say “you did this/that” or “you never/always…” or pretty much anything that starts with the word “you”. Only say “I feel…”, “I’m really hurting…”, etc. Verbally express your emotions, not what the other person did.

Bottom Line

So next  time you find yourself starting to get into an argument, ask yourself which 4 of these is the purpose of this argument, then do what’s necessary to achieve that purpose.

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- Jim Graham
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