Tag Archive for arguments

Your Family & the Tough Conversation

Families face tough conversations in today’s world. Whether focused on politics, your teen’s level of freedom, sexuality, or which swimsuit your children can wear, these conversations can quickly become emotionally tumultuous. Hurtful words may “slip out” and relationships can be damaged. Knowing your family’s conversational style provide a first step in making these conversations more productive.

Research on conversation styles in families has identified four categories of conversation styles in families. The styles fall along two dimensions: conversational orientation and conformity. Conversational orientation represents how much and how spontaneously families talk about multiple topics. Conformity refers to how much family members feel expected to conform to the views of one or two family members. With that in mind, let’s briefly explore each style.

  1. A laissez-faire conversation style is low in both conversational orientation and conformity. They place little value on conformity and communication. They tend to have limited conversation and share few topics. Family members can differ in opinions and each person is encouraged to make their own decisions with little input from family. As you can imagine, families using this style of conversation often lack intimate, emotional  connection. They tend to be disengaged from one another. Because of the lack of support given in decision-making, children often grow to question their ability to make decisions.
  2. A protective conversation style is high in conformity but low in conversational orientation.  Communication emphasizes obedience to parental authority and conformity. Parents see little reason for explaining the reason behind decisions and simply expect the family to conform. As a result, differences of opinion are not generally discussed. Unfortunately, positive conflict resolution and communication skills are not practiced either. So, when disagreements do naturally occur, the only way to resolve them is to conform to the authority’s decision. Once again, you can see how this limits family intimacy as well as the healthy development of self-knowledge and communication skills.
  3. A pluralistic conversational style is high in conversational orientation and low in conformity. These families have open, unrestrained conversation on a wide range of topics. Parents accept children’s opinions and decisions providing they are well supported by reason and explanation.  Conflict is addressed using positive conflict-resolution strategies and generally resolved. Family conversation is valued as is independent and autonomous thinking. This style does promote competence in communication, confidence in decision-making, and conflict resolution. However, since it is low in conformity, the family tends to be permissive, which can result in more behavioral problems. Ironically, permissiveness also tends to contribute to lower self esteem in children.
  4. Finally, a consensual conversational style is high in conversational orientation and conformity. This creates a tension between the pressure to agree and so maintain the existing hierarchy on the one hand, and open communication and exploration of ideas on the other. These families strive to balance independence and conformity, expression and understanding. Parents encourage children to voice their opinions and ideas but invest energy and time in explaining their own values, beliefs, and decisions to their children. Discussions are acceptable and encouraged but volatile conflict is generally thought of negatively. As a result, the family does model and teach problem-solving and conflict resolution skills. They also develop more intimacy and connectedness.  

The question to ask yourself as you move toward having the tough conversations is: which type of conversational style describes your family? How will that conversational style impact your approach to the topic? How does your style influence your goal? Is your current style the one you want to continue using or would you like to approach this topic differently?  Do you utilize the same style in relationship to your children as you do in relationship to your spouse? Will this conversational style change as your child matures? How?

Knowledge of your family’s conversational style and the answer to these questions will begin to help you successfully engage in the tough conversations with your family.

In Marital Conflict, “What” Is In Charge

When it comes to conflict with your spouse, “what” is in charge. Not who, “what.” If left to its own devices, the “what” in charge of your marital conflict will leave no “who” in charge. Let me explain.

In many marital arguments, anger and fear represent the “what” that takes charge. Anger and fear shape our reactions and our words. When anger takes charge, it may lead us to blame our spouse or our parents or our boss…anybody but ourselves. Anger may also direct us to belittle our spouse, maybe even call our spouse a few names. When anger is the “what” in charge of conflict, the result in disaster.

Fear is “what” takes charge of marital conflict even more often than anger. Fear, in fact, is often the true commanding officer of the conflict and anger merely fear’s emissary. Fear, if it does not turn to its emissary anger, will lead us to become defensive, distant, or avoidant during the marital conflict.

When anger or fear take charge of a conflict, there is no “who” in charge. Anger and fear have formed a coup and taken charge…and the results are disastrous: blaming, defending, belittling, feeling rejected, emotional distance, more anger, and more fear. The hurt caused by anger and fear puts us on guard, ever vigilant for the next slight, the next provocation. There is no security and no winner when anger and fear are the “what” in charge of your marital disagreement.

None of us want fear and anger to run our martial conflict. So, “what” do we want to take charge of our marital conflicts? Empathy. Empathy commands us to listen and intentionally work to understand. Empathy directs us to seek connection and intimacy above “winning” or “being right.” Empathy calms the fear and resolves the anger. “What”—anger, fear, or empathy—may take charge of your marital conflict, but “WHO” determines which “what” will take charge. “Who” will make that decision? You. Only you can choose how you will engage in the conflict. Only you can choose which “what” will take charge of the marital conflict—anger, fear, or empathy. You, only you, can choose your response. Be the “who” that takes charge of the “what” that shapes your response during marital conflict.

Step back. Take a breath. Choose “empathy” as the “what” to direct your conflict. You will be so glad you did. And do you know “who” else will be glad? Your spouse.

Those Aren’t Fightin’ Words

Every couple has their disagreements. Parents and teens have disagreements as well. Sometimes those disagreements escalate. Emotions flair. Words fly. We say things we wish we had never said. Rather than letting the escalation go that far, try doing or saying something different, something to calm emotions and deescalate the situation. Here are some words to try. Believe me, “these aren’t fightin’ words.”

Even if you disagree:

  • “Good point.”
  • “I’m glad you explained that to me.” “
  • “So, you’re saying that….”

To move into a conversation:

  • “Explain that to me one more time. I want to make sure I understand.”
  • “I’m not sure I really understand. Can you explain it more?”
  • “I understand why you would want that.”
  • “I see. That makes sense now. Have you thought about…?
  • “I hadn’t thought about that before.”

If it starts to escalate:

  • “You’re really passionate about this aren’t you?
  • “I can tell this means a lot to you.”
  • “You sound angry/upset/ frustrated.”
  • “I have trouble listening when you speak that way. Could you speak more calmly (or ‘change your tone’ or ‘lower your voice please’?”
  • “I’m feeling overwhelmed, can we take a break and finish this conversation at (note a time)?”

Good to say at any time…and all the time:

  • “I love you.”
  • “Even if we disagree, we’ll figure it out together.”
  • “I’m glad we’re together.”
  • “We make good team.”
  • “I love you.”

These phrases are what John Gottman calls “repair statements.” They can help calm emotions during a disagreement and keep you on track for a positive resolution. Give them a try. You’ll be pleasantly surprised.

Help, My Child ALWAYS Argues With Me

If you’re a parent, you’ve had the experience. You know the one. It’s the experience of making one simple request of your child only to hear them start to argue with you…AGAIN! Suddenly, the last few days come to mind and you notice that every time you said something to our child it turns into an argument. And, every time they spoke to you, it became an argument. Those days of arguments feel like weeks and those weeks suddenly feel like months of constant arguing. I know the feeling. So, if you’ve ever been there, if you’ve ever thought “Help. All my child does is argue,” here are a few tips to help stop the cycle.

First, recognize that arguing is normal for children. It provides them the opportunity to practice using their developing cognitive skills. It helps them assert their growing independence. It even provides them the opportunity to think through their priorities, values, and morals. After all, it’s a lot more effective to let mom and dad debate one side than to debate both sides of the argument in my own mind.  Knowing that arguing is developmentally appropriate means you do not have to take it personal. It’s not about you. It’s all part of the process of growing up. Let them bump.

Second, arguing is not about being right. Again, your child is asserting independence, testing your fortitude, practicing cognitive skills. You can focus on the relationship rather than proving yourself right and your child wrong. You can focus on connection. Remember, your child learns best from those they feel connected to, those with whom they have a relationship. As a rule: connect first, teach second. Relationships rule.

Third, sometimes the best way to stop the cycle of arguing it to not argue back. Take a breath, bite your tongue, and do not argue back. In fact, as soon as you take the bait and respond with an argument, you have given your child the power. By NOT engaging in the argument, on the other hand, you teach your children how to have a respectful argument with someone they disagree with.

Fourth, acknowledge your child’s stated concern and implicit feelings. Many times, our children simply want to be deeply heard. When you restate their concern and reflect their feelings back to them, they will know you are listening. They will learn you value them enough to listen deeply. They will feel deeply heard and trust you more. A simple pattern to assure you listen deeply is to say something like, “It sounds like you feel ‘x’ because ‘their statement of concern.’” After they confirm you understand, you can follow up with a statement like “Let’s work on that together” or “Could I explain my reasons as we work together on this.” This will open the door to discuss the issue at hand and, more importantly, connect with your child.

Arguing is normal. It is not about you. It is an opportunity to connect with your children while learning more about them and their development. So, do NOT simply argue back. Listen. Learn. And work together.

A Card Game to Change the “Same Old Fights”

I love this quote: “What makes conflict so painful is that we are desperate to be heard but too upset to listen, desperate to be understood but too upset to be understanding, desperate to be validated but too upset to validate. What can help you get what you need is [a] willingness to stoke even a small ember of empathy for your partner’s experience.” (Dr. Alexandra Solomon)

An incredibly wise statement. Arguments are not resolved without listening, understanding, and validating. Unfortunately, the heat of a conflict sends us into a fight or flight mode, making it extremely difficult to listen, understand, and validate. So, what can you do? Here is a neat little “card game” that can help you become less “desperate” and more able to listen, understand, and validate. It demands some prep time, but the results can be wonderful.

Preparation:

  • Think of the tone of voice that escalates your conflicts. Then, write down the tone of voice that will help prevent an escalation. This may include calm (vs. agitated), gentle (vs. harsh), soft (vs. loud), sincere (vs. sarcastic), and any others you think of. Make one note card for each positive tone of voice.
  • Think of the words and phrases that escalate your arguments. Now, write down words and catchphrases to help calm an escalation. These might include repair statements John Gottman talks about. They can also include phrases that affirm your love for one another, phrases like “Even when I’m upset, I still love you” or “We can disagree and still love one another.”
  • After you have made these cards, put them around your house—on the fridge, on the mirror in the bathroom, on your dresser drawer…where ever you will see them throughout the day and where ever they will be readily available to you in the “heat of the moment.”

Playing the Game:

  • Now that the cards are spread throughout your house, make a point of reading them as you go about your day. Say them out loud when open the fridge, look in the mirror, or any time you see a card.
  • If (when is probably more accurate) you find yourself in an argument with your spouse, recite one of the cards. If you struggle to remember what any of them say, walk as you talk and read the cards along the way. Walking and looking for the right card as you talk may change your argument in and of itself…may even make you laugh a little.
  • Also, as you read the new statements and follow the new tone of voice directions, you will be changing your style of argument for good.

You may even find yourself better able to listen, understand, and validate. Better yet, doing all this will turn the argument into an opportunity to learn about one another and grow more intimate. Now that’s the way to win a great card game!

“Yeah, but…,” “Yes, and…”, “Your Marriage”

I like to do an exercise with families and couples struggling to communicate effectively. The exercise involves three parts and is taken from an improvisation exercise. In the first part of the exercise, the couple attempts to have a conversation by replying to everything their partner says with some form of “No.” Variations on “no” can include, “That’s wrong,” “Never,” “How stupid,” “How can you do that to me?” or a simple roll of the eyes. As you can imagine, this conversation is very short in the office, but they can go on for days in the home. A “no” response blocks connection. It tends to either end the conversation or lead to an angry response that escalates into a cycle of blaming and defending.  As you can imagine, done consistently this type of response will kill a relationship.

The second part of the exercise changes the response from “no” to “Yeah, but….”  You can imagine the simple conversations that follow. “It’s sunny outside.” “Yeah, but it’s hot.” “Yeah, but we can swim.” “Yeah, but the water is probably cold.” “Yeah, but….” Is it getting irritating yet?  Yeah, but it can go on in some relationships forever. In life outside my office, “yeah, but” responses may not even include those words. They may sound more like “You did it (yeah)…(but) finally” or “That’s not a bad job (yeah with the implied ‘but it could be better’)” or “That is good work (yeah)…(but) for you.” The “yeah, but…” conversation blocks connection as well. It quickly becomes frustrating and may even escalate to arguing. It will also kill a relationship.

The final part of the exercise changes the initial response one more time. This time, all responses start with “Yes, and….” “It’s sunny today.” “Yes, and it’s hot.” Yes, and we can swim.” “Yes, and the water is probably cold.” “Yes, and that will feel good!” Not near as frustrating. The “Yes, and” conversation accepts the other person’s statement and adds to it. It builds connection through acceptance. It builds cooperation. It opens the door for a deeper and more intimate conversation.

As you finish reading this description, take a moment to reflect. Step away from the “Yeah, but that will never work in my marriage” and the “Yeah, but you don’t know my spouse.”  Pause and consider the “Yes, and I’ll give it a try” or “Yes, and I’ll find out if it works in my marriage.” You might be pleasantly surprised.

3 Elements of a Healthy Marriage

Healthy marriages face challenges. Any time two different people from two different backgrounds with two unique sets of values and communication nuances work to become one unit (a marriage), you are bond to have some conflict. Fortunately, challenges and conflict do not cancel out a healthy marriage. In fact, challenges and conflict present wonderful opportunities to grow more intimate as a couple…as long as the couple handles them with grace. How can couples handle challenges and conflicts with the grace that brings intimacy? Here are 3 suggestions.

  • Embrace the Conflict. Conflict happens. You might as well accept it. In fact, turn toward the conflict. Recognize the moment of conflict as an opportunity to learn about your spouse. Listen carefully to their point of view and you will discover amazing things about your spouse. You will discover that wrapped inside the conflict and your spouse’s emotions is a treasure chest overflowing with information about their values, fears, hopes, and dreams. 
  • Accept the 69. Gottman found that couples who returned to his “love lab” as part of ongoing research would often have the same disagreements they had even five years ago. In fact, his research revealed that about two thirds of all conflicts are unsolvable. They represent differences of personality and style. You could address them with anger and impatience…but that will not change anything. It will not strengthen your relationship. And, the conflict will remain. So, what can you do? Healthy couples do not avoid the conflict or disagreement. They learn to manage them differently, with honor and grace. For instance, they learn to use humor and repair statements during their disagreements forge strong marriages. They also believe and practice point number 3 below.
  • You Need Two Honest Voices to Forge a Strong Marriage. That means couples need to talk about hard feelings, frustrations, and conflicts as well as the celebrations and joys. (Because it ruins a marriage to Shut Up and Put Up.) No matter the content of the conversation, we must remain respectful and kind, even when we might disagree. We must listen, especially when we disagree. When handled with care and love, healthy relationships can handle two opinions. When both people remain open, both people feel accepted. When both people listen, both people feel heard. In the process, both people learn and grow more intimate with one another. Their love grows as they resolve their solvable disagreements  and as they learn to accept their unsolvable conflicts with grace and love.

Yes. Healthy marriages face challenges. Healthy marriages embrace those challenges because you need two honest voices to forge a strong marriage.

The #1 Goal of Marital Arguments

Have you ever thought about the #1 goal of marital arguments? At first glance, you may think the goal is “to win. To make my spouse understand or see it my way.” But that is NOT the most important goal, the one we desire most. Let me ask the question differently. Do you want to make your spouse “see it your way” if it means damaging (or worse yet, destroying) your marriage? For most disagreements (at least 99% of them), the answer is “no.” We don’t want “to win” an argument with our spouse at the expense of our relationship. You may have had an experience like this in your marriage though. You disagree with your spouse and, after exchanging a few heated words, you “prove your point.” Your spouse concedes. They give in. They say you are right. You walk away knowing you “won the argument,” but feeling dissatisfied, disconnected from the one you love. In fact, you’re probably thinking about how to repair the relationship, how to reconnect and feel close again. No, we do not want to win at any cost.

If the #1 goal of any marital argument is not to win, what is it? The #1 goal of any marital argument is to connect in a way that makes both people feel safe and secure. You have probably had this experience too. You and your spouse have the same disagreement mentioned above. You even exchange a few heated words about it. But, somehow, when all is said and done, you feel closer, more connected. You’re not really sure who “won,” but you know you understand your spouse better than you did before the argument and your spouse understands you better as well. You feel connected…and as though you have both “won.”

How do you achieve this #1 goal of any marital argument?

  • First, see your spouse. Look at them. Don’t just look at the issue, the frustration or the anger of the moment. Look at your spouse. Soften your gaze. Recognize your spouse. We all long to be seen. Give your spouse the gift of being seen by you.
  • Pay attention to your spouse’s emotions. Do they look and sound angry, frustrated, hopeless, happy, passionate…. Accept their emotion. When your spouse reveals their emotions, they are opening themselves up like a book for you to learn about them and their priorities. Read this precious book carefully, lovingly. Do not just glance at the book. Get curious and read between the lines. Look deeply to find the priority behind the emotion. It may have little to do with the disagreement you are having and more to do with their sense of security and safety.
  • Accept that your spouse may have a valid point of view. Many issues have more than one valid perspective. Much like the group of blind men trying to describe the elephant, you and your spouse may both have valid perspectives, even though they differ. See your spouse as the intelligent, loving person you married and accept that they may have something important to add to the issue, something important for you to hear and know.   
  • Graciously delay voicing your own point of view until you understand your spouse’s point of view. Lovingly defer your desire to be proven correct until you can understand how your spouse’s perspective seems right to them. This takes patience…a patient delay of your own right to be heard. Such patience is an act of love for “love is patient” (Paul, 1 Corinthians 13:4).
  • Listen. Listen carefully. Listen intently. Listen sincerely. Listen completely. Listen until you understand your spouse’s perspective and they know you understand their perspective. Listen.

As you practice these 5 actions, you will find a growing emotional connection with your spouse. You will also find arguments resolve more easily and more quickly. Hmmmm, a more intimate connection with the added bonus of a quicker resolution? Now that is a great goal for marital arguments!

How Happy Couples Fight

Couples have disagreements. They argue. They get angry at one another. But many couples remain happily together in spite of this. How do they do it? How can a happy couple still have marital problems? That’s the question that a group of researchers (Rauer, Sabey, Proulx, & Volling) set out to answer. To answer the question, they looked at two groups of heterosexual married couples. One group was in their mid-to-late thirties and had been married an average of nine years. The other group was in their early seventies and had been married an average of 42 years. Researchers observed the couples discussing marital problems. This is what they discovered.

  1. Happy couples focused on issues with clear solutions first. This involved issues like distribution of household chores or how to spend their free time. The solutions to these problems were more concrete, measurable so to speak. Focusing on more solvable problems built up both partners’ sense of security in the relationship. It strengthened the sense of “we” in the relationship as they worked to successfully solve these “issues.” It helped to enhance intimacy.
  2. Happy couples rarely focused on those problems that involved more difficult solutions. They focused less on those perpetual problems. Perhaps more difficult-to-solve problems threatened each partners’ confidence in the relationship. By focusing on the more solvable problems, they built a solid base of security that allowed for the greater possibility of solving some of the more difficult problems through willing sacrifice and difficult compromise as well.
  3. Couples married longer reported fewer serious issues. They also reported arguing less overall. This, in combination with other research, suggests that happy couples learn to prioritize their marriage. Over time, they come to realize that some issues just aren’t worth the argument. They learn to choose their battles wisely.

So, how do happy couples fight? In the words of the Grail Knight in Indiana Jones, they “choose wisely.” They choose to focus first on those solvable problems in their marriage. Doing so builds a foundation of trust, a strong sense of security. It is a practical way of prioritizing the “we” of their marriage above the individual. This foundation allows them to solve some problems that remain more difficult to resolve. As they do this, they learn to prioritize their marriage above individual wants and desires, even those desires one partner may believe to be a need. Ironically, they even learn that some of those “difficult-to-solve” problems really aren’t as essential as they use to believe. They just aren’t worth the argument. The relationship is more important. And rather than watching their marriage decay in the pain of bad decisions (like the man who drank from the wrong cup in Indiana Jones), they focus on gaining the intimacy, wisdom, and joy of a happy marriage. They “choose wisely.”

After the Fight: Cold War or Intimate Harmony

Every family has conflict. It’s inevitable. Couples are going to disagree and argue. Siblings are going to clash, compete, and struggle with one another. Parental wisdom and desires are going to collide with their children’s push for independence. These skirmishes can create a cold war within the family; or, they can promote an intimate harmony within the family. What makes the difference?

Researchers from the University of Texas at Dallas asked the same question. To find an answer, they recruited 226 cohabiting couples to keep an online diary of their conflicts for two weeks. They also gave them a checklist of behaviors to indicate how they resolved their conflicts. The checklist had 18 possible post-conflict behaviors that fell into one of four categories. (The 18 post-conflict behaviors and the four related categories were determined from a previous study by the same group of researchers.) At the end of the two-week period, each couple came to the lab where they engaged in “discussions” centered on two of their conflict issues, one chosen by each partner. The researchers observed each couple’s arguments first-hand in this setting. They discovered that a cold war or a more intimate family resulted not from the argument itself, but from which of the four categories of behaviors their post-conflict actions fell into.

  1. Avoidance, one of the four categories of post-conflict behavior, was more likely to result in a cold war. Such practices might include “pretending” like everything is fine even though no resolution was reached, not talking about it, or just ignoring the issue. As you can imagine, avoiding the issue does not make it go away. It only makes it worse. At best, a cold war can ensue. At worst, Shut Up and Put Up can Ruin Your Marriage.
  2. Letting go, another strategy couples use following a conflict, had in mixed results.  Letting go can work wonders for small issues like whether the toilet paper goes over the top or the bottom (top, of course) or whether the toothpaste is squeezed from the middle or bottom (bottom, obviously). But letting go can prove much less effective in larger issues…and, in such cases can lead to a cold war. Gottman suggests that 69% of marital issues are “perpetual problems.” They are unsolvable. They may be the result of differences in personality (extraverted vs. introverted, for example) or lifestyle (desire to travel, level of  house clutter tolerated, etc.). When it comes to “perpetual problems,” we need to accept the ways in which our spouse is different than us. At the same time, these issues don’t go away. Couples will continually return to them in their disagreements and arguments. To keep them from destroying the relationship, couples must learn to approach the conflict of “perpetual problems” with gentleness, personal responsibility, and humor. They must learn to build an overall environment of gratitude and appreciation into their home. Letting go, in and of itself, is incomplete and not effective in the bigger, more perpetual problems.
  3. Gaining new perspective, another post-conflict behavior, sounds like a great option. We are often encouraged to take our spouse’s perspective. Taking perspective can help us gain understanding and build a willingness to compromise…maybe. But if the compromise is one-sided or given begrudgingly, it can lay a root of bitterness, lingering ill-feelings, or even anger at the lack of perceived reciprocation. The result? A potential cold war. So, quit taking your spouse’s perspective and become more like a fly on the wall instead.
  4. Active repair, the final category of post-conflict behaviors, stood out above all the others in effectively promoting an intimate harmony and happiness. Active repair builds harmony through intentional listening, expressions of affection, and learning to give it up to lift up your marriage.

Conflict, disagreement, arguments…they can lead to a cold war or they can promote a more intimate harmony. It all depends on what you do after the conflict. What will you do? Avoid? Let it go? Gain new perspective? Work toward actively repairing the relationship? The choice is clear. Actively repair will promote more intimate harmony…and that is well worth the effort.

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