By Heather Mandel
“Argument.” What does this word conjure up for you? If you’d rather just not think about it, you’re not alone. For many, the mere thought of an “argument” can trigger an array of unpleasant feelings, memories, and ideas.
For example, when parents argue, it can be extremely traumatic for children and end up haunting them as adults. Others have been involved in their own arguments that resulted in devastating outcomes like the loss of treasured relationships. No wonder so many people want to avoid arguments or conflict in any form, at all costs.
What is an argument, actually? And can it be a positive?
Although arguments carry a negative connotation for many people, they can and do serve positive purposes. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines an argument as: 1) a statement or series of statements for or against something; 2) a discussion in which people express different opinions about something; and 3) an angry disagreement. Unfortunately, it seems that a lot of people’s arguments fall into the third category when they really don’t have to.
In fact, knowing how to argue positively and constructively can prevent arguments from turning into angry disagreements. Better yet, it can result in a rewarding experience for both parties, where each learns something valuable about the other person’s perspective — or even ends up changing their mind for the better.
The challenge is that many people simply don’t know how to argue in a way that respects the viewpoint of the other person as equally valid. People tend to become very passionate about their ideas and opinions to the point of becoming blind or even obstinately opposed to other points of view.
Right vs. Wrong and Negative vs. Positive
The human ego loves to be right. It needs to be right! Often, it’s the ego’s need to assert that it is right — and convince the other person that they’re wrong — that causes so much negative conflict. If this need to be right goes unchecked, it can cause a person to become grossly defensive, as well as offensive and even violent in their words and actions. Then, what could have been a calm, constructive argument turns into an angry, destructive disagreement.
Ultimately, there is no objective “right” or “wrong,” as everything can be argued one way or the other depending on each individual’s perspective. Sure, things are fundamentally positive (e.g. love, acceptance, creativity) or negative (e.g. hate, intolerance, destructiveness) — but “right” or “wrong” are ultimately just ideas in people’s heads.
Even if someone has a deeply negative perspective that appears to be “wrong” to you — for example, one that stems from racist or elitist attitudes — it’s helpful to remember that they are entitled to their point of view, whatever it is, and however ignorant or misinformed it is. They just aren’t entitled to impose it on others, or to act on it in a way that harms or interferes with others.
And remember that you don’t have to remain in conversation, argument, or relationship with people whose perspectives and opinions you find negative, hateful, or disturbing. You can walk away and, if needed, end the relationship.
Is it possible to argue more calmly, effectively and constructively? Definitely!
Here are some simple ways to stop an argument from becoming negative and overheated, and to steer it toward productivity and progress:
Cultivate self-awareness and maintain the state of the neutral observer.
As you engage in the argument, decide that you’re going to detach from your ego and proceed as a neutral observer. Observe and monitor your reactions and responses. If you notice that your ego’s need to be right has taken you over, or the other person’s has — or both of yours has — stop the argument. (Raised voices are a good sign that it’s turned into a ego trip vs. a discussion.) Take a deep breath. Explain to the other person that you’ve realized the argument isn’t going anywhere positive and that it’s time to take a break. Resume when you can listen objectively, with your heart as well as your head.
Deeply understand that all perspectives are equally valid, and proceed from that understanding.
Everyone is entitled to their opinion and perspective, regardless of how misinformed or erroneous it may be in your opinion. It’s common that what one person thinks is sensible and sane will seem preposterous and insane to someone else. (Just observe two opposing political candidates debating if you have any doubt!) Understanding this will help you listen to what the other person is saying and actually hear them, value their perspective, and possibly even learn something from them. If you find you simply don’t agree with them, that’s okay; you can just accept that you are not going to see eye-to-eye on this issue, yet respect their viewpoint nonetheless.
Keep calm and carry on.
Staying calm and moving through the discomfort of an argument is important for people who shy away from conflict or passionate discussions. Remember, you can always walk away from an argument that has turned ugly — but don’t walk away from an argument you know you need to have, such as when you need to stand up for yourself or uphold your rights. Stick with it — stay calm, strong (but respectful), and speak your mind with courage and love. Conflict is often necessary to air the truth, arrive at compromise, move relationships forward, and grow.
Be open to changing your mind about the opposing viewpoint.
Sometimes we don’t see that our ego’s need to be right has gotten the best of us — making us obstinate and unable to hear or embrace an idea that might actually be good for us. Remaining open to changing your mind and allowing the other person to persuade you for your own betterment are indications of maturity, intelligence, and grace — not weakness.
What are your ideas on how to argue calmly, effectively, and constructively? Please share them in the comments section below.
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