One of the most common causes of stress living in a social world is the disagreements that we can have with others throughout the day. Whether it is with a spouse, a coworker, a family member, or a child, disagreements are a natural part of communicating our individual opinions. Stress enters into this world when disagreements turn into fights. As our conversations decline to fighting, most of us feel the anxiety that comes from having to defend ourselves and the anger that often accompanies it. We can avoid these feelings if we learn to disagree better!
In order to avoid fights, we first have to identify some of the pitfalls that get us from civil disagreements to all out brawls. Being dismissive of others is a common complaint that often heats up a conversation. If we don’t take the time to listen to the other person and at least consider their perspective, then it is natural for them to get angry and not afford us the same luxury. This pitfall is a sign of disrespect that no one appreciates. Another trap that people fall into is letting the focus of the disagreement get away from them. We often begin a discord on one topic, but end up fighting about every little thing that has every annoyed us about the other person. We need to learn to stay on topic and not bring up any previous slight that we’re hanging on to- those are best discussed at a separate time. A third pitfall is when we attack every argument with the same energy and gusto no matter what the topic. It is important to learn to pick our battles. Knowing that we’re trying to avoid fighting, we need to ask ourselves “is this fight really worth the stress that it will bring me”. If the answer is no, then we need to have the strength and courage to move on.
When we get involved in an argument, we are often so wrapped up in our own feelings that we forget that the other party in the discord is feeling similarly. Empathy can be your biggest weapon in defusing fights before they occur. While we cling to our own perspectives, it is helpful to consider the perspective of your sparring partner. Are they as passionate about the topic as you are? Do they have some emotional connection to this topic? If we try to understand the perspective of the other person, it often leads us to a better grasp on why this fight is occurring. Even if we continue to disagree, empathetic disagreements often avoid some of those pitfalls that lead to fights.
It is also important to realize this simply fact: you can’t have a fight with only one person. We often feel like we need to defend our position and fight when challenged, but the reality is that this is not the case. If we are working to avoid the stress caused by fights, then the best weapon we have is the ability to avoid fighting altogether. Learn to avoid hot button topics that you know usually lead to fighting. Make efforts to eliminate people from your life who thrive on consistent conflict. Most importantly, remember that you don’t have to participate in an argument just because someone else wants to fight with you. This technique is particularly important for parents of teenagers who often seek out conflict as they search for their own identify.
If an argument seems inevitable, there are methods to assert your feelings in a way that can disarm your partner and reduce the stress involved. First off, try to use “I statements” as much as possible. “I statements” are a way of taking ownership of our feelings and problems and avoid throwing blame at others. Instead of saying, “You make me so angry when you don’t listen” why not try, “I feel like we’re not communicating well together”. The new statement feels less like a jab and more like an issue that we can solve together. Secondly, make sure you identify the change that you want to happen. Going into an argument with no clear plan of solution puts added stress on both parties. If you don’t know what change you want, perhaps that’s something you should consider before addressing the issue. Finally, try not to generalize your thoughts with words like “never”, “always”, or “only”. It's much more effective to say "I rarely get to go to parties, and I'd really like to go to this one." than to shout about how "You NEVER let me go ANYWHERE! I'm going to be the ONLY person not there!"
By learning to disagree better, we can reduce a great deal of stress from our daily lives. If we can be empathetic, avoid common pitfalls of arguments, utilize “I statements”, and be clear about the change we want to see then we can live happier lives with less conflict and more pleasant communication.
Bill Knor, LCPC
Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor