By Fr. Garry Richmeier, CPPS.
For most of us, our last argument was not that long ago. Arguing seems to be simply a part of life for us humans, and a puzzle piece we have to figure out what to do with. Some people love to argue, and others avoid it like the plague. Arguing can be destructive or constructive. Which it turns out to be depends on what one’s definition of arguing is.
Often, we define arguments as two people (or groups of people) trying to convince each other that their view is right and the other is wrong. This usually is destructive, leading to the ending of relationships, gridlock in congress, tensions between countries that lead to war, etc.
A more constructive definition of arguing is a non-judgmental sharing of differing views. If two people are engaged in this type of argument, it can more easily lead to greater mutual understanding and the discovery of ways to go forward together in a constructive manner.
So what are some tips to help make arguments constructive rather than destructive?
First of all, some people argue just for fun, to pull each other’s chains or push each other’s buttons. There is nothing wrong with that, but both parties better be clear it’s for fun and not serious, otherwise, there can be problems.
One helpful tip is to always be aware that people don’t argue over unimportant things. It might seem like it, especially when two people are arguing over something like whether to paint the living room “sea spray” or “sandy beach.” But there is usually a deeper, more important issue involved when I engage in heated arguments, and it usually has something to do with a belief that something about who I am is at stake in the argument.
Maybe I need to defend my reputation in this argument, or my expertise, or my self-image or self-worth, and if I don’t win the argument, these things go down the tube. That is very important.
Many arguments between loved ones are about wanting to be assured that the other still cares. Some arguments are ways of asking “Do you care about my desire, opinion, preference, etc.” Which really means “Do you care about me?” If not, why am I in the relationship? And that is very important for a person to know, and arguing is one way we try to figure that out.
Another useful hint is to listen attentively. This means putting my opinion aside somewhat while I’m listening, and not just be getting my rebuttal prepared for when the other pauses. It also means listening for the deeper reason the other is arguing, which must be important to them. It’s good to ask clarifying questions to help me understand those deeper reasons.
When sharing one’s viewpoint in an argument, simply state it clearly in ways that make sense to the other. Use “I” statements, and try to explain how what you are arguing for is connected to the deeper values that most of us share.
Do not compare your view with the other person’s view, as if one is better than the other. Do not invoke others to prove you are right, like “Everyone knows that …” Be humble, clear, and non-defensive when stating your opinion, which will invite the other to respond in kind.
In an argument, it is always good to remind yourself that nothing about who you are is at stake. You have a right to your opinion, as does the other person. Don’t take it personally.
And finally, be clear on which arguments are really about important things and which are about less important things. Most arguments are not about life and death issues, so be willing to compromise, or agree to disagree. If the issue at stake is truly important, it may be worth continued discussion (argument) to reach a solution.
I hope some of these ideas can help you make future arguments a little more constructive rather than destructive.
All of the videos in this series can be found here: Assembly God’s Puzzle.
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[Fr. Garry Richmeier, a Precious Blood priest and spiritual director, holds a Master’s of Divinity Degree from St John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota, and a Master’s of Counseling Psychology degree from the University of Missouri-Kansas City. He is a licensed professional counselor and a licensed marriage and family therapist.]
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