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a “fine” argument

January 21, 2014

Fine. That’s how arguments often end don’t they?

Them:  “Fine.”
You:     “Fine!”

Two people separated. Ironically, at some point the argument often includes the improper use of something that is meant to hold things together.

Them:  “Screw you…”
You:     “No. Screw you!”

Assignment of blame occurs.

Them:  “I cannot believe you could be so insensitive.”
You:     “Me? You’re the one who called me fat.”
Them:   “I didn’t say you were fat, I simply said that the clothes dryer wouldn’t shrink your pants that much.”
You:      “You meant that I had put on weight.”

Expressions of disinterest follow.

Them:   “Look, I don’t want to have this discussion again. I didn’t mean anything. I have enough to do with an inbox full of crap.”
You:      “Well you may as well get comfy in the study because you aren’t coming back in here!

And then it is all fine.

Them:   “Fine.”
You:      “Fine!”

You don’t have to have been on this earth for all that long to have been a witness to, or a participant in, some version of that conversation.

When we are in it it takes almost no time to realise that our reactions are making things worse. We know in our gut and from the look on their face that we have been a contributor to the damage that was just done to the relationship.  Someone said or did something apparently minor that provoked a response that triggers attack and counter attack and before you know it the argument has spiraled out of control.

It might have started over a perception about physical characteristics – height, weight, skin or hair colour, tattoos and piercings (or lack thereof); it could have been around race, religion, nationality, tribal group, sporting group, employment status, occupation, competency, writing style, dietary preference or sexual orientation.

In the end it doesn’t really matter.

The participants in the conversation (argument) are now not speaking to each other, stewing over what was said, doing everything they can not to have to face each other and wondering why they even bother maintaining a relationship with this other person.

So after fine arguments like these, why do we bother?

Because you want to.

We all do. We want to be with other people. We need to.

It is possible to survive for a while without others. But even Bear Grylls will tell you he just has to survive long enough to find other people. Other people provide us with what we need to live.

Surviving alone is not the same as living.

We need to be in relationships. That is why we bother and that is why it matters. It is our interest in retaining and maintaining relationships that causes us to respond the way we do. It is our interest in retaining and maintaining relationships that gives us the emotional charge. The stronger our desire to maintain the relationship, the stronger the emotional charge we feel when we feel the relationship is threatened.  As a result, many of us choose to fight to protect what we do not want to lose.

So we attack, we blame, we insult and then we withdraw and lick our wounds. It is a textbook example of believing the best defense is a good offense. It works well in a sporting arena but not so well in the relationship arena. It is an option you should definitely consider exercising should someone come at you with a sharp object, but one you should consider putting aside if they come at you with sharp words. Easy to say, but how do you do it?

The key thing to remember is that if you didn’t care so much about the relationship you wouldn’t be fighting so hard to protect it.

Stop, take a breath, and recognise that you are being presented with an opportunity to improve the relationship by making a different choice.

Viktor Frankl tells a story that shows us why the space between the stimulus and the response is where we have the greatest power to change the course of our lives. Create the space. Make a choice.

If the argument has resulted from criticisms of your competency, can you request some suggestions for how you can improve? Is it that you haven’t properly understood the standards that are being applied in this particular situation? If deep down you share their view about some aspect of your work, can you request training or mentoring so that you can improve?

If the argument has resulted from some comment or criticism of some physical characteristic or dietary preference, can you share with them what you have just heard them say to check that what you heard was what they meant? Is there something you can share with them that might help them to see the situation differently?

Of course, none of that guarantees a constructive end to the conversation. You may be speaking with someone who holds deep-seated prejudices and lacks even the basic interpersonal skills.  In response to your requests or offers they make increase the ferocity of their attack on you. You might find yourself reacting in kind again. And again. That’s OK. Old habits die hard.

And if you don’t remember any of this until you have come away from a particularly nasty argument – congratulations on taking the first step! Maybe next time (and there will always be a next time) you will be closer to the middle of it all when you remember that you have other choices you can make.

***

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