The Fight Club: How to argue well

Posted by in dating after divorce | 0 comments

A good fight is an art. Yes, you read that right. I believe it is a fine art to know how to argue in a productive way. My kids used to get annoyed with me for arguing a point when I disagreed with someone. I can’t help it. I feel a need to speak up when I have an opinion I want to express. But there’s a big difference between how I used to argue and how I argue today.

Couples argue. Period. Any couple who says, “We never fight!”, I would question the quality of their relationship. If they are communicating openly and honestly, they are going to disagree at some point. According to relationship expert John Gottman, PhD., here are the four worst ways to disagree:

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse

1. Criticism: Attacking your partner’s personality or character, I’m right and you’re wrong

  • Generalizations: “you always…” “you never…”“you’re the type of person who …”  “why are you so …”

2. Contempt: Attacking your partner’s sense of self with the intention to insult or psychologically abuse him/her

  • Insults and name calling: “bitch, bastard, wimp, fat, stupid, ugly, slob, lazy…”
  • Hostile humor, sarcasm or mockery
  • Body language & tone of voice: sneering, rolling your eyes, curling your upper lip

3. Defensiveness: Seeing yourself as the victim, and warding off a perceived attack

  • Making excuses: “It’s not my fault…”, “I didn’t…”
  • Cross-complaining: meeting your partner’s complaint, or criticism with a complaint of your own, ignoring what your partner said
  • Disagreeing and then cross-complaining “That’s not true, you’re the one who …”
  • Yes-butting: start off agreeing but end up disagreeing
  • Repeating yourself without paying attention to what the other person is saying
  • Whining “It’s not fair.”

4. Stonewalling: Withdrawing from the relationship as a way to avoid conflict. Partners may think they are trying to be “neutral” but stonewalling conveys disapproval, icy distance, separation, disconnection, and/or smugness

  • Stony silence
  • Monosyllabic mutterings
  • Changing the subject
  • Removing yourself physically

So what can you do if you notice yourself participating in criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and/or stonewalling?

1. Learn to make specific complaints & requests (when X happened, I felt Y, I want Z)

2. Learn to communicate consciously by speaking the unarguable truth

3. Learn to listen generously. Listen for accuracy, for the core emotions your partner is expressing and for what your partner really wants.

4. Validate your partner (let your partner know what makes sense to you about what they are saying; let them know you understand what they are feeling, and what they want; see through their eyes)

5. Shift to appreciation (5 positive interactions are necessary to compensate for one negative interaction)

6. Claim responsibility: “What can I learn from this?” & “What can I do about it?”

7. Re-write your inner script (notice when you are thinking critical, contemptuous or defensive thoughts; replace thoughts of righteous indignation or innocent victimization with thoughts of appreciation, and responsibility that are soothing & validating)

8. Practice getting undefended (allowing your partner’s utterances to be what they really are: just thoughts and puffs of air) and let go of the stories that you are making up

Thanks to relationship coaches/psychotherapists,  Bob & Marlene Neufeld for this excellent summary of the work of Dr. John Gottman.

How do you argue?


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