Arguments are never fun, but more importantly, they are usually a colossal waste of time and energy. Different from productive disagreement, which can actually be a creative process in itself, an argument occurs when we stop listening to one another and simply defend opposing positions. What keeps us stuck in an argument with another person is usually the same thing that keeps us stuck in our own minds: black and white thinking. In disagreement, the solution is usually waiting for us in the grey area, and we gradually find our way to it by hearing one another’s differing perspectives on the same situation, and by considering multiple variables and approaches.
But if we allow normal disagreement to escalate into a full-blown argument, we lose the creative opportunity to discover a new shade of grey. Instead we polarize and see only one side or the other, blocking out the “grey” field of discovery. Here are some suggestions for navigating disagreement with composure in order to avoid polarizing arguments:
1. Stop Talking
This will likely be the hardest part, requiring the survival-based ego to take a back seat. Resist the urge to fight or debate, and instead, listen to the words your colleague or partner is saying. Anything that directly contradicts these words in the moment is likely to be perceived as an attack and could provoke defensiveness, the hallmark of a non-productive argument. Offense is balanced by defense. The less you oppose or attack the idea in question, the less you’ll trigger a defense of that idea.
Note what you are feeling and where you are feeling it in your own body. Exhale fully into this area. By intentionally focusing on the exhale, you stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, the switch that signals relaxation. Because humans tend to mirror one another, doing this offers a silent invitation for your partner to relax as well.
3. Stay Curious
Ask questions that solicit your partner’s point of view. It is not important right now if you agree with the point of view or not, only that your partner has space to fully express it and to be heard by you. Being heard is one of our most primary psychic needs. By meeting this need, you increase the chances of your partner shifting out of defensive, fight or flight mode and into a more relaxed state.
Thank your partner for expressing their view. If possible, end the conversation here with an agreement to continue later when you’ve both had some time to reflect.
5. Seek Permission
If a decision is immediately necessary, ask permission to express your own perspective. This step ensures that your speaking partner is ready to hear what you have to say. If you receive permission, express your view in a neutral tone and without critiquing or discounting your partner’s view. Allow both perspectives to exist simultaneously. It is from this apparent paradox that a “grey area” solution may emerge.
Note: It can sometimes feel unnatural or even “unfair” to approach a conversation this way, especially if your colleague or partner is confrontational or defensive, or if this is a disagreement you have had many times. If a sense of discomfort or unfairness comes up for you, take a moment to check in with yourself. What does the feeling signify for you? Do you still want to win, somehow, or be recognized for your patience or generosity? Are you judging the other person, or holding yourself up as superior? Be honest with yourself.
On the other hand, maybe this is an ongoing conflict and requires higher level intervention or a stronger personal boundary. What additional support might you seek to more thoroughly resolve this issue? If the goal is to avoid an argument, and you have done that to some extent, then you might instead choose to celebrate that achievement and feel good about the contribution you have made to your own and the other’s well-being.