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Arguing Intelligently

There is a kind of truism that floats around periodically:

“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”
― Stephen R. Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change

Often when couples come to counselling with “lack of intimacy” issues, or “improving communications” goals, one of the places we might look first is at how relationship partners fight. Frequently we discover that the process by which they argue is one in which they (consciously or unconsciously) shut each other down, attack and retreat, defend entrenched positions for the purpose of being “right” or “victorious” rather than closely bonded, vulnerable, or intimate. Unfortunately, these arguments styles are only reinforcing patterns of disengagement and emotional pain, making it increasingly difficult to “come back from the brink” the longer these fighting styles continue.

There are a lot of reasons why people get stuck in these entrenchments, and often figuring out why is a big part of couples counselling; therapists will often do the background digging while also introducing new tactics and changed processes into how a couple might deal with conflicts. Changing behaviours without necessarily understanding how they twisted or broke in the first place can sometimes result in at best a bandaid solution: we can address what’s bleeding today, but the wounds festering under the surface will continue to eat away at the sense of connection if we’re not careful.

The fear of being wrong, the fear of not being heard, the perceived risks inherent in being vulnerable enough to even be open to an opponent’s perspective, let alone admitting they might be valid—these are all feelings that get in the way of changing how we engage during relational arguments. It takes a tremendous amount of courage to sit on top of one’s own emotional rollercoaster and explore understanding someone else’s perceptions and perspectives, especially in a heated moment. To figure out how to best approach being open and vulnerable when we’re feeling attacked is a core principle in Emotionally-focused Therapy (EFT), but its roots lie in the kinds of intentional interviewing approaches developed first as ancient requirements of philosophical debate and ideological critiquing.

Daniel Dennett provides an excellent summary of the four principles of engaging well in moments of debate and criticism, engagement rules that also apply very well to changing relationship argument styles:

  1. You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.
  2. You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).
  3. You should mention anything you have learned from your target.
  4. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.

When we spend our time “listening to reply” rather than “listening to understand”, we close ourselves off to the other person in the exchange. We’re too busy formulating our response, marshalling our own defenses, readying our own attacks. We’re probably operating from a place of emotional reactivity rather than the FAR more difficult place of receptivity. After all, who *LIKES* to be criticised, especialled in intimate relationships? So when we feel like we’re being attacked (critiqued), it’s natural for many of us to go on the defensive while preparing to return fire… and at that point, most of us aren’t in a place where we feel like being open and vulnerable is really a Good Idea.

But learning to reframe and return the things we listen for, while difficult, yes, is hugely worthwhile in terms of allowing each participant in the argument to feel heard and understood, even validated. We don’t have to agree, necessarily, with the perspective being offered, but in order to change how we fight (and improve communications overall) we do have to allow that ours is not the only perspective on the board, nor is it going to signal the end of the world if the other perspective is valid, or even (dare we say it?) right. Changing how we listen to allow for inclusion of other people and perspectives is a big part of making improvements that move us back towards healthy intimacy.

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