Thursday, July 1, 2010

We Can't Work it Out: 10 Keys to a Non-Productive Argument

Conflicts in relationships (romantic, familial, professional, etc.) are a fact of life. Hopefully they are infrequent, rather than characteristic, but they do seem to be unavoidable at times. A conflict or an argument can be a double-edged sword, however; an argument can either be a chance to get to know your partner better (and thus create deeper intimacy), or it can be destructive to the relationship.

If your goal is to destroy the relationship and create heartache (not to mention heart-burn) down the road, these ten key principles will help you reach your goal as quickly as possible.

(Of course, if you'd prefer to practice good communication skills with your partner and build the relationship, even in the midst of an argument, I recommend practicing the exact opposite of these ten principles.)

1) Use "you" statements - In order to sabotage an argument right from the start, it is important to make a lot of statements to your partner that begin with the word "you." For example: "You don't care about me," "You are so insensitive," "You are so blind," etc. For maximum effect, pepper these statements with passive-aggressive qualifiers that lessen your responsibility for having made the statement. For example, "You apparently don't think I'm important," "I guess you don't care what I think," and "Obviously, you aren't listening." These are value-loaded statements that cast your partner in a morally deficient light, and are guaranteed to invite hostile, defensive come-backs. Avoid statements that require you to take ownership for your feelings; owning the responsibility for the way you feel leaves the possibility open that you might have misinterpreted something. Never say, for example, "I feel neglected," "I feel misunderstood," "I feel like I'm not being heard," "I feel hurt," and so on. This might leave the door open for your partner to say, "I'm sorry you feel this way, how can I help you feel better?", and that might lead to conflict resolution.

2) Assume the worst - Ringo is the model to mimic here. When he sang, "I'm sorry that I doubted you, I was so unfair," he was giving an example of how to assume the worst about your partner. Your partner doesn't show up on time? Assume it's a personal assault on your feelings, and not that there may have been a hair-losing car crash. Giving someone the benefit of the doubt is a good way to avoid further angry arguments. If your partner leaves his dirty underwear on the floor for the 19th time in two weeks, assume it's because he just knows this will drive you crazy, and he's doing it on purpose just to be insensitive (this is a great opportunity to make another generalized "you" statement, such as, "You always do this, just to annoy me!"). If your partner decides to go out to the movies with her girlfriends and doesn't invite you along, assume it's because she doesn't want to be with you (capitalize on this with another value-loaded "you" statement, such as, "You clearly don't enjoy my company!"). If you assume your partner is someone with good-will, you run the risk of not even being able to start a relationship-destroying argument.

3) Invalidate your partner's feelings - It is very difficult to continue an argument if your partner refuses to follow principle #1 above, and insists on making statements like, "I felt disrespected when you were flirting with that girl at the checkout." However, all is not lost. You can continue to add fuel to the argument simply by invalidating or minimizing your partner's feelings with more "you" statements such as, "You're being too sensitive," "You have no reason for feeling that way," "You're being ridiculous," or (one of my favorites), "You shouldn't feel like that." This is especially easy to do if your partner has misunderstood you or misinterpreted your actions. If he says, "I felt ignored by you today," simply come back with, "I wasn't ignoring you." This effectively removes your partner's basis for even feeling the way they do, and invites further defensiveness: "You were too ignoring me!", to which you can retort, "I was not!", and on it goes. Never surrender any ground by acknowledging the validity of your partner's experience by saying something stupid like, "I'm sorry you felt disrespected, that must have made you feel insignificant," or, "I'm sorry you felt ignored today, you must have felt very alone inside." Just remember, "nothing is real," not even your partner's feelings and experiences.

4) Hide your true feelings - If your partner attempts to validate your feelings and thus bring resolution to a conflict, you must bury your feelings and show no vulnerability. If your partner has done something to make you upset, and he says something sensitive, such as, "You seem irritated right now, is there anything I can do to make you feel better?", deny that he has accurately read your feelings. Say something like, "No, I'm fine," and then walk away, or say, "No, it's nothing, it's just something stupid, don't worry about it," and refuse to go any further into detail. This will allow you to nurture the bad feelings towards your partner, which will help you build a reservoir of hostility over the next few days, weeks, or even months. Only when the negative feelings have fully ripened should you execute the surprise "reveal," preferably in the context of a future argument, thus blind-siding your partner (if he says something like, "I had no idea - when I asked you about this earlier, you said everything was fine," then you know you have succeeded). Emotional vulnerability paves the path to intimacy and conflict resolution. Always, always, always hide your feelings away.

5) Manipulate - Manipulation is a great way to prematurely end an argument, get your own way, and leave issues unresolved so that they can ferment, grow rotten, and be brought up again in future arguments. Be subtle about it, though. If you and your partner are arguing, for example, about how to spend your tax refund, you can manipulate the situation by resorting to a blend of steps 1, 2, and 4. Try a statement like, "Well, I can see why you wouldn't want to spend that money on a new couch, because you know how much I wanted a new couch [assuming the worst], and you apparently don't care about what I want [passive-aggressive "you" statement and assuming the worst], so just forget it about it, I don't care anymore [hiding your feelings]." If all goes well, your partner will key in on the "you don't care about what I want" statement, and, in an attempt to go above-and-beyond to prove the opposite, will surrender to your wishes. Even if this does not work, and your partner takes at face-value your statement, "I don't care anymore," this gives you the chance to nurse the grudge and bring up the incident at a later date. Macca succinctly communicates this principle with the lyric, "While you see it your way, run the risk of knowing that our love may soon be gone."

6) Get your point across - Some people think that the goal of communication is to get to know your partner by seeking to understand them, thus building intimacy. This is decidedly not conducive to destructive arguments, so instead, follow the principle that communication is about stating your point of view, no matter what. Talk longer, talk louder, repeat yourself, and generally do whatever it takes to keep your opinion in the forefront. Once your partner has heard your point of view, disconnect from the conversation. You have been heard, mission accomplished, no further need to listen to your partner or make sure you have reached an agreement. Dialogue is not nearly as important as monologue. Bombard your partner with words and don't give him or her a chance to reflect those words back to you in order to guarantee mutual understanding. If you do it right, your partner will surrender out of sheer exhaustion and just to get you to shut up.

7) Make demands - This is a variation on key principle #1 above, because it relies on "you" statements. The subtle twist here is that these statements will begin with "demand" words, such as, "You need to," "You should", "You can't", and so forth. These are value-loaded statements as well, implying that if your partner doesn't act on what you say, or disagrees with you, he or she is clearly in the wrong. For example, "You should spend less time watching movies" implies that your partner is doing something morally deficient, and is far more punchy a statement than saying, "I would like it if you spent less time watching movies." Or again, saying "You need to quit working so much overtime" is much more conducive to an argument than saying, "I'm worried about how much overtime you're working, I would feel so much better if you were able to cut back." Those kinds of statements imply that your partner has the freedom of choice, which rarely leads to a good, old-fashioned verbal barney.

8) Qualify your apologies - Saying the words "I'm sorry" can diffuse an argument faster than you can wink. However, you can still say the words, which puts you in the superior moral position, while simultaneously qualifying the apology in such a way as to undercut its sincerity. Simply add the words "if" or "but" to the apology. For example, "I'm sorry I offended you, but you shouldn't have gotten so upset." Or again, "I'm sorry if I said something to hurt you, I didn't know you'd take it that way." The "but" quickly shifts the focus away from your partner's feelings and sets the stage for the next point of argumentation; the "if" implies that you really don't empathize or even agree with your partner's feelings (see #3 above, on invalidating your partner's feelings and experience). It would be too easy to simply say, "I'm sorry you felt offended by what I did," or "I'm sorry that you felt hurt by what I said." Always qualify the apology; not only does this leave the door open to continue the argument, but now you can always go back to the statement, "I already apologized for that!" This will leave your partner feeling unsatisfied with the apology (because there was no empathy or validation of feelings), and it gets you off the hook for the perceived offense.

9) Surrender your position - This goes hand-in-hand #4 above, hiding your true feelings. Some people believe that an argument can be resolved in such a way that both parties are allowed to retain their point of view. It's called "agreeing to disagree" or "reaching a compromise." Of course, everyone knows that an argument can only end when one of the parties bends to the other person's will and gives something up. If you cannot manipulate your partner into surrendering to your wishes, you can take the path of conflict avoidance by simply surrendering yourself. Statements such as, "Fine, we'll do it your way", or "You know, it doesn't matter to me anymore" allow you to end the argument without any lasting resolution. It also allows you to play the victim and wallow in martyrdom, while simultaneously giving you a trump card to play in a future argument. If you surrender your position without reaching real resolution, you can effectively put your partner in a position of future obligation ("you owe me one"), or ongoing guilt.

10) Bail out early - Emotional detachment is a relatively quick way to end an argument without reaching resolution or building intimacy. You can disconnect from an argument very early by simply walking away and ignoring the problem, hiding your true feelings (see #4), surrendering your position (see #9), throwing in a terse "I don't want to talk about it," or promising "we'll talk about this later" without ever following through on that promise. Bailing out of an argument sends the message, "I'm not really invested in this relationship, or in you," and reduces the risk of emotional vulnerability; it prevents further honing of communication skills, and creates obstacles to intimacy. This is a sure-fire way to create an environment for future no-holds-barred arguments, in which any one or more of these ten key principles can be put to use again. With any luck, you can destroy a perfectly good relationship within a few short months.

blog comments powered by Disqus