Disagreeing with people is about what you feel, not what you think. Don’t focus on what you’re arguing about, but why you are arguing.
- Don’t Try and Win
“You can’t win an argument. You can’t because if you lose it, you lose it; and if you win it, you lose it.” Dale Carnegie
Never try and convince someone you are right. People do change their minds, and the following techniques give you the best possible approach to making that happen, but it can’t be your goal. That’s because the mentality we take on during any act of coercive persuasion contains a litany of bad habits. It is a mentality of correcting the other person’s mistaken approach, but their approach will be inextricably tied to their identity. They will feel-what-they-feel and think-what-they-think because of everything that has happened in their life so far. When you try and correct that, you deny their worldview and identity; key aspects of their personality that they will want to protect at all costs. Your aim in any argument should instead be straightforward: express what you’re feeling and listen to what they are feeling.
2. Find Out What You’re Feeling (Hint: it’s always the same thing)
In a disagreement, you will get hooked on ‘content’. Whether your argument is about the dishwasher, the election or homework, you will begin constructing all the specific reasons you are right. These are not going to help you. In an argument the statements that are going to help you are going to be ‘I feel’ statements. ‘I feel’ statements are always true, in the sense that someone cannot deny your emotions, but they don’t necessarily imply any truth about specific content. I might feel that I load the dishwasher more often than you, but that doesn't necessarily mean I statistically do. Moreover, even if I statistically do, that still isn’t the point! Why not? Because the ‘I feel’ statement actually goes deeper. What you really feel is ‘you aren’t listening to my cry for more help with housework because you don’t care about me’.
Ultimately every single argument comes down to ‘I feel you aren’t listening to me because you don’t care about me’. The quicker you can move past the specific content of any argument to this core statement, the quicker you will actually resolve the disagreement.
“I feel you aren’t listening to me because you don’t care about me.”
3. Find Out What You Are Looking For In A Disagreement (Hint: it’s always the same thing)
As the previous point implies, you want two things from someone in a disagreement:
- You want them to listen to you
- You want them to tell you they care about you
4. Recognise That The Other Person Is In The Same Position
What’s true for you will also be true for them. All of the specific content they are giving you about the dishwasher is simply an expression of ‘I feel you aren’t listening to me because you don’t care about me.’
5. Listen To Them
They want you to listen to them, so do it! Active listening is the best method for this. Work to understand their position. Pay attention, withhold judgement, reflect back what they’re saying, clarify what they mean, summarise their position back to them. Put in the time and work to show that you care about their feelings about the issue. Demonstrate to them that you’ve understood what they’re saying.
6. Tell Them You Care About Them*
Continually reassure them that you don’t think they’re a bad person. Tell them you like them. Tell them things you like about them. Tell them that this disagreement is in no way reflective of you liking them less. Recognise their common humanity.
7. Ask Them To Listen To You
With no agenda of winning the argument or proving your point, you will find that you can make a gentle and sincere request to be heard. Simply tell them about your feelings, and try and do the work to connect these feelings to the core underlying statement (that you don’t feel listened to and you don’t feel cared for).
The great thing about this is that you can almost entirely avoid the specific content of an argument. Every time they try and get defensive they will bring the issue back to specifics, so you can just actively listen to that specific point and acknowledge their personal truth. By continually deescalating and not being provoked you can help them realise that all they have to do is acknowledge your feelings too! Tip: You can even tell them that’s all you need from them!
8. Ask Them To Care About You
Be vulnerable. When this disagreement arose it was because you felt they didn’t sufficiently care about you. So express that truth. It requires bravery because you are exposing your insecurity when you do it. But it creates an opportunity to heal the disagreement at a fundamental level. The second they understand that this is what the disagreement is actually about, you can get back to the human connection underlying your relationship. It will likely make them recognise that they were also feeling vulnerable and threatened, which provides a great opportunity for you to reassure them.
9. Find Common Ground
Once the argument has been de-escalated and both parties feel listened to and cared for, common ground will come easily. Make proactive suggestions to help the other person feel more comfortable. Hopefully, they’ll do the same. Look for a specific action that you will take to prevent the disagreement from happening again in the future.
10. Be Patient And Forgiving
Good conflict management often takes time. The specific content of an argument will always feel very ‘sticky’ and it’s so easy to be dragged into a wasted half-an-hour of going back and forth on it. Be patient and forgiving with yourself and the other person if this happens. Conflict management is really hard to do well! Every time you’ve realised that you have been sidetracked by specific content remind yourself of these core principles to get things back on track:
Conflicts end when both sides feel listened to, not when one side is proven to be ‘right’.
Conflicts end when both sides feel cared for, not when one side is proven to be ‘bad’.
P.S. Spend time doing something nice and light and fun together afterwards. Remind yourself of all the good things about the relationship. Remind yourself why you care about them.
*What If I Don’t Care About Them?
If you remain privately convinced that they are a ‘bad’ person who is ‘wrong’, then you can still deescalate the situation by showing understanding. Tell them you understand how they might have ended up feeling what they’re feeling. Even if you think they’re having a silly or inappropriate reaction, you can still practice empathy. Think about why someone might have ended up behaving like they do. Our worldviews are shaped by everything that has happened to us so far in our lives.
Ultimately in the longer term, you probably want to work to distance yourself from a relationship with a ‘toxic’ person. If they can’t make you feel listened to and cared for, then they are going to be a negative influence in your life. In fact, good conflict management is probably the number one thing to look for in someone you want to be close to.