- Do your arguments end with someone stomping off in anger, the silent treatment, or with the ever popular, “Of course you’re right because you’re always right!”?
- Do you resolve angry feelings for another by revenge – “forgetting” to pick up his/her contribution to the January office birthday party celebration, answering your cell phone while he/she is speaking with you, or leaving the toilet seat up (the toothpaste cap off, hiding the remote, deleting fantasy football updates...)?
- Do you resolve angry feelings by becoming a martyr – stating how much the other person’s behaviors have “hurt” you, pretending to not know what the other is talking about when he/she brings up an issue, or managing conflict by tearfully insisting you were “…just trying to help”?
Conflict and anger are parts of any relationship anyone has ever had, yet few of us are taught to manage conflict and anger in constructive ways. This is a critical skill for any successful relationship, and the issue merits serious examination.
Generally speaking, anger storms the consciousness before a conflict is identified. It’s important to use your anger as a signal, not as a weapon. If used as a weapon and you lash out emotionally, the issue will escalate. Further, instead of solving the problem, the people involved become more polarized. Temporarily, you may feel a benefit from the emotional release, but then it will be doubly difficult to get to any constructive work.
When you feel that first hot blast of anger, it’s important to ask yourself, “Where is this coming from?” Frustration, hurt, or sadness can present as anger. Even emotions that are confused and not readily identifiable can present as anger. Identify what’s bothering you first.
Are you frustrated because your spouse is watching TV instead of helping with the dishes? Are you hurt that your mom chose to share her opera tickets with your sister who doesn’t even like opera, instead of you who love opera? Are you sad because your teenager would prefer to spend a night out with friends instead of attending the weekly “Family Game Night”?
These scenarios can feel like anger. Reacting emotionally is typical for many people, but it’s also destructive. Focus on solving the problem not on the other person. When attempting to solve a problem or an argument with another person, place your issue directly on the table using an “I” statement. Don’t blame and state your issue with as little emotion as you can. Treat this as reciting a fact.
“I would like some help with the dishes.”
“I would like to go to the opera with you.”
“I miss you during Family Game Night.”
Compare these statements to the following emotional responses.
“Well, I’m glad one of us has time to relax and watch TV.”
“That opera production company hires the worst talent. My dog sings better than the lead soprano. Not to mention, you can’t see anything from mom’s seats.”
“You’re so thoughtless. You never think of anyone in the family besides yourself. How can you leave your family for your friends? Do you know how much you’re hurting me right now?”
Emotional responses will likely make the other person defensive, confused, angry, or all three. With emotional responses, the issue moves further away from being addressed. After stating the issue, propose your solution. Keep it short and without blame or emotion.
“I’d like you to please help me with the dishes then we could watch TV together.”
“The next time you have a free ticket for the opera, I would love to join you.”
“When is a good time for us to schedule some family time? I can work around when you’re free.”
Removing blame and emotion from an argument helps to find solutions. However, there are big, messy, critical issues that are more layered than the scenarios I’ve created for the convenience of an 800 word blog entry. Disciplining children, in-laws, and money are some of those that come to mind. These issues generally can be broken down into smaller issues with different solutions to different parts of the problem.
I have some other suggestions for fighting fair. Please use what makes sense to you.
- Anyone involved in the argument can call a time-out. Reassure the other person that you’re committed to solving the problem, but you need a minute (…an hour…a good sleep… a chance to pick up the soccer carpool or take a conference call) then you’ll be ready to get back to work.
- Yelling, sarcasm, and swearing only escalate the problem. If this is happening, the argument isn’t going anywhere. Take a time-out.
- Listen. Don’t interrupt the other person when he/she is speaking. This is harder than it seems. Tell him/her you get what he/she is saying.
- Don’t let the conversation focus on anyone’s faults. Remember to focus on problem-solving. If the argument strays, bring it back to “What’s the best way to handle this.”
- Excessive yelling, swearing, sarcasm with personal put-downs, and name-calling are red flags. These tactics are used in abusive relationships to demean and control. They have nothing to do with problem-solving or with conflict even. Get help immediately if you think you might be in an abusive relationship or even if you’re not sure.
Arguing, anger and conflict in any relationship are normal. Managing arguments, anger, and conflict with productive action is good health.