We rarely seek out conflicts, but they are a part of life. Most of us would prefer to avoid them if given the choice, and that is understandable. But if you’ve ever done so you know that skirting an argument can only cause tension to linger. Small issues can build and mounting stress can affect not only your mind but your body. Dealing with the problem can lead to far better outcomes and may even improve your relationship with the person you’re fighting with—even if it doesn’t seem that way.
“A lot of people are afraid to argue with someone they care about because they think it’s going to destroy the relationship,” says Jeffrey Rossman, Ph.D., director of life management at Canyon Ranch in Lenox, Mass. “But if you look at it as an opportunity to work through something difficult and be honest with one another, it really is a way to strengthen your connection.”
Of course, simply having it out isn’t likely to get you closer to where you want to be, as any blow-up in your past can probably attest. A constructive argument is what is most productive. These strategies may help you approach your next conflict in the most effective way:
Put Blame Aside
“When something goes wrong, our natural human tendency is to blame somebody,” says Rossman. “But, instead, if we ask ourselves, What did I do to contribute to this situation? and What did they do that led us here?, it evens the playing field.” Try your best not to point fingers. Remember that the ultimate goal is not to “win” but to move beyond the conflict in a healthy way.
Set Up a Time to Talk
Timing is key when it comes to discussing a difficult situation. “So many arguments end up getting worse because one person is not ready to have the conversation or give it the attention it deserves,” says Rossman. When possible, express the need to schedule a talk: There’s something important I want to discuss with you. When are you free? Making it clear that this discussion warrants its own time can make a difference in how the other person engages with you when the conversation finally happens.
“Some people just want to get the conflict over with,” notes Rossman, “but there’s the preliminary step of mutual listening that needs to happen in order for you both to understand all the feelings involved.” Being a good listener involves not just hearing the other person’s words, but putting your thoughts and judgments aside so that you can better process (and respect) his or her point of view. Show that you’re engaged in what is being said by repeating back what you were told: So, what I’m hearing is that you didn’t appreciate me making plans without discussing it with you first. You’ll likely get the same in return. Practicing these skills when you’re not in the middle of an argument can help you engage them when you need them.
As you try to fully grasp the other person’s standpoint, don’t be shy about inquiring about information that may help you gain more clarity. Dig deeper with questions that require more than a yes or no answer, like: How did you feel when that happened? or What would you like to see as an outcome? You may unearth details that get you closer to a resolution—or even clear up a potential misunderstanding that could be at the root of your argument.
Maintain Your Composure
In the heat of an argument, it’s easy to become defensive, angry, even anxious. Though it may seem impossible to do in the moment, “maintaining some degree of calmness will help you better articulate your side of the story,” notes Rossman. That said, some people find yelling cathartic, though it’s rare. Most people find yelling to be counterproductive because the emotional pitch gets too high to have a constructive give and take. “Still, there are couples, friends or siblings that can really go at it knowing that all this screaming is intended to bring everyone to a better understanding,” adds Rossman. Remember, though, it takes both people to embrace that degree of emotional intensity for it to end well.
Choose Your Words Wisely
Of course what you actually say determines if it’s a worthwhile discussion, too. Try to slow things down to allow yourself time to think through what you want to say. Starting statements with words like I think… or I feel… can help you express your thoughts without pointing fingers. Aggressive communication can quickly escalate an argument and lead to exaggerations and accusations.
Take a Step Back
While you may sometimes simply agree to disagree during petty squabbles, successfully working through something more major doesn’t allow for a stalemate. Take stock of how important the issue is to you. Focusing on the value of ending things well can reinvest you in the resolution-finding process and help you look beyond temporary anger at the bigger picture.
Let It Go
Sometimes things happen that are irreconcilable, so hurtful that you can’t get past it. Holding on to that type of conflict can be toxic to your health—especially if the other person has moved on. In fact, over time, it transforms into a conflict you’re having with yourself. “Forgiveness, though it’s difficult, can free you of that,” says Rossman. “You can give yourself permission to move on.”