JOHN GOTTMAN, A RESEARCHER at the University
of Washington and the author of The Relationship Cure: A 5 Step Guide to Strengthening
Your Marriage, Family, and Friendships, has studied married
couples for over 25 years. He discovered that when two people
argue, the content of their argument is pretty much irrelevant.
The most important aspect of a conflict is the process
the two people are using to communicate.
If you think about it, this is really the
opposite of what we normally consider important during an argument.
When you're in the middle of it, the content the actual
topic of your argument seems to be the most important
part of the discussion.
Let me be extra clear about this. When
Richard and Kim argue about whether or not to use spanking as
a punishment for their child, whether or not Richard is right
or uses sound reasoning is not as important as how much he interrupts
The process, the way you
argue will determine how well the issue is resolved. Focus more
on the way you argue than on what you're arguing about. Specifically,
if you conduct your argument in the way described below, a conflict
can be resolved quickly and with minimal hurt feelings.
1. Listen without interrupting.
During an argument it is natural to interrupt. But people need
to be able to finish their sentences. People need to be heard
and understood. When they're not, they tend to get frustrated.
Resolutions then become more difficult to achieve.
2. Acknowledge the good. During
a conflict, it is fairly common to ignore anything positive.
But you do appreciate a great deal about the person you
are talking with, and some of what you appreciate is relevant
to the topic you're discussing. And the two of you do
in fact have many points of agreement. It's helpful to acknowledge
those during the argument. It helps keep emotions from escalating,
and it keeps your own point of view from becoming too narrowly
3. Turn criticisms into requests before
they leave your mouth. Instead of mentioning what the other
person has done wrong (inciting defensiveness), talk about what
you would like the person to do in the future. You're basically
saying the same thing but in a less painful, more constructive
way. A nice clean request is something real to deal with, something
out in the future that can be promised. Things in that past are
already done. They are final. And talking about them usually
only produces regret, shame, defensiveness, or depression. None
of these are productive emotions. A sincere request often produces
determination to fulfill it a very productive emotion.
Follow these three guidelines and your
argument can move (relatively) painlessly toward resolution,
regardless of whether the content of your discussion is keeping
the toothpaste cap on the tube or getting a divorce. Concentrate
on good process and it will see you through.
We need rules to follow during conflict.
In our courtrooms, in congress, even in business meetings, they
have rules. Most organizations use Robert's Rules of Order. These
are the parameters within which the discussion can take place,
and it allows progress to be made. Otherwise, whenever conflict
is taking place, which it does often in those contexts, things
would quickly devolve into shouting matches. They have rules
to prevent that. And that's what you need in your close relationships:
Rules of order. It allows progress to be made.
conflicting points of view
In a study by researchers at Ohio State
University, 90 newly-married couples were asked to discuss the
most important subjects about which they disagreed. Later, the
researchers watched videotapes of these discussions and rated
their arguing style on measures of positive or negative behaviors.
In the positive range, they looked for:
agreeing with spouse's point
suggesting a compromise
On the negative end, they looked for:
Before and after the discussion, levels
of immune function and blood pressure were measured. The immune
function dropped in everyone some, but for those with the negative
arguing style, it dropped considerably more. Blood pressure increased
more for the negative fighters too.
This divides arguing behaviors into two
kinds: positive and negative. The positive behaviors are productive,
help the situation move toward resolution, and produce less anger
and defensiveness. The negative behaviors are destructive, move
the situation away from resolution, and produce more anger and
defensiveness. To make things go better in an argument, simply
resist the temptation to do the negative ones and try to do more
of the positive ones.
Heated arguments with your spouse are not
merely miserable; they are bad for your health. Researchers took
a hundred married people with mild hypertension and over a period
of three years they gave them questionnaires about their relationships.
For those in good marriages, their blood pressure went down.
For those in bad marriages, their blood pressure readings increased
over the three years.
Swedish researchers took three hundred
women who had been hospitalized for chest pains or heart attacks
and did a follow up study on them five years after the hospitalization.
Those who were having serious trouble in their marriages were
three times more likely to have a second serious heart
episode than people who didn't have much upset in their marriage.
A virologist, Ronald Glaser, PhD, an endocrinologist,
William Malarkey, MD, and a psychologist, Janice Kiecolt-Glaser,
PhD, screened thousands of newlyweds to find ninety couples with
perfect records of mental and physical health, and then after
a thirty-minute discussion with each couple as they tried to
resolve problems related to money, in-laws, or leisure time,
the researchers took blood samples. The more "negative fighting
behavior" the couples had, the less active their immune
system was, as measured by certain clear indicators like natural
killer cells that fight tumors and viruses.
The negative fighting behavior the researchers
noted included sarcasm, dismissal, disapproval, and general nastiness.
For more motivation to change the way you
fight, a study at the University of Washington has shown that
when parents attack each others' belief systems when they
are hostile toward each other, when they attack each others'
character and feelings children suffer.
Kids whose parents fought that way showed more antisocial behavior.
They are psychologically less healthy.
So remember, in an argument, focus on process,
not the content of the argument. Focus on these three:
Listen without interrupting.
Acknowledge the good.
Turn criticisms into requests.
And when you are discussing something with
someone who has a conflicting point of view:
Positive arguing behaviors (do more of
Suggesting a compromise
Agreeing with a point
Negative arguing behaviors (do less of