ARGUMENTS CAN BE PAINFUL. Sometimes you
say things you didn't want to say, causing pain to the other
person. And the physical sensation of anger that arguments often
cause is also unpleasant. If we could all be rational and say
what we wanted to say, delivering our message, our information
or our request calmly and with good manners, and if we could
do this all the time, arguments wouldn't be a problem. But that's
not the way things are, so arguments are a problem.
What makes them problematic is a feedback
loop from the other person to you and back to the other person.
Have you ever heard feedback at a concert? It can happen when
the guitar or the microphone gets too close to the speakers.
What happens is first a sound is made, which comes out the speaker
in the form of sound. The vibrations of the sound then vibrate
the strings of the guitar or the inside of the microphone, producing
an even louder sound, which then comes out the speaker, vibrating
the strings or mic even more, and so on.
The sound gets louder and louder until
someone unplugs the power or turns down the volume, or until
the speaker gets blown. I was at a concert once where the feedback
got so loud it completely drowned out the singer and the rest
of the instruments. They had to stop playing and turn the amplifiers
off before all our eardrums popped!
The same kind of thing happens when two
people get into an argument. Since you are a fundamentally social
animal, it is somewhat upsetting to have even a minor disagreement
with another person. It makes your heart beat a little faster.
You get physically aroused. You breath a little faster. Small
physical changes happen that the other person can see.
Your face changes. And when the other person sees and hears (and
who knows, maybe even smells) the signs of physical arousal
signaling fear or anger on your face and in your body
posture, and in your tone of voice, it triggers his own stressful
We are profoundly social. Even anti-social
people are profoundly social; they are affected by other people
whether they like it or not. That's just the way we are.
So when you're talking to the other person,
your voice gets a tiny bit louder when there is a disagreement.
Your heart beats a little faster, your eyes dilate ever so slightly,
and, since this is a small degree of upset, you don't think as
well. You become slightly more one-sided and narrow in your thoughts
on the subject.
And just like the speaker to a guitar,
your small change in tone and volume of your voice, your small
change in the narrowness of your point of view, tends to cause
the same reaction in the other person. If this is your boss or
the IRS or a policeman, your desire to survive might cause you
to hold back your reaction and remain calm. But if this is a
person you feel safe with, if it is a family member or a good
friend, you will probably not hold back your reaction.
So the other person will sense your upset, even if it's very
mild, and it will trigger the same reaction in her, causing
her heart to beat faster and causing her point
of view to narrow and become more one-sided.
now sensing her physical arousal and narrowing of her
point of view, and maybe you notice her voice getting a little
louder and a bit more hostile, and when she is upset with you,
her feelings of affection, liking, and respect tend to diminish
temporarily. You sense this. You hear it. You see it. It may
be subtle, but you can tell. This tends to increase your
anger or fear, so maybe you get even louder and the things you
say are progressively more irrational and one-sided; there is
more distrust and contempt in what you say, and this gets across.
The two of you are in a feedback loop.
It will tend to get worse and worse unless one of you does something
about it. One of the main things you can do to stop the escalation
is to stop talking to each other for a little while. If you're
angry, this might be hard to do because one of the things that
goes along with anger is a strong desire to get your point across.
In a state of anger, you want to make the other person
agree with you (which is, of course, usually impossible). Breaking
off the conversation is often the last thing you want
to do. Unless you know what's good for you.
If you are in an escalating feedback loop,
probably the best thing you can do is go into another room or
go for a walk. Get out of the direct face to face interaction.
Back in the day when I had a blistering temper, I used to drive
up to a store and call from a pay phone and we would talk. It
often worked because it removed the ability to see those signs
of increasing arousal. We could still hear it, but it usually
reduced the intensity enough that we could talk without screaming.
But it wasn't good enough. When I was angry,
I often said things that were very hurtful. And it didn't matter
that I said later, "I'm sorry. I take it back." Klassy
(my wife) didn't forget what I said. Someone once said it takes
20 statements of praise to overcome one criticism. And that's
probably about right. Anger is destructive. Those nasty
words are destructive. They say sticks and stones can break your
bones, but words can never hurt you. But that isn't true.
A friend of mine was asked to be an advocate
for a battered child. The child was too young to testify for
himself, so the court appointed my friend to testify for him.
The court gave my friend a big stack of materials to study; then
he was supposed to go around to the child's teachers and doctor
and mother and interview them, gathering information.
In some of the materials he was supposed
to read, he found that there is a kind of abuse called emotional
abuse. No sticks and stones are used. It is done with neglect
and verbal abuse and so on. A person can be emotionally abused
without ever being physically touched.
When someone is physically abused,
there are things to look for: bruises, broken bones, cuts, etc.
But when someone is emotionally abused, what do you look for?
Strangely enough, there are physical signs of emotional
abuse. One of them is an abnormally small head. They don't really
know why it happens, but when children are emotionally abused,
their head is sometimes noticeably too small for their body.
Words can hurt. Words can do serious damage. We should change
that old rhyme: Sticks and stones can break your bones, but words
can shrink your head!
You don't want that feedback loop between
you and someone you love to escalate. It almost immediately improves
if you just stop talking and looking at each other. At least
it stops getting worse. If you carry on your argument in your
thoughts, you might remain aroused, but at least you aren't emotionally
abusing anyone. But I've found something that works really well,
and I'd like to share it with you.
When I have that feeling of an escalating
feedback loop, I excuse myself to go write. Klassy is
all for it. We've had enough experience with it to know it's
a good idea, so she has no problem with it. In fact, she is the
one who says sometimes: "Why don't you go write."
It can be done without writing, but it
is more difficult. It is hard enough to follow a rational train
of thought when you feel fine. When you are angry, it is much
more difficult. So I suggest writing. It doesn't really matter
what you write. But try to be calm and rational. Even when you're
angry, it is pretty easy, especially when you know someone else
will be reading it, which is the second part of this that I recommend.
When you are done writing, when you have
worked things out with yourself, when you have come to some conclusions
and seen where you may have been a little one-sided, when you
can concede some points to the other (and have written it), or
when you have gotten some insight and written it, then
bring it to the person you were arguing with and let her read
it. And ask her to read it through once, and then discuss it
with you, point by point or however she wants to do it. Ask her
to use the written material as a jumping off point for discussion.
At this point, do a lot of listening. It won't be very hard,
because you've already said what you had to say on the paper.
This may seem artificial or time-consuming.
If your arguments don't cause a lot of problems, then it won't
be worth it, so don't bother.
But if you experience pain or give a lot
of pain to another because of arguments, here is a way out. Talk
it over with the person. Let him or her read this article. And
commit yourselves to try it next time.
How will you know when your argument has
escalated to the point where you should go away and write? There
are lots things you can use as cues: when you feel angry, when
you can tell your voice is getting loud (that's the one I use),
when you notice your point of view is getting one-sided, when
one of you stops listening. Pick one of these cues and make up
your mind that the next time it happens, that cue will remind
you of your plan, and then do it.
Arguments are important. Avoiding arguments
is not a good strategy for a long-term relationship. You need
to be able to discuss things, and it is inevitable that you won't
agree on everything. It is equally inevitable that sometimes
you will get mad. This method will not get you to agree on everything,
but it will allow you to communicate on those topics where you
disagree without shrinking each others' heads!
When the argument gets too heated:
Go somewhere and write it out,
then let the other read it and discuss it with you.