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How to stop arguing: Part 1

By Chris Barnardo

If you are a single parent it is likely that you have gone through more than your fair share of arguments. A great life skill and one that would increase the sum total of World Happiness, if even half the people in the world had it, would be that of being able to stop an argument. Of course you have to want to stop the argument. Arguments are not good, but they often fulfil a role in our lives that means theyíre hard to get rid of. Therefore, itís not good enough just to hate arguing, you have to actually want to stop arguing. One of the best ways to stop an argument is not to get into one to start with, and the best way to do that, is to understand what causes two people to argue in the first place.
. . . If you were asked to write a list of reasons why people argue, in pole position would almost always be: ď... Because they disagree over somethingĒ followed shortly by ďmoney or sexĒ. But this isnít so much the reason why they argue, but what they argue about. Actually, any disagreement, however important, can be resolved with discussion, and non confrontational negotiation can always be used to reach the best (available) solution. Resolution of some of the Worldís longest standing international conflicts has shown this to be true. So if we are not arguing because we disagree, why are we arguing? The fact is that people use their disagreements to start arguments so that they can play out any one of the other (real) reasons for arguing.
. . . Here, in the first of two articles, we briefly explore ten reasons why people argue. So if you donít just hate arguing, but really want to stop arguing, the first step is to think through these points. Then, the next time you feel a row coming on, see if you separate your need to argue with what you are actually disagreeing about. Perhaps then you can avoid conflict and resolve your disagreement without getting drawn into an argument.

Why do people argue?
We argue mainly for a range of complex emotional reasons, although there are times when our biology lets us down and we argue for physical reasons. Each of the reasons discussed below are huge topics in their own right. All of them have had countless self-help books written about them, and for many there are no simple, quick fix solutions. Many of the behaviours that lead to arguments are subconscious and have developed inside the individual over years, and often there is no easy cure. In any case, most argumentative interactions are the result of more than one of the causes listed below. As a result, you might find that as soon as you get to grips with one cause, another one seamlessly substitutes in its place. The simple solution given under each tip should only therefore be taken as your starting point to stopping arguments before they happen.

Emotional reasons
  1. Emotional connection
    An argument is an intense release of emotions, frequently in a highly unstructured way, and sometimes dangerously uninhibited. This emotional exchange has its dangers, it is very stressful and often does not deliver a successful outcome for both parties, but in many relationships it is a very potent source of emotional connection. Such a direct and powerful connection between partners, even while also being highly destructive, can become a substitute for a proper loving emotional connection between the couple.

    Find other ways to connect emotionally with your partner. Why not go out to eat or cook a special meal once a week, and sit down together and discuss, adult to adult, any issues that have arisen in the week. Start with simple low risk topics and build up to difficult issues as you gain confidence with each other.

  2. Emotional reassurance
    Insecurity is the fuel for many types of argument. Some people argue because they want to test their relationships to see how much they are loved or wanted. This can happen at work or at home. The argument and what happens afterwards is used as a measure of how indispensible each party is to the other. Itís a chronic version of Emotional Connection, because rather than providing a fast kick of emotional gratification, it provides a historical form of shared experience. Itís a game and as games are very destructive in relationships, if you spot yourself falling into this pattern of behaviours, you should try to stop doing so at all costs.

    If you find yourself testing out your relationships like this, find for other ways of sharing valuable experiences with your partner, friends or work colleagues. Look at all your good points, remember all the things that you do within a given relationship that makes your friends, work colleague or partner want to be with you. Donít push them away to test how much they need you.
    . . . If you find that you are on the receiving end of this behaviour, reassure the other party that you value them and need them when a suitable opportunity arises (although donít do this as part of the argument, because that only reinforces the behaviour). If you see no improvement from this, gently tell the person what they are doing (itís likely that they donít know). If this fails, walk away, games are very destructive and this is one you canít win.

  3. Defence and control
    Insecurity can surface in many different ways to cause arguments. Feelings of insecurity or inferiority, which are often subconscious, ironically drive many people to attempt to make their point as aggressively as possible so that they appear superior and in control. Their argumentative way of dealing with disagreements has little or nothing to do with the scale of disagreement or its importance to them. They are not confident enough in themselves to let other people do things differently to the way that they would do them. They need to win each argument to make themselves feel better, and often follow the old adage when they feel threatened, that attack is the best form of defence. In many cases the mere capitulation of the other party isnít enough; their insecurity requires the complete submission of their opponent.

    Address insecurity at the root; learn that this type of argument is just a means to an end to make up for certain character flaws in the other person. Reassure when possible, or walk away when intolerable; often controlling tendencies are deeply ingrained and hard to shift. Where it is critical that you find a solution, keep to topic and remind the other person that finding a solution is not about gaining control of it for either person, but something that you both need to feel comfortable with, if you are to end up with the best outcome.

  4. No oneís listening to me
    Either party or both donít feel that their point is being listened to. Tensions rise and tempers flare, as each person tries to put their point across in a louder and more forceful way. Instead of being listened to however, usually the opposite happens and both parties close their ears and minds to the other personís points.

    Regardless of your feelings for the validity of the other personís point of view, acknowledge them, listen to what they have to say and do whatever you can to accommodate their view of the world within your ideas.

  5. Displacement
    It is almost always the case that an argument is the result, at least in part, of some other unrelated event or condition. Displacement is the technical term that psychologists give to the action of shifting the (usually angry) response to an event or person, from one part of our lives, to another easier place and time. Loved ones or those near us usually become the easier target. Typically, a difficult day at work with an awkward customer becomes a row in the evening with your partner, or perhaps a doorstep slanging match with your ex-partner, later reappears as a overly harsh punishment of one of your children.

    The solution is simple but so often impossible to put into practise because the displacement activity is subconscious and a necessary way of defending ourselves. However, there are two ways you can start addressing your and the other partiesí displacement in arguments:

    • Address your frustrations properly. Learn how to say what you feel when you feel it (in a non-threatening way) to the person who is actually causing the bad feeling. Where this is not possible use other techniques for harmlessly dissipating the displaced anger; take to the gym for a work-out, sound off to a friend about it, or take up a contact sport.
    • Be mindful of the other personís situation. If they are having a difficult time at work or one of their children is ill or they have financial worries, be aware that any disagreements you have will be a conduit for all these other feelings, so make allowances for this. (For separated parents this is going to be very tough. The act of separating itself creates ample stresses and strains to do with money, work and housing that get displaced and funnelled into every disagreement, quickly transforming any exchange, regardless of the topic, into an argument riddled with effects of displacement.)

  6. Lack of negotiation skills
    Negotiating, debating and discussing, like anything else are skills that need to be taught and learned. Unfortunately these valuable skills are not taught rigorously at school but picked up in our early childhood mostly from our parents and then to some degree from our interaction with our brothers and sisters and friends. Some people just donít know how to start negotiating because they have never been taught how to do it. They simply donít know where to start. Instead of negotiating they might take an aggressive or passive stance depending on their personality. If they are aggressive, then they blow up at the slightest thing and use their aggression to get their point across. If they are passive, they bottle up their needs and wait for someone else to start an argument so that they can get out all the things they wanted to say but didnít know how to when things were calm.

    It is very difficult for a negotiator to deal with a non-negotiator, because where a negotiator offers compromise and attempts to move the disagreement to the middle, the non-negotiator stays put and just gains ground, holding firm until they have what they want. The only way to deal with a non-negotiator is to become a non-negotiator yourself and determine your outcome by stealth or brute force, i.e. by not telling the other person what you are doing (so that a disagreement canít arise in the first place) or by using legal or other means to assert your rights. In cases where negotiation is necessary but impossible, outside help is required in the form of mediation.

  7. Learned behaviour
    Just like negotiation, argumentativeness can also be learned from an early age. However, human adaptiveness ensures that just like a regional accent, an argumentative approach to interacting with other people can be picked up at any age. Of course early experiences and early role models do the most damage, moulding our personality to behave in certain damaging ways.

    Our upbringing creates the world we live in; our early experiences limit the world we see around us to what we know and understand, so unravelling a learned behaviour is difficult. Seek to grow in yourself, seek to look beyond what you know and study people who donít argue and learn a new accent.

  8. Habitual behaviours
    Scientists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) showed in the 1990s that habitual activities such as smoking, eating fatty foods, or arguing, actually change neural activity patterns in a specific region of the brain where addictions and repetitive behaviours are formed. The patterns are specifically organised to get us ready for the habitual behaviour. Even when new habits are learned, the original neural pattern remains dormant. Later, when similar situations or cues occur, the original neural pattern is activated and reasserts itself.
    . . . This goes a long way towards explaining why we always have the same arguments with the same people. No matter what we do to learn new ways of being, when a recognised trigger event occurs we fall headlong into the same old argumentative pattern.

    The best and only real cure for bad habits is to develop new and improved habits over the old ones starting with the same old cues. Itís a tried and tested technique that finds its use in most branches of psychotherapy and life skills management. Importantly, the success of the technique rests on not just on learning new better habits, but learning them in such a way that they become associated with the original identical cues that were a signal for the bad habits. The difficultly is that like any path that is well trodden, habits that have taken years to form are so well established that they become almost hardwired into our personalities.
    . . . Habits that formed around your interactions with other people are hard to change on your own. You can start to make a new habit unilaterally, but it helps if you have the agreement of the other person too. When things are calm discuss the idea of changing the bad habit with the other person and work out a plan for what you are going to do when the argument cues crop up. Agree to make a new habit out of that and leave the resolution of differences to when you are not arguing.

  9. Physical reasons
    Given that from one perspective all we are is a bag of chemicals, it might be debated that all the emotional reasons for arguing are in fact rooted in physical (chemical) changes going on in our bodies. However there are particular, specific physical changes that affect mood that should also be considered as potential reasons when an argument looms.

  10. Hormones
    The human emotional state is determined by specific hormone levels in the brain. Hormones are chemicals excreted by various specialised glands in the body in response to certain internal and external conditions. The system has evolved to help us cope with the wide range of extreme situations a human has to deal with. When our bodies are working smoothly we are not aware of the incredibly potent mix of catalysts and chemicals swilling around inside us. When things start to go wrong however, the effects can be confusing and disastrous.
    . . . Anger, irritability and therefore argumentativeness can all be caused by hormone imbalance. Hormone imbalance (Progesterone deficiency Ė Estrogen dominance) is responsible for Premenstrual Syndrome (PMS) in women, whereas both abnormally low or abnormally high testosterone can cause anger in men. In fact even typically argumentative teenagers can explain away their attitude using the steroid hormone fluctuations they experience during adolescence.
    . . . Counter intuitively, physical causes of arguing are harder to deal with at the time of the argument than emotional ones. The hormone signals are so powerful that they overwhelm reason and sense, making it very difficult or even impossible to talk your way out of an argument. Hormone imbalance can change our view of the world so that normal perception of any interaction with other people is altered. Thatís why when youíre dealing with someone who is suffering from a hormone imbalance, sometimes even the fact that you are able to remain calm seems to enrage the situation even further.
    . . . Adrenalin, which is excreted in to the blood stream when youíre under stress can make you very angry and the long term effect of excess adrenalin can be highly damaging to the body, and has been shown to cause heart disease and diabetes.

    Understanding the situation for what it is goes a long way to helping combat it. If your hormone fluctuations are large and your mood swings are affecting everyday life and a majority of your interpersonal interactions, go to your doctor and seek medical help. Take a good look at your diet and make sure you get enough rest and relaxation; doing yoga, tai chi, or meditation can also help reduce the levels of stress hormones in the body.

  11. Hunger and or low blood sugar
    Few people realise that the brain needs both oxygen and glucose to survive and that restricting the glucose supply to the brain is as bad as suffocating it. The brain cannot tolerate low blood sugar any better than low oxygen, and our body has evolved special automatic systems for ensuring a steady supply of glucose gets to the brain. When blood sugar is low, two or three hours after a meal or when we havenít eaten properly all day, the brain causes adrenalin to be released into the bloodstream, which in turn releases glucose stored in the cells all over the body. Adrenalin is designed to get us going and is the key to the ďfight or flightĒ response to danger. This response can be very useful to get us out of trouble, but less than helpful when it seems to occur for no reason in the middle of the afternoon when you are hungry.

    Eat properly; reduce high sugar intake at meals to help the body smooth out the blood glucose levels naturally. Eat more fibre in your meals because it slows down the absorption of glucose into the bloodstream. Donít discuss anything contentious on an empty stomach. Be mindful of your body and if you suspect that you or the person youíre trying to reason with is suffering from low blood sugar, suggest you have a snack while you chat. The beneficial effects of the snack will be felt within about 10 minutes.


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