The Art of Compassionate Arguing
I recently returned from a week’s holiday with eighteen relatives and friends to celebrate a family birthday.
The trip was filled with love and laughter, but there were also some lively discussions (arguments, if you want to get technical) between me and another family member who we’ll call ‘Stevie.’
I felt that our arguments made those around us a little uncomfortable, and I regret that, because in truth I quite enjoy arguing with Stevie, and I’m happy to share why.
I’ll have an argument please, but hold the vitriol
In these modern times of being kind to one another, anger gets a bad rep. In British culture there’s a whole greeting card section built around the motto, ‘keep calm and carry on.’ But anger is such a useful emotion; it shows us when our boundaries are being crossed, makes us aware of what we like and don’t like, and shines a light on our values and principles.
We’re all individuals, and it can be our differences that attract us to a friend or partner; life would be boring if we only hung out with carbon copies of each other. But that means we don’t always agree, and that’s ok. Disagreements can highlight areas we might need to do some work and, when they are conducted in a healthy way using compassion and empathy, can often be empowering.
The hardest part for me in compassionate arguing is not getting defensive. It’s taken me a long time to realise that a person’s viewpoint is theirs and a reflection of their thinking and life experience, not a criticism or judgement of me. In the past I would often take things personally, or think I was in the wrong and – against my better judgement – find myself agreeing to keep the peace.
Now I realise it’s perfectly possible to hold contrasting views and still hold love in your heart. In fact, airing disagreements regularly and compassionately often strengthens a relationship because it deals with issues as they come up, leaving them no room to be squirreled away and used as ammunition the next time things get tense.
We’re human, not superhuman
Rather than create another bastion of proper conduct we should all be aspiring to, it’s worth noting that we’re human, and there will always be room for a good old fashioned air-your-grievances argument.
There are many times when my ability to keep my inner peace has failed me, usually when I’ve let some irritation from previous days fester rather than airing it as it came up. As with any social interaction, there’s always space to get it wrong.
I find compassionate arguing with my husband particularly difficult. Perhaps because I’m closest to him, but also because my most sensitive trigger points can be found in areas we’re likely to disagree on, like parenting.
But the fact that there are many times when I can keep my inner peace and equilibrium whilst arguing is a revelation. I used to be a bottler. I would take irritation after irritation and say nothing, storing it in the dark places like a squirrel hides nuts, pushing it down and down until eventually there was room for no more: an eruption! Nuts flying everywhere!
Top tips for compassionate arguing:
Try not to air your disagreements when you’re tired or hungry. If you find that you’re consistently arguing when you’re tired or hungry it might be you’re arguing because you’re tired or hungry: try a power nap and a snack before approaching delicate topics.
Maintain respect for the other person at all times: recognise they have a right to their opinion as much as you do. If it helps, imagine a time when you’ve felt nothing but love for them and will your heart to remain open to them during the argument. Remember, the aim is to understand the other person’s behaviour or viewpoint, not to change it.
If you feel your adrenaline spike (tense body, heart beating, clenched jaw, fists balling), retreat; your body is moving into fight or flight and you will not be able to argue compassionately from this place. Retreat gracefully with a clear communication that this topic is best shelved for now, and try to identify the trigger point that got you so riled up.
Don’t let it get nasty: compassionate arguing is open and respectful and focuses on the behaviour or the viewpoint, not the individual. If you find yourselves making things personal or venturing into name calling then walk away, find a safe space to cool off and try again when you’re in a better headspace. If abuse is an issue then you should always contact a professional.
Don’t look for a win: there are no winners or losers in compassionate arguing, there’s no need to keep score, you’re both expressing yourselves and working towards finding a solution together, even if that solution is that you agree to disagree.
Listen: listen to what the other person is saying and try to see things from their side, they should make space in the conversation to listen to you too.
Keep perspective: ask yourself, if one of you were to die tomorrow, would the topic you’re disagreeing on even be an issue?
Compassionate Arguing for Life
I love Stevie and I’m grateful to have them in my life. They’ve taught me a lot over the years. They’re not shy to say what they think, which has helped me to be braver in stating my own needs and values more clearly, and I’m particularly proud of how we argue (and how quickly we make up). In all relationships – as in life – the challenging points are often where the most growth happens.
What are your thoughts? Care to start an argument? Compassionately, of course.
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