If there was ever a time for high tensions and pointless arguments, it is now. The uncertainty and stress of life during a pandemic are taking a toll, with many of us getting dragged into disputes more often than we’d like. 

We often approach arguments like battles, feeling a frisson of excitement each time we land a point. While this might be effective if we are professional debaters (politicians and lawyers, for example), it is not so useful in our relationships with partners, family and friends or the people we work alongside. 

Those arguments should be more about seeking to understand others’ viewpoints, or at least hear them, say experts. Our commitment to doing so is informed by our level of respect for the person we are arguing with and our interest in maintaining a relationship with them. 

Every time we approach an argument, we are making these judgement calls, whether we realise it or not. So how can we argue productively, coming to a resolution that is kinder, more beneficial and moves us closer to our objectives? Well, stop fearing the prospect of an argument, for starters.

Argument is communication

“Arguing is just part of interaction, it’s how we deal with not having the same view,” says Frank O’Connor, a Wellington-based organisational psychologist. “There are all kinds of ways to get the result you want, and arguing is just one of them. Our expectations about whether we argue or not come from our families when we are growing up, but a lot of our experiences as teenagers, particularly, seem to shape our attitudes or patterns of behaviour.”

Much of this development happens at school, among peers, says O’Connor, as we practise our communication skills. Will we be sulkers, or pushovers, or will we blow up spectacularly, then quickly move on?

By the time first- and second-year uni students end up in philosopher James Maclaurin’s classes, they are starting to understand the complexity of dealing with people with entrenched viewpoints that are very different from their own.

“You realise the world is more difficult than what you thought it was and we’ve got to learn to solve problems together,” says the Otago University professor. “We really don’t teach critical thinking, we teach ‘You’re entitled to your view and I’m entitled to mine’.”

This approach can take us only so far. Sometimes, the issue at hand feels so heavy and significant that simply leaving others to hold their viewpoint is not an option.

Managed conflict drives change

“We’re scared to disagree; everybody is,” says Maclaurin. “It’s hard to disagree about simple things and it’s much harder to disagree about values, rights, fairness. You’ve got a lot of people who don’t know how to do it at all.” 

While we tend to avoid disagreement, it can be really useful, not only in working out how we feel about important issues, but in effecting change.

“Managed conflict is what drives change in our businesses and community, so we all have a stake in ensuring that conflict adds value, rather than taking it away,” says Samantha de Coning, head of practice at Auckland’s FairWay Resolution, which provides conflict-management and dispute-resolution services. She advises approaching conflict in a neutral way, with an open mind and ears.

Ask lots of questions

“People in conflict won’t listen to you until you have listened to them,” says de Coning. “Ask them what is important to them, what it has been like for them and what they would like out of the conversation. Step into their shoes. In the initial stages of the conversation, try to unpack the other person’s point of view by first asking them what they think the problem is.”

Not only does this generate trust between those who disagree, it can help you deflate opposition, by revealing holes in an argument.

“If in disagreement over a topic, a simple and powerful mechanism to puncture someone’s argument is to ask them to provide more detail,” says Wellington clinical psychologist Jacqui Maguire. “Someone is more likely to have a reasonable conversation if the shallowness of their knowledge is exposed.” 

Another tactic she recommends is telling a story to bring someone around to your side, and explain why you hold the point of view you do. Hook someone into a narrative and their emotional reasoning will be activated,” says Maguire. “Emotions are powerful in shifting our thoughts, as humans don’t like to be in cognitive dissonance, when their heart and head are telling them something different.”

High-stakes topics

Your approach to an argument will be determined partly by whether you need to maintain an ongoing relationship with the other person, and whether you care what they think of you. 

The stakes are much higher when you’re arguing with someone you really respect or about something you believe deeply in and that you perceive is a zero-sum scenario. That’s why the covid vaccination debate gets so heated, to choose a white-hot topical example. O’Connor suggests the 1981 Springbok Tour was another such case, with far-reaching consequences. “That divisiveness was etched into so many families, people couldn't sit at the dining table and eat together,” he says.

Sometimes, it’s clear the argument is taking you nowhere and the best option is to just get out of it. You might be better off picking up the conversation another day. 

Know when to move on

“It is unrealistic to think you’ll be able to resolve the problem or get the other person to see it your way when both of you are emotionally heightened,” says Maguire. “Conciliation or change happens when both people are calm – hours or days after the conflict.”

But gracefully exiting an argument can be difficult. You don’t want to stomp away or go coolly silent, which is a way of exerting control over the situation (and continuing the argument). Once again, the experts suggest listening.

As O’Connor says, “We don't have to understand one another's arguments but we can still listen to them, and that’s just compassion. You’re paying attention to where they’re coming from and that calms things down almost always.”

How to argue (constructively)

Aim to understand the other person’s viewpoint
“Don’t say, ‘I will never understand why you did this to me’, but say, ‘I really want to understand why this occurred and what we can do together to put things right’,” suggests Samantha de Coning. “Focus on what needs to be done rather than whose fault it is.”

Be respectful
Remember the principle of charity, says James Maclaurin. Assume the person you’re arguing with is as smart as you are. Be friendly and present the problem as a puzzle: how did I find out what I think is true and how did you find out what you think is true?

Talk it through

“Think about the mode of your communication,” says Maclaurin. “Email is dreadful, social media is even worse. Phone is better and face to face is best.” 

Discuss your needs, not your complaints 

This is likely to avoid the other person’s defence system kicking in and hopefully will lead to a productive conversation, says Jacqui Maguire.

Build trust

Someone won’t work on solving a problem with you unless they trust you, says Frank O’Connor. You earn that trust by listening and empathising.