Are Healthy Arguments Possible?

10 min read  |  July 08, 2022  | 
Disponible en Español |

Have you argued with a family member or a friend when you were furious with that person and so tired or stressed out that you could hardly organize your thoughts? 

Have you ever gotten entangled in a quarrel over politics with someone whose mind you knew could never change? 

How about slamming doors, throwing things, or even striking someone in anger?  

If so, you are not alone.

“We are not taught how to have healthy arguments. Yet we know how important emotional intelligence is and that arguments happen for everyone,” says Elisa Diaz, Psy.D., a psychologist at the University of Miami Health System. 

Learning and using the skills involved in healthy arguments can make the difference between relationships that flourish and ones that wither or die.

Are you in it to win it?

“When I think about how to have healthy arguments, I go first to the word ‘effective,'” she says. “If you’re arguing, there’s a purpose to what you are trying to say. Nearly everyone can learn how to regularly use certain skills that go into effective communication.”

Not every argument ends up neatly settled, with both parties in agreement. “If you just can’t agree and the issue isn’t that important, it’s okay to end the discussion by agreeing to disagree,” says Dr. Diaz. 

Sometimes, you have to choose between “winning” an argument and continuing to have a relationship. 

Childhood experiences can create expectations.

The ways in which we fight and our ability to exert self-control reflect how we, as children, observed fights that took place in our families of origin. 

Perhaps your parents yelled and slammed doors while your partner’s family avoided over-the-top confrontations. 

Other family communication problems include:

  • holding grudges
  • keeping secrets
  • assigning blame
  • choosing to ignore a person
  • threatening
  • actually hurting them 

It’s also problematic when a person labels someone else as “bad” instead of discussing what they said or did that seemed “bad.”

“Patterns of communication that you learned at home when you were young can exert a lot of influence on the ones you use as an adult,” says Dr. Diaz. Those patterns can affect how you argue with romantic partners, relatives, friends, neighbors, and coworkers. 

What qualifies as normal fighting behavior?

If your parents shouted a lot, you may find shouting normal. Although your childhood can set expectations, you can choose for yourself what behavior you want to have in your own home. 

 “People can overcome childhood experiences and barriers to healthy communication they may have witnessed,” says Dr. Diaz. “But it can take a lot of effort because so much of what molds us as adults is the conditioning and the role models we had as children.” 

If your parents or caregivers practiced unhealthy ways of arguing, the key is to replace those patterns with better, more adaptive habits. 

Aside from people who live with certain personality disorders, which are not common, most people can learn sound ways to have healthy arguments

Collect yourself before you engage.

“If you are going to enter into an argument, have some introspection first,” says Dr. Diaz. 

First, decide if this difficult discussion is worth having. Dr. Diaz suggests that you ask yourself some basic questions: 

  • How important this topic is to you? 
  • How important is this person, and this relationship? 

“If you’re wading into an argument about politics and you don’t really care that much, why bother? If it’s not important to you, don’t go there,” she says.

Also, monitor your own frame of mind. 

“If you are already heated and thinking in a one-sided way, that is a freight train you’re about to unleash on the other person,” she says. 

Postponing may make sense. 

Two people can make an appointment for a serious conversation. 

“Check in with yourself. If you can’t handle an argument at a certain time, you can tell the other person that you will talk about it the next day or at another better time,” Dr. Diaz says. “Then honor that commitment.”

Consider the other person’s point of view.

It is important to realize that your ideas about a situation that upsets you only reflect your perspective. Your views about the matter may not reflect the other person’s reality. 

For instance, let’s say you come home in the evening and see that your partner or your roommate left dirty breakfast dishes in the sink, when you expected them to clean up. 

“You may feel like that other person is lazy or doesn’t care, but maybe they were busy or had something else they had to do and didn’t have time to clean up,” Dr. Diaz says. 

Still, if someone keeps behaving in a way you find upsetting, it’s best to discuss the problem with them — before you boil over in a fury. 

“There is a difference between picking your battles and avoiding important and necessary conversations,” she says. “It takes a good level of assertiveness to avoid avoiding.”

Tips for cooling down.

Dr. Diaz suggests assigning a number from 1 to 10 to measure how upset you’re feeling. 

“If you’re at the high end for being angry, maybe you’ll do better taking a walk outside and doing some deep breathing before you talk to the other person,” she says. 

She also suggests exploring why you are so irritable with the other person. Ask yourself, ‘Why does it annoy me so much every time they do this certain thing?’ Sit with the answers, Dr. Diaz says. 

Avoid falling prey to a common idea many people have about arguments: that you will change someone else. 

“We may think that this person is wrong and needs to change, but for the most part, we cannot change other people,” she says.

Don’t postpone hard conversations too long.

Sometimes people tolerate hurtful conduct from another person for months or years because it feels too hard to discuss. Then have an enraged outburst at some point when they just snap.

 “If you’re upset with someone long-term but not dealing with it, a professional counselor may help with guidance about how to address the issue and phrase things in a way that is not too damning or hurtful,” she says. 

In arguments, avoid passive listening.

Are you a good listener? Many people fall into the habit of passive listening, which isn’t really “listening” at all. 

Passive listening means waiting for another person to finish speaking so you can say what you had planned to say all along — without processing the ideas and feelings that the other person is trying to express. 

“Passive listening is where you hear the person, but you’re not really paying attention — you’re hearing ‘wah wah wah,'” says Dr. Diaz. 

Embrace active listening skills.

“When you practice active listening techniques, you listen closely so you can paraphrase, or restate, what the other person has just said,” Dr. Diaz says. 

Paraphrasing is important, she says, because when you check in with another person by paraphrasing, you make sure you understood what they were saying. It is reassuring and calming for the person with whom you are arguing to feel heard and even understood. 

Active listening also counters assumptions you may have made about how the other person feels or what they are thinking. 

“Assumptions happen a lot. Paraphrasing is a way to confirm or clarify that you understand what they mean,” says Dr. Diaz.

Also, stick to “I” messages expressing your feelings and needs (“I feel insulted when you take every call during our coffee dates.”) On the other hand, avoid accusatory “you” messages (“You’re so rude when you always answer your phone alone during our visits.”)  

Carefully choose where and when to engage.

Argue in private. “If a couple is going to fight, you don’t want to argue in front of family or friends or the kids,” Dr. Diaz says. 

If you have a significant disagreement with a friend, again, speak to that friend in a private venue, away from other friends. 

Be careful about how you say what you say.

“For healthy arguments, you must think about your verbal and nonverbal communication,” Dr. Diaz says. “Verbal involves not only the words you choose, but also your pitch, volume, and tone of voice, which color what you are saying.”

Certain words sound harsher than others. 

“You have to be careful about how you get your message across.” 

Scenario: Say you’re arguing with your roommate about them being too noisy at night, disturbing your sleep.

You might wallop them with “Your racket keeps me up every night!” setting the conversation up as a battle.

Or you could be gentler: “I don’t expect total silence at night, but could you wear headphones after 10, so I can get some sleep?”

“As important as the right words are, most of your message comes in nonverbal cues,” Dr. Diaz says. Your posture, movements, and gestures can quickly set the conversation up as a battle or a sincere attempt to find common ground. 

Think about your stress level.

Do you often feel riled up by how your friends, coworkers, or relatives behave and find yourself stewing about it? Do you often find yourself having heated disagreements with other people? These kinds of tendencies can take a toll on your own health. 

“If you’re getting into a lot of arguments, not knowing how to manage yourself and your relationships, that’s adding a lot of stress to your mind and body,” she says. “These kinds of patterns can increase your cortisol levels, which can be really harmful to your overall health.” 

You may want to seek counseling to explore a way to address your tendency to feel habitually upset and angry.

How can excess cortisol hurt you?

Cortisol made by the adrenal glands, on top of the kidneys, is our primary stress hormone. Its functions include managing your blood pressure and boosting your energy level when you encounter a stressor. This is positive when dealing with short-term stressors – like avoiding a growling dog. 

But if your stressors are more prolonged and constant, like always being angry at someone, cortisol levels will remain high for too long. This can disrupt your body’s ability to handle some basic functions. 

“Having too much cortisol in your system for too long can bring on many physical problems,” Dr. Diaz explains. 

These include:

  • poorer digestion
  • weight gain
  • headaches
  • trouble sleeping
  • heart disease

Excess cortisol is also strongly linked to emotional problems, such as depression and anxiety, and cognitive problems, such as impaired memory and less ability to focus. 

Expect relationships to change.

A frequent reason relationships end is that one person keeps doing something that upsets the other person. And the pattern keeps repeating without any resolution, Dr. Diaz says. If you’re in that kind of situation, a counselor may be able to help you get unstuck. 

You may need to recognize that a person who is upsetting you will not change, and you may decide that that is okay with you. You may also decide that your relationship with that person needs to change or that it has reached its end, says Dr. Diaz

“You can break the box that that relationship has been in,” she says. “The relationship doesn’t have to stay the same size or shape that it was. Relationships can and often do change over time.”

Milly Dawson is a contributor for UHealth’s news site.

Tags: behavioral health, communication, Dr. Elisa Diaz, life skills, relationships

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