How to Have a Healthy Argument


For a nation at war, we sure arent very good at fighting battles on the home front, meaning those scuffles we have with our mates, co-workers, kids. We lob insults, take offense, jump in before explanations can be tendered—and nothing good comes from any of it. The fact is: Were really bad fighters. “We eat criticism until anger and frustration build up. And pretty soon its really ugly,” says University of Washington sociology professor Pepper Schwartz, PhD, author of Prime: Adventures and Advice on Sex, Love, and the Sensual Years. To avoid the uglies, we had experts do fight-right makeovers. Here, the rules of engagement and how to fight fair.

1. The fight
Your mom: “I thought youd be here for the holidays.”
You: (sigh) “Yeah, well, plans do change …”
Your mom: “Your sister is happy to come over. Why do you hate being here so much?”
You: “Why do you always compare me to her?”

Where it went wrong: Moms accusatory tone started the fight, says Jennifer Jeanne Patterson, author of 52 Fights: A Newlyweds Confession—not to mention that nothing good will ever come from comparing one daughter to another. Low-blow tactics like that are as good as saying “Put up your dukes!” she says.

How to fight right: Mom should choose her words more carefully, Patterson says, and begin with a positive. “Id love to see you at the holidays” is something said out of love, and it encourages a response that acknowledges the mothers feelings. Or, the daughter could preemptively express regret and say, “I feel terrible, I really want to be there,” says Deborah Tannen, PhD, professor of linguistics at Georgetown University and author of The Argument Culture: Stopping Americas War of Words. “Any time you can stop the argument before it starts, thats always smart.”

Next Page: 2. The fight: Co-worker [ pagebreak ]2. The fight
Co-worker 1: “I dont suppose your report is actually ready for the meeting?”
Co-worker 2: “Its not quite done yet.”
Co-worker 1: “Of course not.” (Checks watch, rolls eyes, stomps away.)
Co-worker 2: (Completes the report and doesnt tell co-worker 1 until the meeting.)

Where it went wrong: Welcome to passive-aggressive 101. Yes, co-worker 2 is at fault for not getting the project done earlier. But the bigger, fight-causing problem was co-worker 1s “passive-aggressive attitude of contempt, which inflamed the situation,” Schwartz says. Here, the insult—not the fact that the co-worker hadnt completed the assignment in advance—becomes the problem and aggravates it.

How to fight right: Co-worker 2 should apologize for not getting the job done and acknowledge that working on the project until the last minute puts her colleague in a bad situation. “What are you going to do when someone falls on her own sword?” Schwartz asks. “Youre probably going to talk about it, which is a lot better than going the passive-aggressive route.”

3. The fight
You: “Would it kill you to bathe the kids tonight? Im exhausted.”
Him: “So am I. I worked all day, remember?”
You: “Oh, so Ive been sitting around eating bonbons all day?”
Him: “Well, maybe not bonbons, but …” (And the silent treatment begins—now.)

Where it went wrong: The “would it kill you” and “I worked all day” remarks were the kind of fighting words that make people mad but produce no solutions. “He has to defend himself, she defends herself, and its a dead end,” Schwartz says.

How to fight right: Its all in the way you make the request. “Energy drives energy,” Patterson says. “Its hard for someone to come back and shoot you down when you ask nicely.” Acknowledge his contribution, tell him youve been busy, too, and simply ask for help: Say, “I know you had a busy day at work. But would you mind giving the baby a bath?” That, Patterson says, “is really what people want to hear—that theyre doing a good job.” And they want to be asked, not told. “When you share your feelings and ask for help, its hard for the other person not to respond with help,” Schwartz says. By asking, youre moving away from name-calling and into problem-solving.” And thats not ugly at all.